How transformative is digital transformation supposed to be?

how transformative is human centric digital transformation supposed to be

The headlines these days have been even more challenging than usual.*

Or perhaps — hear me out — you could make that statement at almost moment ever, and people would agree: the headlines right now are more challenging than usual.

Humans have a very complicated relationship with change, and that’s partly because we have a very complicated relationship with time. We also tend to think of moments other than now as exceptional: that there was something extra-special about historical events that nothing happening now could possibly compare to. We miss the significance of what happens sometimes when we don’t see it through the lens of history. Yet on the other hand, we overlook the extraordinary ordinariness of this moment: this moment right here could be the one when we decide to commit to fully-engaged climate action that won’t settle for less than true resilience for the planet and all its people. Or it could just as easily have been a moment 10 or 20 or 40 years ago. All we need is to make the moment happen.

Transformation, digital and otherwise

I’m saying all of this partly because if your organization is anything like most of those I’ve spoken and consulted with, you’re still trying to figure out exactly what digital transformation is supposed to mean for you and your customers. (It’s ok: I’m not naming names. Your secret is safe with me.)

So it’s totally fair if you’re wondering just how transformative this whole process is actually supposed to be. “How deeply should we be thinking about transformation beyond digital? I mean, transformation means change, and that might mean all kinds of change, and we’re already up to our ears in change. Just how much change are we talking about, Kate, and how deep can we expect it to go?”

Those questions are good. After all, questions lead to insights, and insights steer you to the answers and solutions that serve the moment and the context.

So yes, I hear you. Let’s unpack.

Transformation of business models, value chains, and the whole ecosystem

The questions we’re asking may be prompting some deeper insights — and they might get uncomfortable. The questions about just how far transformational strategy is supposed to go reach deep into our relationship with change and time, and the insights that emerge might sound a bit like ‘everything is connected.’ And the more we consider that, the more it paints a picture of a need for holistic change.

We can’t solve for the future of work without considering what work means to us. We can’t make sense of the weird future of money and solve for the future of the economy without understanding what the economy is, fundamentally.

We can’t solve the climate with technology, but once we have deeply considered what we’re trying to solve for, we can absolutely harness the power and capacity of technology to solve human problems at scale.

You may be asking different questions and coming up with different answers. That’s perfectly understandable. After all, digital transformation is bound to look different in different industries, in different organizations, given different externalities (like, say, oh I don’t know, how a global pandemic affected your region and your business). And depending on your role, the way you experience the questions and insights about transformational strategy might even be slightly different than other types of employees in your organization.

The digital transformation of experiences… and not

But our questions began with digital transformation, so let’s go ahead and give the topic its due. By the time we arrive at this part of our journey, after considering the broader context of transformation, we can see that the digitalization of experiences has the potential to transform not only the way we do business but also the way we live.

For inspiration on how data-supported and connected innovations are reshaping industries, look no further than the banking sector: As we’ve seen over the past few years, digital innovation is disrupting traditional models, redefining our understanding of value and asset classes, and pushing established brands to rethink how they engage with their customers.

This disruption is by no means limited to financial services. We can see it in other sectors such as hotels, airlines, and hospitality businesses. And yet, for all that disruption, the experience architecture of interacting with a hotel or airline has not fundamentally changed. You still check in and check out, for example — but now, rather than a human at a desk or counter, it’s more common to do these activities through an app. (Or in some settings, perhaps with a robot stationed behind the counter.)

It means personal transformation too

The Great Resignation, if you look at it with enough empathy, has been about personal transformation. Between the covid pandemic and the accelerating climate crisis, plenty of people are feeling like the core of their humanity and their employment is out of sync. We need a new approach to work that allows us to feel in touch with our humanity.

Transformational strategy needs insights

When I describe what I do, I sometimes say I offer “insights for transformational strategy.” (I might sometimes add “that leads to better business and better human experiences,” but it depends how concise I’m trying to be.) Transformational strategy is needed anytime we’re facing outside pressures, changing market demands, evolving technological landscape, or, y’know, random externalities that alter the entire landscape (ahem, covid).

The rapid responses to COVID-19 in healthcare, education, retail, and food service have given us a glimpse at an accelerated world of digital-ready experiences. Through the power of connected video calls and a little imagination, you can visit a dentist virtually, attend a wedding on the other side of the world, conduct a socially-distanced photo shoot, and, as we all learned ad nauseum during the lockdown days, so very much more.

Questions to get you started

You need good questions to get those insights going, right? Here are some starters to get you talking with your team:

  • No matter what transformation you are considering, what is the purpose you are trying to achieve at scale?
  • What is an emotional state that people are often in when they find your brand, and how can you, with respect and empathy, plan your digital systems to meet that state of mind?
  • How can you emphasize alignment?
  • If covid or the climate crisis meant a complete end to all in-person interactions that happen for your brand, how would you make sure to add human touches and a sense of human connection to the digital versions?
  • What is significant about the passage of time in the experience people have with your brand or product?

These questions might not (and shouldn’t) have easy answers, but they should begin the process of searching for insights. Once you have an a-ha moment, your next steps should be clearer.

And Finally: How to Offer Meaningful, Transformational Help

* This post begins with an oblique reference to the war in Ukraine, and we can’t leave without suggesting some ways to offer meaningful help.

Global Citizen has a robust list of resources for anyone looking to offer help in Ukraine or stay informed about the situation.

