With a focus on helping humanity prepare for an increasingly data and tech-driven future, Kate O’Neill, AKA the “tech humanist,” helps guide and inspire businesses to create truly meaningful human experiences.
As a leading innovator across technology, marketing, and operations, Kate is a global keynote speaker, strategic advisor, and author of the recent, Tech Humanist: How You Can Make Technology Better for Business and Better for Humans. She is also the founder of KO Insights, which helps clients bridge the gap between business interests and human needs.
In this episode of the Leading Learning Podcast, Celisa talks with Kate about the idea of tech humanism, why businesses need a strategic purpose guiding their use of technology, and the potential impact of emerging technologies on learning. They also discuss her people-centered approach to analytics, the importance of focusing on the human experience, as well as the implications of blending online and offline experiences.
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Read the Show Notes
[00:18] – A preview of what will be covered in this episode where Celisa interviews Kate O’Neill.
[01:10] – You might consider the reflections questions below on your own after listening to an episode, and/or you might pull the team together, using part or all of the podcast episode for a group discussion.
- Listen to how Kate ties technology to business and suggests we need to understand technology through the lens of business. After the episode, think about what your learning business is trying to do at scale. Then think about how technology might help.
- Kate talks about the fact that learners are humans too. That can sound like a flippant statement, but it actually has some pretty profound implications. After the episode, think about how you view those you serve—are you more too focused on learner experience and not focused enough on the human experience?
The Tech Humanist
[03:05] – Before we dive in in earnest, what, beyond my brief intro, would you like listeners to know about you and your work?
Kate sums up her work as helping humanity prepare for an increasingly data and tech-driven future.
Kate defines tech humanism as the relationship between technology and humanity—and it’s through the lens of business because she argues that is the main vehicle for putting technology in humanity’s path.
We can talk all day about technology in the abstract or how it changes human experience, but the ways to really focus on changing human experience or making it more meaningful – which is ultimately what she strives to do –needs to go through business paths.
So that’s the model that Kate proposes within the book and a lot of what her speaking and advising with companies is about—helping companies use technology in a way that actually prepares them for the future so they can be more successful. But it also creates more meaningful experiences for the humans that do business with them, or that work inside the company as well.
Meaning and Strategic Purpose
[05:26] – In your work, you really emphasize meaning. You posit that may be the most distinctive quality of humans—that we crave meaning. And when I read that, it occurred to me that learning is about meaning-making, that it’s about a learner internalizing a skill or knowledge enough that it means something to her.
You don’t talk about meaning specifically in terms of learning, but you point out that, “In business, the shape meaning takes is strategic purpose.” What is strategic purpose, and what’s its role is guiding organization’s use of technology?
Kate shares that for her, meaning starts not from a political agenda or religious affiliation—it’s just the simple premise that humanity is important and our human experiences are important.
The idea that meaning is what we construct and what we create is that opportunity to observe the world around us to see what makes sense and how we’re going to use that to make decisions around us. So she says learning absolutely seems like it is part and parcel of that discussion.
Kate points out that meaning takes a lot of different shapes and it’s been a study of hers for a few decades. She talks about how she was a linguist by education and how she was always interested in the layers of meaning—the semantics of it, things like purpose, truths, and significance. And if you take that into layers farther removed from the immediate human experience, it’s bigger things like cosmic meaning and existential meaning.
But she says all of these things still fundamentally come down to this very complex idea of meaning. And since business is a human construct, Kate says we really need to understand what business is for.
So if meaning is the most human premise or instinct, then creating business has to have some kind of meaning inspiring it.
Kate finds that the way that meaning takes shape within business is purpose—the whole notion of why the business exists, what it’s trying to achieve, and what it’s doing at scale. So strategic purpose is really about the idea that you get close to why the business even exists at all.
She explains how there’s something that your business is doing that’s supposed to be solving a problem, addressing an issue, or shaped around some premise. Usually this is related to the origin of the company or the culture. But in general, that strategic purpose is a really important thing for companies/corporate leaders to have a sense of because it can then guide decisions, priorities, values, and resource allocation.
