In his book, Restoring the Soul of Business, Rishad Tobaccowala had this to say when discussing the topic of change and how we too often underestimate the associated level of difficulty.

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“But we are more than machine-stimulated people. We do not just compute using silicon chips or connect through Application Protocol Interfaces. We also feel, given our carbon realities. We feel and we dream and we are moved and we move others through storytelling. We connect through looks, glances, gestures, and unsaid words that are profoundly communicative but too nuanced for an algorithm or spreadsheet to compute.”

Information is multi-dimensional

Setting aside any debate about whether or not we are making a Faustian bargain with technology and that we will live to regret it, I do want to make the point that data shouldn’t become just another bad 4-letter word, especially when it comes to leveraging it to drive change. It can be a factor for good and I think we can make it work, this staying-human-in-the-age-of-data thing as long as we remember that data means nothing by itself. It only means something when humans interpret it against other data or other inputs. Mr. Tobaccowala’s point is that business can save itself, prosper, and help society grow to a better future if it factors in the human characteristics of dreams, story-telling, feelings, intuition, and empathy. If that happens, then data can potentially be transformed into information that more closely aligns with the purest intent of the corporation’s soul and its culture. Or to bastardize a phrase from Abraham Lincoln, “to serve the better angels of its nature”.

I spend an extraordinary amount of time looking at data about people (our employees we train, our customers we guide, our markets we serve, activity generated by the #customersuccess profession to which I belong), and I’ve learned that it can be too easy to draw conclusions only from observing data. While it’s clean, fast, mathematical, and verging on clinical, it is also abstracted from the object of measurement. We can observe something but if we don’t know all the forces at play we are only seeing one dimension. And so to fill out the picture we must take multiple views from different angles and we must connect as humans to discuss and make collective determinations.

Customer experience improvements aren’t accidental

Data needs people. But there’s also the other imperative that is driving businesses to adopt advanced technologies (AI, machine learning) at higher rates… customers actually want data. Or, rather, they want the good stuff that comes from a company’s effective use of data. Do I, as a customer, perceive that its collection and use delivers me the value I expect? This is where a company’s vulnerability and tension exists and where the fight for the soul of business plays out. If the customer perceives that the action of data collection is more in service to the company then to them, then that customer’s future business with the company becomes clouded. Trust is compromised. We see this now with social media companies inability to assuage fears of their user base that their personal data is being exploited.

But there is a flip side. How many of you have family members who marvel at how quickly the checkout lines move at Costco? How many of you have friends who say their time has been subsumed by online shopping and that they are dazzled by the speed of Amazon Prime? How many of you have learned at the touch of a thumb of a hundred ways to mix cocktails during this pandemic?

These experiences are not accidental. They come from systematic collection of data and of people behind the scenes at companies making decisions of how to trigger some positive (for the customer) actions.

Ultimately, what you do with data has to be about serving the best interests of the customer. Nothing more, nothing less. Follow that dictum and the soul will be just fine.