The International Rescue Committee (IRC) is raising emergency funds to help displaced families.

CNN has partnered with Public Good to raise funds to be distributed among 15 organizations, or if you see a particular organization doing work that means something special to you, you can also donate directly at the same link.

A Closer Look at KO Insights 2022 Technology & Cultural Trends

Nothing changes faster than the trends you haven’t been paying attention to. But in the past few years there’s been SO MUCH OTHER STUFF to pay attention to that you’d be forgiven for taking your eye off of the zeitgeist.

That’s fundamentally why I began sharing these trends. Over the years, our savviest clients have asked for insights presentations, wanting to know the patterns I was seeing emerge from my vantage point of working across a broad range of industries for a wide variety of clients.

They’re not just any trends, though. Since I founded KO Insights, our work has been committed to improving human experiences at scale, so we’re always keeping an eye on the horizon for emerging trends that relate to that mission.

In case you’re wondering about our methodology, I’ll sum it up. Our 2022 Technology and Cultural Trend Map — which we published last week, so if you missed that, you might want to go back and download a printable copy you can keep handy as a reference — is shaped in four ways:

  1. Through the topics that have bubbled up repeatedly in direct conversations with business leaders, civic leaders, and industry thought leaders
  2. Through noticing emergent patterns in news and industry chatter
  3. Through direct research into peer-reviewed studies
  4. Through observations and insights of my own. Which is, after all, what the name of the company promises. It’s what’s on the label.

What all of the resulting topics have in common is that they’re poised to impact human experience in the next few years, and offer considerations leaders should be weighing now. They also reflect the macro themes, such as the ways the current global climate crisis is reverberating through industries and across communities everywhere.

2022 KO Insights Cultural & Technology Trend Map (small format)

This week we’ll offer a brief look at each of the trends included in the map. In weeks to come we’ll unpack them further, but be sure to let us know if you’re particularly interested in one or the other; we’ll be happy to prioritize the order somewhat based on your feedback.

The 2022 trends are:

  • The Immersive Trends
    • Always-On Economies
    • Virtual Third Spaces & Emerging Subcultures
    • Intuitive Intelligence
    • Augmented Everyday Experiences
    • Biometric Face-Off
  • The Integrative Trends
    • Making Tech Safe for Humans
    • Value Disruption
    • Food Innovation
    • Adaptive Cities
    • The Economy is People
    • Work Rework
    • Truth & Trust in Doubt
  • The Innovative Trends
    • Education Everywhere
    • Covid-to-Climate Momentum Transfer
    • Overcoming Supply Chain Chaos with Sustainability
    • Navigating the Just Transition

You can read a little more about each one below.

The Immersive Trends

Always-On Economies

Virtual work, virtual learning, virtual retail, etc

The pandemic has thrust many of us deeper into the virtual versions of the activities that occupy our days, whether that’s work, school, socializing, gaming, or the miscellany of errands and tasks we fulfill online, like shopping, banking, and even medical care. Owing to on-demand content and services, distributed user bases, and algorithmic and machine-generated experiences, these spaces have become “always-on” economies, and they are becoming more and more the norm.

This trend introduces several unique experience considerations. For example, as we live more and more in virtual worlds, our “real life” physical environments must function as shared spaces as well — shared with those with whom we live or work or play, either virtually or physically. Another side effect of such immersive technology is that it will create a growing need to protect our personal information, and how we trade it for services and products.

Virtual Third Spaces & Emerging Subcultures

Metaverse, Web3

The first spaces people spent time in online were virtual chat rooms & services like AOL’s local chat rooms, which often served subcultures that had very little interest in ever meeting face-to-face. Imagine those spaces, but on a much larger scale, and integrated with our day-to-day lives and functions.

A sub-trend here is the need for a personal avatar in the virtual third spaces to represent you. I’ve written for years about our digital selves and how to think about what they represent, but the subject keeps getting more nuanced and interesting all the time.

How do you represent yourself to others? What are the rules & expectations that surround this? These are some of the experience considerations we’ll be weighing as we examine this trend. We already see many people making their avatars look like them or someone they admire, and at times dressing them in ways that are out of the ordinary, daring, or simply unattainable in the physical world.

Intuitive Intelligence

Machine learning into human emotional expression, nuance, abstraction

Researchers are trying to detect human sentiment with machine learning, and piece together nuance and abstraction in a variety of interesting ways. These include chatbots, but also machines that play games and learn to beat human players (and do so again and again).

The capacity to do tremendous good with this kind of technology is enormous. Therapy bots are a current example that can help people who need mental health support and feel less awkward — at least initially — chatting with a bot than seeking out a human therapist. But of course the potential is there as well for these to be deployed in ways that are creepy, invasive, authoritarian, and just otherwise harmful.

The experience considerations here are vast, and will play into everything from personal privacy to public policy. Among the concerns are the fear that machines will eliminate or threaten highly-skilled human jobs; another concern is whether machines can be truly impartial when making decisions on our behalf. We’ll be looking at all of it.

Augmented Everyday Experiences

AR brings integrative entertainment, just-in-time context

I’m on record all over the place saying that augmented reality is the emerging tech I’m most excited about due to its potential to offer just-in-time contextual relevance — which is a form of meaning. Any technology that can be used to offer more meaningful human experiences is one worth exploring.

