Empathy is changing the way we do business.
“We are because of others.” This is the basic tenet of Ubuntu, in its truest sense. Although popularised by Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela as a means for national reconciliation, as a communal concept it is pervasive across Southern Africa.
It has perhaps over time had its true value distorted. Nonetheless, at its core remains a quintessential humanness that cannot by its very nature be contained by geography, race or any such convenient differentiator. We are not human because of Ubuntu, it is because of Ubuntu that we are human. Humans by their very social nature, thrive when allowed to engage with each other in this manner. In other words, we like to be acknowledged as human and seek this acknowledgement by acknowledging others. Ubuntu and this circularity is mirrored of course by the ethic of reciprocity and reveals the importance of empathy to the human condition, in that we value an authentic affirmation of our humanness. Ubuntu, it follows, breaks down in the absence of authentic empathy.
Perhaps for the first time since communal living was the norm, the Information Age has enabled the emergence of the global community, willingly affirming and reaffirming its humanness by people engaging with each other through structures which exist solely for this purpose. The anonymity of social media has provided a snappy platform for transcultural interaction beyond the veil of prescribed engagement. Even language poses little resistance to the march of the digital self; cringe-worthy tweets that end careers seem unable to stop this desire for online engagement and expression.
The organisation today has been fine tuned to squeeze the very last drop of revenue from any form of value the company may claim to own. It is not without surprise that these same organisations have devolved and instead clamour for favour when stock prices plummet or the question, “How’re you doing?” is answered digitally with scathing remarks or nonchalant dissatisfaction. Customers, it seems are becoming more aware of the circularity of value and less content with trade based on the power provided by monopolised resources. Disruptive organisations like Uber, are on the rise and see themselves as proxy for the human condition.
Instead of trading from a power position, they find ways to recognise users and in return be recognised, by encouraging the continuous exchange of value, empowered by the overlap between two distinct needs: the users’ desires on one hand and the company’s sustainability on the other. Ubuntu thrives in circularity. Value, it follows, is similarly so. We need to trade, not so much for the base need of sustenance, but more importantly for the reaffirmation of our own existence, which at its root is exactly what Ubuntu is.
Increasingly, organisations need new ways of behaving in order to remain relevant. Design Thinking, as a human-centric innovation practice, takes the stance of empathy first; that is, without a deep and authentic understanding of people as people (not customers or numeric representations of the same), the organisation will be unable to understand and satisfy their desires, wants and needs. These are after all, the bedrock upon which any successful product or service is built. Beyond this is the idea that value exchange is less about the stuff that we sell and more about the relationships that we foster on the way.
Business Design is the Rotman School of Management’s rendition of Design Thinking from the manager’s perspective. A local version, albeit in a broader sense, is Business Model Innovation. Both seek ways for managers to explore creating new value that is simultaneously pre-competitive and user-relevant.
Both methodologies are built around adopting an innovation mind-set and using a particular toolkit for exploring an alternate future reality.
In essence, Business Design delivers Design Thinking principles through the interplay of three modes of being:
• Conceptualisation; and
This article’s focus on the first mode alludes to the significance of how a deeper understanding of who we are as social creatures may allow us to explore business beyond the power exchange of scarce resources and its inevitable winner/loser by-product. Over time, this power game has become systemic and has eroded value across the economic ecosystem. This seems prevalent in emerging markets where, in its most dire form, monopolies control the resources and demand high prices from fully dissatisfied customers who reluctantly relinquish their hard earned money, earned working in those very same organisational structures. Employees then also become the numb foot soldiers of shareholder driven extraction, slowly but surely succumbing to despondence. There is increasing unwillingness to accept this fate and employees and customers, empowered by their rerealisation of humanness, are becoming restless.
Increasingly however, large multinationals like Microsoft, GE, Fujitsu and SAP are waking up to the design revolution and its ability to help them find relevance from empathic engagement not only externally with customers but also internally with employees. Most companies though, struggle with the idea of discovering new value and the implementation of innovation, purely because of the perceived risk arising from an inability to predict market reaction to something completely new. In other words, they have an inability to measure the future. Business Design takes the view that there is no better way to mitigate risk than to deliver value immersed in the authentic and empathic understanding of your future users. In a sense, they are already telling you what they want.
Are we in the dying days of the industrial oligarchy? This is up to us. What is undeniable, however, is that the realisation has started and the future belongs to those organisations who are able to deliver value not on the premise of extracting revenue, but that revenue is just reward for acknowledging customers as human beings and that future growth resides only in the ability to encourage this back and forth reaffirmation of each other. We are, after all, because of others. It is high time we started acting like it.
Jason Falken is a Geospatial and Business Design Professional. He is a 2013 UCT Graduate School of Business MBA alumnus who went on to study Business Design and Integrative Thinking at Rotman School of Management in Toronto, Canada.
This article appeared in the July 2015 issue of HR Future magazine.
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