When it comes to that resource allocation, Kate says that’s when we come back to the technology discussion. That’s because so much of what happens within the area of digital transformation or of technological prioritization projects that get assigned are tech led not human led—they’re led by whatever is trending in the headlines.
So Kate stresses it’s so important for business leaders – or organizational leaders of any kind – to have that strategic purpose lens when they’re trying to solve problems within the organization.
[11:16] – A discussion about how the strategic purpose really helps us realize that technology is a means to an end and how the strategic purpose usually needs to be distilled down to something very simple.
In fact, Kate recommends that a strategic purpose statement should be something that is as concise as 3-5 words, maybe 7 at most, to really get down to something that’s a really essential distillation of what the company does, what problem it solves, and what it exists to do.
Kate highlights Disney theme parks’ perfect strategic purpose statement, which is “create magical experiences”. She talks about how this is a very truthful strategic purpose statement and how so much of their brand and culture is wrapped up in this.
But what she thinks is most important/significant to this tech humanist discussion is you can really see how those three words of that strategic purpose statement can also allow them to make a digital transformation investment decision—like the My Magic Band Program, for example.
The Impact of Emerging Technologies on Learning
[14:33] –When you think about some of the emerging and developing technologies—AI, extended reality (mixed and virtual), blockchain, etc.—what do you see as the most critical issues and decisions facing those of us working to provide learning?
Kate points out that when we talk about learners, we’re still talking about humans through that lens of learning. So it still comes back to what the broader human experience is. And when it comes to all the emerging and developing technologies and critical topics right now, what occurs to her are the unintended consequences as the main thing we need to be thinking about. Because the chances for these technologies to increase capacity and scale are like never before.
So whatever we are going to put in place to advance our agendas to try to build our mission out into more exponential impact is going to be able to be done much more readily with these technologies. But we have to be that much more aware that whatever we’re doing is going to scale so all of the unintended consequences can scale right along with it.
It becomes so much more important to think about the learner experience, beyond learner, to this more holistic human context. So understanding more about what’s happening in the lives of learners and their backgrounds to know what might affect them as a human before they enter that context as a learner.
And then recognizing that the unintended consequences of what we put in front of them with the technology may create an additional burden on them. Or that it could create situations where they aren’t given the best opportunity to learn to be themselves and fully present in these interactions that we create because we aren’t thinking of them as holistic humans.
Kate notes these kinds of things are going to be much more difficult to design for, scale for, and to build out meaningfully. But the more we put ourselves in that state of thinking as holistically as we can about meaningful human experiences and really thinking about the people we interact with as whole humans, is where diversity and inclusion comes into play most organically. This helps us move beyond a homogenous view of what any given person in that learner role is experiencing.
And building out more diverse and inclusive teams for developing technology is going to benefit us in terms of what we offer to our customers/learners. So the more diverse and inclusive our own project teams are, the more successfully they’re going to be received by people that are supposed to be the customer or user of them.
She says it’s so easy to look over viewpoints that aren’t your own and even when you’ve trained yourself to do better at it, it’s still easy to overlook them. But if you just include more diverse perspectives along the way, it becomes a more natural process to think about ways for inclusion so you can design for them.
See our related episode, Getting Conscious About Bias with Howard Ross and Shilpa Alimchandani.
Sponsor: AUTHENTIC Learning Labs
[21:20] – If you’re looking for a partner to help you design better for your learners, check out our sponsor.
AUTHENTIC Learning Labs is an e-learning company that offers products and services to help improve your current investments in education. One key product is Authentic Analytics, a dedicated suite of visualization reports to help analyze and predict the performance of education programs. Organizations use Authentic Analytics to easily scan through volumes of data in intuitive visuals, chart performance trends, and quickly spot opportunities, issues, and potential future needs.