Of course, to think about the experience design and strategy considerations of augmenting everyday experiences is a bit meta, but we thrive in the land of meta. So we’ll continue to explore the implications of this trend on both a societal and personal level. This technology has the capacity to enhance or amplify experiences without replacing them fully with virtualized equivalents. So the experience design considerations will focus on how to integrate technology in ways that support our lives, not compete with them or require their wholesale reinvention.

Biometric Face-Off

Facial recognition & other biometric tech meets deployment & caution

This is an area I’ve been quoted on extensively in the past few years. There’ve been some developments in the past year, and we’ve written about some of them here at the site. But there are many still-to-come instances of this technology being rolled out in new ways, so we’ll continue to investigate what it means for personal privacy and other implications.

A sub-trend here is how facial recognition will be used in real-time by police & government authorities during protests to catalog & identify people who take part. This is already happening in some places, but it’s very likely only the beginning of what’s to come.


The Integrative Trends

Making Tech Safe for Humans

Emerging tech meets ethics, human protections, etc

In the age of algorithmic decision-making, these are the questions that will arise more and more frequently: How do we know if a machine or artificially intelligent algorithm is making decisions for human beings that are fair, just, accurate, unbiased?

What is bias in data inputs used to train machines, etc. — and how can it vary by race, gender, political affiliation, geography?

Who’s accountable for errors made by machines?

There are many related questions, of course. But the point is that ethics and human protections must be integral features of emerging technologies. If not, humanity could pay an incredibly steep price for new technology before we over-correct to “fix” what we’ve allowed to scale.

Value Disruption

DeFi, NFTs, Bitcoin, mobile payments, cryptocurrency, blockchain

There are big social issues around the speed at which these technologies and platforms are developing. Will they be used for crime and corruption and just plain greed? Sure, but then so will other technologies that don’t rely on decentralization or blockchain’s distributed nature.

We’ve written a bit about this here, but the theme is: money is getting weirder. We’ll continue to explore the innovations and risks, and follow the policy experts on what sorts of regulations might need to be implemented to protect people and use technology in positive, productive ways.

The larger question I’m interested in looking at, though, is in the relationship between disruption — or creative destruction — and meaningful human value. And what new ways might emerge to move from disruption to value-driven innovation. Because the most important part of designing new technologies is ensuring that they can make life better for humans. That means that at some level they must benefit society and the planet at large, not simply advance for technology’s sake. If they don’t, they are not helping us solve the many problems of the present to get to the future we need.

Food Innovation

Combating losses of covid & insecurity with innovations, planet-centric diets

What does the future of our food look like?

Agricultural innovation will be focused on protecting crops to better feed more people. We know that climate change is impacting crop yields, and we urgently need approaches to overcome it. Will lab-grown meat solve our issues around waste production & energy usage? Seems like the questions are more complex than the answers so far.

But as someone who’s been vegetarian for 27 years and vegan for 24, I’m delighted to see an enormous push to make plant-based proteins seem more consumer friendly. I’m especially happy to see the trend toward lab-grown meat that doesn’t require the energy and environmental impact of cattle production. But overall the emphasis is less about plant-based and more about planet-based eating. It just so happens that for now, those two ideas are rather aligned. We’ll be watching this space with interest.

Adaptive Cities

Place-by-place experiments in resilience

The Adaptive City is the global trend of cities undertaking initiatives to better prepare themselves for uncertain futures, whether due to climate change or political volatility. This is as much about major cities developing climate resilience and mitigation strategies as it is about smaller-scale community planning, with a focus on flexibility and affordability in addition to resilience.

Among the tasks cities are taking up are improving infrastructure (laying additional infrastructure underground to make up for above-ground changes) and ensuring the availability of available housing. This is a big trend for the decade to come, and given our work with cities, we will be following it closely.

The Economy is People

Local, community, collectives, mutual aid

The idea that “the economy is people” was a theme in A Future So Bright, has been the subject of quite a few of my Twitter rants, and has shown up repeatedly in research-guided work around everything from the future of work to the future of energy:

Work Rework

Great Resignation, hybrid workplaces, evolving ideas of workplace, work, team

In the pre-2019 days, there was already considerable interest in what the future of work would look like. But in light of the pandemic’s impacts, in light of the shift to remote work and hybrid workplaces, in light of the Great Resignation, in light of the ongoing clamor to wrap our minds around the future of work — we’re still in the early days of this evolution.

Truth & Trust in Doubt

Geopolitical upheaval, misinfo/disinfo, etc

The past few years have seen a deluge of issues in the crisis around trust and truth: “fake news,” suspicions of media bias, the future of democracy in the age of algorithmically-boosted misinformation and propaganda.

We’ve written about this here and we’ll continue to examine these issues.

Personally, the more I think about it, the more I see that we’ll have to work toward truth and trust from the ground up — through education and changing our perspective on what it means to be well-informed. We need tech solutions to untangle tech problems like the amplification of misinformation, but we also need media literacy, citizen literacy, and engaging one another in civil discourse.


The Innovative Trends

The KO Insights working definition of innovative is “aligned with what is going to matter.”

Education Everywhere

Zoom classrooms, just-in-time learning, resolving inequity

The future of learning and education is evolving in a time when we’re grappling with ways to help people cope with change and remain flexible, so they can participate amid public health emergencies, so they can learn at their own pace, so they can compete. It’s easy to imagine a future of learning and education that is “just in time,” ad hoc, and scalable — so people can learn on their own timeline within the constraints of our lives. But these conditions aren’t available to everyone equally, and so the future of education must also grapple with inequity and access.

