While the idea of being a responsible corporate citizen is not exactly new, doing good works that benefit the community and world at large may well have become essential to building a strong business in the 21st century. The reason for this is that customers are drawn to companies that are authentically committed to social innovation, while employees are attracted to organisations with a strong sense of purpose. This according to Tom Kelley, partner at design firm IDEO, the author of the Art of Innovation, and one of the keynote speakers at this year’s The Nedbank Digital Edge Live 2014.
“If you want to win the talent wars of the 21st century, it’s not enough to make a good profit. You have to have a visible purpose and uphold that purpose with actions, not just words,” he explained.
Empathy key to innovation
Kelley continued that it is important to start by making empathy the cornerstone of consumer research. He explained that empathy in terms of creativity and innovation is the ability to see an experience through another person’s eyes, to recognise why people do what they do. Kelley says companies can use this kind of anthropological research to gather inspiration at the beginning of a project, to validate concepts and prototypes generated throughout the design process, and to rekindle momentum when ideas or energy are running low.
“Gaining empathy can take some time and resourcefulness, but there is nothing like observing the person you’re creating something for to spark new insights. We’ve found that figuring out what other people actually need is what leads to the most significant innovations. In other words, empathy is a gateway to the better and sometimes surprising insights that can help distinguish your idea or approach,” he noted.
Kelley pointed out that in organisations with millions of customers, or in industries serving the broad public, there is a temptation to stereotype or de-personalise the customer. They become a number, a transaction, a data point on a bell curve, or part of a composite character built on market segmentation data. While that clinical approach might seem useful for understanding data, it doesn’t work well when designing for real people. Exacerbating matters, he pointed out, is that the notion of empathy and human-centeredness is still not widely practiced in many corporations. “Business people rarely navigate their own websites or watch how people use their products in a real-world setting. And if you do a word association with ‘business person’, the word ‘empathy’ doesn’t come up much,” notes Kelley.
The good news is that empathic abilities can, according to Kelley, be learnt and improved with a little practise. It is this, rather than benchmarking, that he touted as being important for companies in order to understand the customers they want to attract, and then enable them to commit to improving those relationships.
Tom Kelley will be one of the key note speakers at The Nedbank Digital Edge Live 2014 at the Vodadome on the 30th September. Visit www.thedigitaledge.co.za for more information.