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Going Digital-Digital Humanism & Design Thinking: Operating Principle

Mark Staples, SVP & CIO, College of Charleston
Mark Staples, SVP & CIO, College of Charleston

Mark Staples, SVP & CIO, College of Charleston

My operating principle number one is applying digital humanism and design thinking into every technology choice, implementation, and process engineering.

Digital humanism, on the surface, is a paradox. Digital has to do with computer technology and humanism puts humans as prime importance. This apparent paradox creates a bit of cognitive dissonance, as most of us tend to view the two as separate and distinct. To add to this dissonance, those of us who were raised analog tend to keep our digital lives separate from our “normal lives.” Similarly, businesses that weren’t “born digital” tend to do the same thing—most just add technology to what they have always done and things will just go faster. This concept, ironically, puts the focus on the technology, which usually introduces barriers to adoption and full utilization.

Starting with the human experience, or what some are now calling “digital humanism,” is a primary key to moving toward a digital transformation. As opposed to starting with the technology, a solution looking for a problem, we start with the human experience. Digital humanism, when implemented as a systemic approach to product and service design, we can deliver significant benefits to our organizations and minimize potential problems associated with complex digital systems, and, by doing so, increase overall satisfaction. Couple design thinking with the human experience, we will arrive at a different destination and with different productivity outcomes.

“It [design thinking] is a discipline that uses the designer’s sensibility and methods to match people’s needs with what is technologically feasible and what a viable business strategy can convert into customer value and market opportunity.” (Tim Brown is the CEO and president of the international design consulting firm IDEO and the author of Change by Design (Harper Business, 2009)

 ​If we view the process of design thinking as a pathway and not a destination, then we have a feedback loop that enables us to course correct bad outcomes or reinforce good ones 

If we apply digital humanism to design thinking, we begin to define, research, and ideate through a lens that is serendipitous and ethical.

“Digital humanism implies an ethical point of view, and the foundational ethic is not to intrude on people’s personal space. When this ethical position is ignored, and it’s combined with an effort to both engineer personal intelligence and prerogatives out of the system and maximize machine efficiency at the expense of usability.” (Gartner)

By understanding how people work in the real world (or if we would just stop and think about how WE would like to work), we will create and implement the best processes and technologies that are feasible at the time. The goal is to solve problems through the integration of people, organization (or process), and technology.

Two thinkers on this topic Christoph Meinel and Larry Leifer identify four principles to design thinking:

• The human rule—all design activity is ultimately social in nature

• The ambiguity rule—design thinkers must preserve ambiguity

• The re-design rule—all design is re-design

• The tangibility rule—making ideas tangible always facilitates communication

(Plattner, Hasso; Meinel, Christoph; Leifer, Larry J., eds. (2011).Design thinking: understand, improve, and apply. Understanding innovation: Berlin; Heidelberg: Springer-Verlag. pp. xiv–xvi.)

A couple terms in these four principles that seems to clash with our engineered IT world: social and ambiguity. Many of our systems or processes were not developed with social in mind. We have a whole new lexicon with cryptic data fields and processes that ensure that we can never transition to another system.

Ambiguity is usually an IT professional’s enemy. “How do you expect me to develop anything if you can't define it?” However, if we view the process of design thinking as a pathway and not a destination, then we have a feedback loop that enables us to course correct bad outcomes or reinforce good ones.

Once we establish the right processes and identify and implement the right technology, this will lead into organizational change, leading to transformation, which is about making fundamental changes in how business is conducted in order to help cope with a shift in market environment. Digital humanism and design thinking, as a methodology, will foster innovation and enablement.

As a footnote, I realize that it’s impossible to reach the ideal place of applying digital humanism and design thinking for everything; the organization may not be ready or it may not have the capacity for change. The tools to do it right may not be available. The real key is to start now and then begin to mentor your senior and your forward facing IT staff (i.e. business analysts, project managers, etc.) to help them to “think differently,” embrace ambiguity, iterate, and re-iterate, and finally communicate.

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