Covid-to-Climate Momentum Transfer

Hopeful strategic innovation

Of course we’re paying attention to climate momentum anyway, but the rapid technological advancements and digital transformation that have accompanied the COVID-19 pandemic offers incredible opportunity to harness that momentum towards climate mitigation. Observers across industries have noted the opportunity; now it’s just a matter of leaders making the decisions that will most effectively deliver on that promise.

Overcoming Supply Chain Chaos with Sustainability

Investing in greener fleets & fuel

Corporate social responsibility, supply chain management, ESG, ethical procurement — there is growing awareness of these topics as they relate to greener fleets, supply chain chaos, and how these will be addressed in the future.

This also relates to transportation innovation as a whole. Future transport is one of the largest sectors in our series. We’re watching the evolution of electric vehicles including trucks, transportation systems for coastal communities, and more. We’re even keeping our eyes on private spaceflight, although that’s not likely to be a trend we report on here very soon.

Navigating the Just Transition

The challenging move away from fossil fuels

As we undertake the process of moving away from fossil fuels, issues come up around fairness and justice for communities affected by changing policies and initiatives, like native people and people living in low-income neighborhoods in cities, which are often subject to the greatest climate impacts.

The future of work also ties into this topic––green jobs are growing, which is great, because we need solutions for job transitions. And while gender equity isn’t tied to climate per se, studies show the impact of climate change hitting women in developing countries hardest.

This also includes issues related to mobility justice — making sure communities have access to greener infrastructure.

But the scope of this trend actually goes farther and includes sub-topics like: collaborative movements, social impact startups, feminist economics, inclusive policy-making, radical social justice, upending power dynamics, systemic change, universal basic income, collaboration-driven initiatives, building from the ground up, and so on.


And that’s just barely scratching the surface on all of these trends. We plan to dive deeper into each of these topics in the weeks to come, but in the meantime I hope these summaries have given you food for thought in terms of how you might be thinking about your future strategy.

Please don’t hesitate to get in touch if I can answer any questions about how you might use these insights, or if you’d like to discuss booking a session to review them with your team.

I’ll leave you with just one last thought. Although it’s impossible to actually predict the future, one thing is easy to anticipate: the world will continue to need your bold and savvy leadership in the future. More than ever.

The Great Resignation and the human future of work

blog header great resignation - background image shows woman holding her head while looking at a laptop in her home

Much of the speculation about the so-called “Great Resignation” began after the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that a record 4 million Americans had left their jobs in April 2021. Well, that was the record then. In August the number was 4.3 million. Another record. 4.4 million workers in September. And then yesterday we learned that 4.5 million US workers quit their jobs in November. How long will the trend continue, and what does it mean?

Plenty has already been written and said about the Great Resignation, and much has been said (and plenty by me) about the future of work, about automation and robots and how they will impact human jobs, and countless other related topics. But not enough is being made of what this might mean about the future of human meaning.

We’ve also done a lot of talking (and yes, me again) about digital transformation, and how much that has to do with data models and emerging technology.

But we haven’t talked enough about work as a form of human fulfillment, and we haven’t talked enough about the kind of transformation that happens at the human scale. What if we’re missing the big insights about the future of work and technology by not connecting all these dots?

What really matters about the human future of work and beyond

Most of the media coverage focuses on wages and benefits, and while those are undeniably important factors to understand, it strikes me as very plausible that much of what this trend is about deals with things most media coverage isn’t hitting: Gender inequality in home duties. Burnout. A re-prioritized sense of dignity. And for heavens sake, grief — or rather, the shifted perspective that comes from grief over lost loved ones.

For years when I have written and spoken about the future of work, I have said that the most important thing is for humans to have a sense of meaning. “What matters in all of this is that humans have the opportunity for meaningful experiences in the future, whether they derive from work or not.”

But even after separating those concepts, we’re still left with big questions about what a humanity-centered understanding of work looks like: what it means to accomplish, contribute, and achieve apart from income and sustenance.

And we’re still not sure what it means to address the overlapping trends of the Great Resignation (or Great Reset), and the waves of innovation around the “creator economy” particularly as it relates to Web3, the Metaverse, and emerging ideas and models of value. (I’m part of a group of future-forward experts that is forming around these topics right now. I’ll be sure to share more about that as I am able.)

One of the most frequently-recurring themes in my work is meaning, and I have very often said that I see no reason why humans shouldn’t have meaning in all sorts of different ways, work being just one.

I have also said (and been repeating a lot lately) that the economy is people. And in economic conditions where people are not cared for, they may be forced to ruthlessly prioritize themselves.

If all of this is true then the Great Resignation could be a sign that not enough people are finding enough of a sense of meaning in work. At least not sufficient to overcome the lack of meaning they are feeling in other areas of their lives, which makes sense given how much the pandemic has cut most of us off from our social circles, from our extended families, from leisure travel — heck, even from serendipitous encounters at coffee shops.

It also means these workers might become a bigger market than ever for employers who want to persuade them that they can find meaning at their place of work.

Still, if those 4.5 million, and those coming behind them, can’t find meaning in their workplaces now, why would they stay with the same employers — especially as they see machines taking over many of the functions in the jobs they face today?

Are we ready yet for a meaningful version of the future of work?

The main focus in the Great Resignation shouldn’t be employee dissatisfaction or talent acquisition cost or about technology taking over human employment opportunities. It’s good to create space for that discourse and to learn from it, but the underlying issue is far more fundamental: as much as we need to commit to making the workplace physically safe for humans, we need to commit to making it fulfilling, too. And that means honoring and respecting the humanness of human employees.

When it comes to digital transformation, the biggest lesson I share with leaders is often: it doesn’t start with tech. Surprise! Just as leaders too often want to begin digital transformation with technology instead of from human-centric values and experiences, too many leaders approach their talent strategy as if it can be driven by cost or satisfaction scores, rather than about infusing a sense of purpose and meaning into the organization at every level.

Figuring out how to build a purposeful organization and a culture of meaning, how to amplify relevance and intentionality in the digital experiences you bring to scale — all of this is part of the human-centric digital transformation effort I have been advocating, talking about, advising executive teams on, and leading workshops in for years. It was always important, but now, between the accelerating pace of digitization and the rising stakes in attracting and retaining talent, it’s more crucial than ever.

Even as intelligent machines, automation, and completely digitized experiences become increasingly pervasive, they won’t replace the nuanced value humans add in creative teams, in design of all kinds, in strategic thinking, and in the simple joy of a serendipitous human-to-human interaction, even if it’s only in a coffee shop.

What even is “portrait mode”?

The other day, someone asked my photographer husband to take his photo in “horizontal portrait.” Naturally, my husband asked for clarification.

The guy explained, with some prompting, that he meant horizontal orientation but with the background blown out — in other words, with a shallow depth of field like you get when you use “Portrait Mode” on the iPhone.

That, of course, is not what “portrait” means to a photographer. Leaving aside the broader topic of portrait photography, when you’re giving specifications to a photographer, “portrait” means an upright or vertical orientation assuming a rectangular composition. (The other orientation, as you probably know, is “landscape.”)

But you are probably way ahead of me because you know that in 2016, Apple launched a now-wildly-popular photo mode for the iPhone called “Portrait Mode.” At least that’s what their product teams call it; all it says on the label for “Portrait Mode” is “Portrait.”

Which means that users who aren’t as familiar with camera lingo are left to guess at understanding what aspect of the photograph the word “portrait” is describing. And I would imagine for most casual users who aren’t familiar with photography terminology, it’s not unreasonable to associate the bokeh-like blur effect with the portrait mode.

Which means that to this person that’s what “portrait” means. Whether a photographer considers that a correct usage or not.

Which means that, for all intents and purposes, Apple has changed the meaning of the word “portrait.”

What the Netflix/Chappelle Scandal Can Teach Us About Humanity in Tech and Business

“I want to talk about solutions. I want to talk about how major companies like Netflix can put their money where their mouth is, and lean into humanity in a big, bold way.” — Chloe Jade Skye

A note from KO Insights CEO Kate O’Neill:
As many of you know, I was an early employee of Netflix, and I have proudly shared stories witnessed firsthand from my time there as examples of strong leadership. But with greater scale comes greater influence, and the discourse of the past few weeks demonstrates how important it is to get that influence right when leading.

A recurring theme in my work is the importance of building inclusive experiences, and creating the best futures for the most people. I’ve also talked about how important it is, during times when a population is harmed by leadership decisions, to listen to people who are directly affected. Moreover, as a bi woman whose own activism has long been intertwined with the trans community, it’s important to me to center the voices of trans people when issues arise that relate to harm.

So with the heat of the immediate news coverage a bit cooled, to help us navigate this discussion with insight and respect, I sought the help of our new team member, Experience Manager Jupiter F. Stone (look for their introduction coming soon!) who brought in today’s guest writer: Chloe Jade Skye. Chloe is a trans woman who follows stand-up comedy pretty closely (having done some herself) — in fact, she had already written an article about this on her blog a few weeks ago. I’m grateful that she shared with us her view on this topic in a way that ties into the KO Insights approach to humanity in tech and business.

What the Netflix/Chappelle Scandal Can Teach Us About Humanity in Tech and Business

by Chloe Jade Skye

There’s been a lot of media coverage recently about the Netflix employee walkout over CEO Ted Sarandos’s handling of the latest Dave Chappelle special, ‘The Closer’. Unless you’ve avoided the Internet or been living under a rock, you probably saw the words, “I screwed up” quoted somewhere, in a headline or tweet, attributed to Sarandos. But that part of the quote, to me, isn’t as interesting as what followed, a.k.a. the reason he screwed up.

“I should have led with more humanity…I had a group of employees who were definitely feeling pain and hurt from a decision we made…[and] I didn’t do that.” The humanity lacking in those internal emails, according to Sarandos, was his statement that on-screen content does not equate to real-world harm. He walked this back in a later interview with Variety, acknowledging that creating real-world change is the reason Netflix exists, and the reason creators and storytellers do what they do.

My question is this: If humanity was missing in internal memos distributed within the company before the launch of a new product, is it not also possible that humanity was missing in the decision-making that went into creating the content in the first place? I find it hard to believe that humanity just happened to slip the minds of the chief decision makers in the final stage of content distribution.

I’ve watched the special, so I can say with certainty that humanity was at the very least not Dave Chappelle’s chief concern. I strongly disagree with Sarandos, and apparently the rest of the Netflix executives, that ‘The Closer’ does not incite hate or violence. I’m speaking as a trans person when I say that even just in the room with Dave during the special, I saw the exact type of hatred that I encounter in my day-to-day life receive standing ovations.

At one point, Chappelle jokes about beating up a woman (because he thought she was a man), and the line “I smacked the toxic masculinity out of that b*tch” receives uproarious applause. He also echoes some of the most harmful rhetoric of the anti-trans movements, going so far as to proclaim himself “team TERF” (TERF stands for Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminist, a term created by the trans community to refer to the cis women fighting to take away rights from trans children). This line also received a plethora of clap-ter.

But I’m not here to debate whether or not the special does harm. That has been been written about at length by far better-known writers than me. Besides, even if I managed to convince you, it wouldn’t change a single thing about the inner workings at Netflix. So, what am I here to do?

I want to talk about solutions. I want to talk about how major companies like Netflix can put their money where their mouth is, and lean into humanity in a big, bold way. For what it’s worth, Sarandos has already stated that he is “committed to continuing to increase representation on screen and behind the camera,” and has explained that Netflix has a fund set aside for “specifically trans and non-binary content” (this Creative Equity Fund does invest in generating trans content, but that is currently a small slice of the fund overall).

“I want to talk about solutions. I want to talk about how major companies like Netflix can put their money where their mouth is, and lean into humanity in a big, bold way.”

Committing to more diversity and inclusivity on screen is laudable, but doesn’t do anything to prevent further mishaps regarding content that trans and non-binary creators aren’t directly involved with. If a platform invests money into a show celebrating trans people, and simultaneously invests money into a show denigrating those same people, I don’t believe that constitutes “leaning into humanity.” I’d call that “playing both sides,” and what the LGBTQ+ community actually needs is for the company to understand that just because something doesn’t explicitly call for harm doesn’t mean it isn’t causing any.

Someone who is not a member of a marginalized group has no right to make decisions about what does or does not constitute hate-speech against that group. Sarandos, a White, Cis-gender, heterosexual male, does not get to decide whether or not Chappelle’s words cause harm to the LGBTQ+ community at large. Now, I know the decision that ‘The Closer’ is not harmful was not his alone. I don’t have access to a list of all the Netflix executives involved in that decision, but I’m willing to bet there weren’t a lot of members of the queer community seated at the table.

So how do we fix this? How can a giant corporation like Netflix actually emphasize humanity in their decisions and content generation? Rather than come up with my own list, I’m going to use the one put forth by a think tank of trans employees at the company, publicized as a “list of demands,” but that I think is better described as an instruction manual for inclusivity.

Adopt measures to avoid future platforming of transphobia and hate speech. Create a new fund specifically for trans and non-binary talent, both above and below the line. Revise internal processes on commissioning and releasing potentially harmful content, including parties who are part of the subject community. Hire trans content executives, especially BIPOC. Recruit trans people for leadership roles in the company. Allow employees to remove themselves from promotional content. Eliminate posters and murals of transphobic content within the workplace. Add a disclaimer before titles that flag transphobic language, misogyny, homophobia, etc. Boost promotion for trans affirming titles already on the platform. Suggest trans affirming content alongside content flagged as anti-trans.

That isn’t everything, but I paraphrased the key points. Although some of the suggestions apply specifically to Netflix, there’s something on the list that could benefit a CEO at any corporation. Diversity and inclusion does not just mean featuring POC or members of the LGBTQ community in advertisements or content—it means bringing them to the table in positions of power so that we can help ensure, from the top down, that your company’s actions align with your stated values.

I’ll end with an example of this being done right. When it was brought to the attention of John Landgraf, Chairman of the FX network, that 85% of the directors of FX content were Cis White males, he decided to make a change. He made a list of female directors and directors of color and actively sent that list to every producer of every one of their shows, recommending they hire someone from the list. In 2021, only 37% of FX shows were directed by Cis White men, with the remaining 63% made up of diverse and/or female directors. And according to Landgraf, “the quality of work we got from this new crop of directors was actually superior.”

Thank you, Netflix, for making ‘humanity’ a buzzworthy word these past few weeks. We have a long way to go before we achieve it, but it is certainly something worth striving for. I, and many others, will be watching.


Chloe Skye is a trans woman currently living in Los Angeles. She writes, podcasts, and, in her words, thinks too much. You can check out her podcast about women in history, Broads You Should Know, her film review podcast, Modern Eyes with Skye and Stone, or her TV review podcast, Skye & Stone do Television!

Online presence data as human rights risk

Have you ever had to delete parts or all of your online presence because you feared for your life? This story has been on my mind since I read this:

“USAID, the United States’s humanitarian arm, purportedly sent an email over the weekend to partners asking them to go through their social media accounts and websites with a fine-toothed comb to ‘remove photos and information that could make individuals or groups vulnerable’. USAID also advised partners still operating in Afghanistan to delete and wipe any personal identifying information of those they’d worked with on the ground, in case it fell into the wrong hands.”

https://www.wired.co.uk/article/afghanistan-social-media-delete

Are there lessons we can take from this story about data privacy architecture and such? Probably, and out of fairness to these and potentially the next humans who will go through this we should absolutely work through that discussion and create better solutions. For reasons far less grave but still important, we have long needed to re-think the opportunities we have to control where our data goes, who has access to it, and how we can pull it back or lock it down when we need to.

But I don’t want the vastness of that conversation to overshadow the very real experiences people are living through right now. So in the meantime this is just a placeholder of compassion for human beings dealing with an imminent existential threat that is complicated even further by the latticework of digital experiences and data most of us take for granted.

Here’s wishing safety and peace to those who desperately need it.

Scale as Priority

“In most of our cities and our nation, we don’t prioritize human life [….] We’re prioritizing traffic and the movement of vehicles.”

Source: Zero bikers or pedestrians were killed by cars in Oslo last year
photo I took pre-pandemic in the NoLIta area of lower Manhattan

What scale you build at and what has your focus shows your priority. If you want to prioritize human safety and human experiences, you have to build at the human scale.

In contemporary business, influenced as it is by big tech, we often talk about our aspirations “at scale.” When we do, we mean large scale. Enterprise scale. We mean 10x returns on investments, if not more. We mean accelerating workflow through automation. We mean optimizing for the 3rd or 4th decimal point in super-computing systems that analyze four-dimensional data.

These are not human-scale impacts. But the market forces compelling us to strive for them are not imagined, and most leaders have to operate from the realistic constraints of the world shaped by these demands.

That’s why the KO Insights mission has long been to “make human experiences more meaningful at scale.” This is a recognition of the business drivers that build experiences at accelerating rates and exponential growth, while centering one of the most fundamentally human-scale concepts: meaning. The tension inherent in that challenge keeps us honest, and keeps our clients improving their user experiences and customer interactions.

What can you examine in your work that will bring you face to face with the human scale?

Cannibalizing Your Own Experiences

The way strategists and designers theorize about human experience — and specifically customer experience, which is humans in the contextual role of “customer” — is often disconnected from the way business leaders think about strategy and business models. But in practice, for substantive and sustainable results, the efforts must be aligned.

For example, I’ve been vegan for nearly 23 years. The plant-based food revolution of the past few years is thrilling to see. But I see brands executing poorly against it. Dunkin’ and Starbucks, for example, both have introduced breakfast sandwiches with Beyond Meat vegan sausages or with Just Egg, but the sandwiches themselves, as merchandised, are not vegan. So vegan-minded customers who are drawn in by the new products have to know to order them with a whole set of modifications and off-menu tricks. How much more welcoming would it have been for the brands to simply add vegan sandwiches to their menu? People transitioning to eating more plant-based foods wouldn’t object that the bread is vegan, and it would be a far better experience for the actual vegan customers. (And by the way, the number of vegans in the U.S. grew by 600% from 2014 to 2017 while 500,000 people have pledged to eat vegan for the first time for the whole month of January 2021, so we’re talking about non-trivial market share that’s shown no signs of slowing down.) Moreover, it would encourage vegans who weren’t already fans of Dunkin’ and Starbucks to come and buy those sandwiches, meaning incremental purchases the brands never had before. And the kicker? People who aren’t vegan-inclined already had meal options at these brands, so making the vegan-ish sandwich not vegan may actually be cannibalizing (sorry) the sales of the other meal options.

Another example is the trend of high-quality non-alcoholic mixers like Seedlip along with a growing population of people who, whether over short spans of time or long periods, choose not to drink alcohol. (Another non-trivial market segment. Pre-packaged mocktails and other non-alcoholic beverages have been on the rise and are expected to continue growing, while an estimated 15% of Americans planned to participate this year in “Dry January.” How many have stuck to it in the wake of the past week’s political turmoil is worth wondering, but the intent was there.) This experience and strategy disconnect would be like a cocktail bar owner bringing Seedlip in only to offer it mixed it into alcoholic beverages. Meanwhile there’s a group of would-be customers who have not been catered to who might otherwise patronize the establishment, and they’re not being accommodated. That’s incremental business, and the bar in this example would be turning up its nose at it — in this economy?!

I witnessed this pattern up-close myself, when I was heading customer experience and product at Magazines.com. The company had historically pushed hard in every channel to sell cheap People magazine subscriptions because they were viewed as loss leaders that would get customers in the door, but something wasn’t working out right in the equation. There were too many cancellations as the first terms were coming up for renewal.

Eventually a colleague and I crunched enough numbers to work out what was happening: customers were buying the cheap first-term subscriptions in lieu of a steeper-priced renewal (where the company hoped to make its money back). We also saw why. When the subscribers to People magazine were getting their renewal notices by email, those emails often had cross-sell promotions — including, sometimes, for People magazine. We were doing nothing to exclude those promotions for first-term rates from the renewal emails. Once we added programming logic to the renewal emails to exclude promotions for the title being renewed, cancellations went down, and renewals went up. If I remember correctly, it meant gaining about a million dollars a year across channels. It sounds pretty easy to recognize in retrospect, but it is this holistic way of thinking about the entire business model and how it is presented to every customer, one by one, that makes it work in the details.

These three examples have in common that they are relevant to the customers — in other words, the humans you do business with. When I talk about meaningful human experiences, relevance is a form of meaningfulness. Showing that you have a sense about what is suitable, appropriate, and timely for customers helps them feel understood. And being understood is tantamount to being seen as human beings.

Leaders, don’t cannibalize your business success. Think it through, experience by experience. It could be costing you a lot of money to ignore providing better experiences, while it’s also costing you the goodwill and loyalty you might have enjoyed from customers who would appreciate having a relevant experience provided for them.

The Future of Trust and Truth

One of the themes shaping my work this year is “the future of trust and truth.” In an era characterized by disagreement over basic facts, where algorithmically-optimized social media platforms show us the truths we most want to see, the roles of truth and trust in ethics, in systems design, and in human experience strategy are crucial for us to understand. I’m examining questions such as: What does truth mean to us as humans; how does truth relate to belief, to science, to law; how does truth relate to trust; and so on.

And of course:
How do divisive politics figure into our trust in institutions, and how does our sense of truth suffer from exposure to misinformation and disinformation?

And then, the big question as it relates to my work and the work of many of my clients:
What does it mean to bring machines into this dynamic? To cross-pollinate these very human concerns with data, with algorithms, with machine learning? For algorithms optimized for platform-specific engagement and retention to shape our exposure to news and opinions?

On that last point, the twin topics of misinformation and disinformation have been a big focus this past year because of the pandemic, the U.S. presidential election, and the widespread racial justice protests as well as the backlash against them. On seemingly every high-level topic, people had opposing views and cited opposing sources to back them up. And this went beyond the U.S.: I had a conversation a few months ago with a journalist from the leading business magazine in Brazil, for example, about misinformation and trust, and what regulations may be needed to address them. Our concerns about Trump’s outsized influence in shaping social media discourse mirror theirs about Bolsonaro. These challenges are simultaneously local and global.

translated excerpt from Brazilian Portuguese interview in Exame magazine

I’m not the first to think about trust, of course. Edelman has been producing their excellent Trust Barometer every year for 21 years. The work I’m doing is by no means meant to be a replacement of their important research, but rather incorporates their findings as part of a view on how trust and truth are fundamental to humanity, how they are important to understanding of technologies that we rely on.

I’ll be sharing ongoing insights in this blog and other outlets as I develop these ideas through my research and work them into my speaking and my forthcoming book, but for now I’ll toss another coin to Edelman, since their 2021 Trust Barometer just came out this week. One of the findings was that, of all the categories of institutions, business has the most public trust right now. Not government, not NGOs, not media, but business. That’s a tremendous responsibility and opportunity for business. It’s a call to purpose and action, a call for transparency, for principled leadership.

And for those businesses we define as “tech businesses” especially, not only is the public watching, but so are the eyes of history. As a crisis of democracy unfolds in the U.S. alongside a deadly pandemic, we come face to face with issues of misinformation and disinformation, of content moderation and platform access, and the consequences of the algorithmic blinders we all wear as we consume social media and our preferred news outlets. Each of these issues comes tangled in its own technical details around trust and truth, but in every case, there is one central truth: the need to frame these debates and their outcomes not around those individuals with the largest reach but around the rights and the future of humanity at large couldn’t be more urgent.

Universal Basic Meaning

Scratch the surface of any debate about the future of work and you’ll find there an argument for Universal Basic Income.

And certainly from a purely survivalist standpoint that’s an important consideration.

We need to know what it is going to look like for people not to have the financial resources from working. We also need to understand how this model might concentrate power and opportunity into fewer and fewer hands.

But we also need to think beyond this consideration of the future of work. Humans rely on work for more than income; we also rely on work for meaning.

Humans have historically derived associated work with what we do; we have historically derived associated work with who we are.

Our work is in so many cases our identities, as the long tradition of names, last names and family names, derived from professions demonstrates. Carpenter, Baker, Butcher, and so many others — and this happens across languages, not just English. Throughout the world and throughout human history, we have taken so much of who we are and what we are about from what we do for a living, and what our ancestors have done for a living.

As I have previously written:

We derive a tremendous amount of meaning from our work—the sense of accomplishment, of problems solved, of having provided for ourselves and for our families, of having made a contribution, of having value and self-worth.

We have to recognize the possibility of a post-human-work world, or at least a world where human work has fundamentally changed—so that as we look at automation, we see the impact on both the experiences automation creates and the experiences automation displaces. Because in the future scenario where all the human work has vanished, where do humans get the same sense of meaning? That meaning we have historically derived from work will have to come from something other than work. We need a better answer.

— from Tech Humanist: How You Can Make Technology Better for Business and Better for Humans

The Need for Universal Basic Meaning

My radical idea is that there needs to be some kind of replacement, or reinforcement, for the meaning we derive from work, like a “Universal Basic Meaning” that’s supplied around us.

Not to take the place of work; not to replace jobs. But to enhance jobs and everything else we do, every experience we have. What matters in all of this is that humans have the opportunity for meaningful experiences in the future, whether they derive from work or not.

Because while I do think about the financial implications of job displacement and replacement from automation, I’m nearly as concerned about people not having the resources of meaning and identity.

I wonder about what it’s going to do to us, as human jobs shift away from work we can develop identity around. What I think is going to be needed, even more than ever, are meaningful experiences in the world around us. Meaningful experiences at scale.

One concern I have is that as experiences become increasingly automated and are often selected for automation by how mundane and repetitive — and hence, how meaningless — they are, that we will be increasingly surrounded by meaningless experiences. It makes rational sense to automate the tedious tasks in our workflow and throughout our lives, but it’s easy to imagine this at scale where more and more of our everyday experiences and interactions are automated, and they’re all meaningless.

Because the interconnectedness of data and algorithms and emerging technologies are more and more part of our everyday environments, and they can create experiences that have outsized impact on who we are and how we live our lives. And it’s important that we appreciate the way these systems change us.

This is why I always say we should “automate the meaningful too.” It is important that we now, in the early stages of automating human experiences, encode them with all the enlightenment, all the equity, all the evolved thinking we can.

In the weeks and months to come, I’ll write more about Universal Basic Meaning, how this idea can inform our understanding of ethical and practical data-based experiences, and how we can build the most meaningful experiences at scale.