A People-Centered Take on Analytics
[22:04] – You assert that analytics are people. Will you explain what you mean by that, and perhaps tease out some of the implications of that assertion for folks working to provide learning?
Kate says she’s been using this phrase for a while because she found that as analytics became a dominant subject in business and other fields (maybe about a decade ago or so), so many people were talking about analytics in a very abstract way. The data/reports/analytics were never about the people whose behavior they were tracking.
She thinks it’s very important to step beyond the abstractions of analytics/data/reports, and remember that what generates the majority of what we’re looking at with those, are people and people’s intentions, behaviors, motivations, desires, etc.
So it helps that when we’re looking at reports, to re-humanize the questions you’re asking so you’re working to provide human answers and solutions to those questions, as opposed to optimizing the experience based on the data.
Kate jokingly describes herself as a “convert from the Church of the Data Driven”. She thinks data driven is useful for very granular kinds of situations. For example, if you’re trying to help inform a decision, it’s very helpful to be data driven. But once you get beyond the microscopic decision and you’re looking more at strategy or how to think holistically about a program, educational opportunities, overall products and services, etc. it becomes really important to come back out to the equivalent level of people and humans and what they’re trying to achieve.
And you have to marry those up or else you end up creating things that don’t really feel like they belong in the world of people—and that’s what we need most from our technology going forward.
A Focus on the Human Experience
[25:42] – You choose to focus on human experience (vs. customer or user (or learner) experience). Why’s that distinction important to you? What does that shift in point of view mean?
Kate explains that it’s a subtle distinction in some ways but it’s one that she insists on (and says she’s a “convert to the Church of the Human Experience”). What happens so often is we focus on terms like customers, user, learner, student or patient experience. But she points out that we’re talking about the same people and we are all of those people at different times in our lives.
She says it’s too compartmentalized to think only about each of these experiences as separate and how doing that doesn’t tell us how satisfying or meaningful the experience was on a human level. Think about what the person (who was performing the role of customer at that moment) came into that experience feeling and then how they felt when they walked away.
This is the piece she says that usually gets categorized as customer loyalty or customer satisfaction. But you can get a much more holistic sense of that by thinking about human experience because it allows us to transition through all of these different contexts and lenses and know that the person who’s behind all of those roles is fundamentally the same person—it’s all of us and it’s important for us to remember that.
Kate also shares a personal example from her own life to illustrate this.
[31:53] – f you’re looking to create learning focused on the human experience, check out our sponsor.
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Implications of Blended Learning
[32:38] –In your work, you’ve pointed to the blurring of lines as well as a both/and mentality (vs. either/or). One example is in the blending of online and offline experiences—more and more what we do offline influences what we see online and what we do online informs our offline experiences and behavior. I can’t help but think of educational offerings—we used to label things e-learning or blended learning, but more and more it just seems like learning. What implications in this integration of online and off for how we learn and live?
Kate admits this is one of the most fascinating areas of her work and that this was the deep exploration in her book, Pixels and Place: Connecting Human Experience Across Physical and Digital Spaces. But she says this whole premise still plays into Tech Humanist and beyond so this is a really important area.
Her realization of how important this really was came about when she was asked to do a keynote for college admission counselors on the topic of how to create a more meaningful sense of place. In preparing for this, she wanted to understand the experiences people would have in the physical space (legends and mythologies) but then she realized that so much of what’s important is also understanding the online experiences too (social media brand, interactions, relevant hashtags, etc.) And when you think of the interaction between the two areas, physical and online, you can then look at how to connect people across space and time to others.
Then when you get into curricula and think about active learning and the classroom environment, whatever an educator is having students do is going to probably be complemented by whatever the student is self-learning.
In 2019 and beyond, Kate explains that we’re in a place where there are ample kinds of interactive experiences going on all the time and it’s an important part of people’s lives (this includes students and learners).
The online/offline experience is going to be fully blended so it needs to be something that we go into learning development really conscious of, really trying to optimize for, really making sure we’re aware of—and then build the experiences accordingly.
[37:03] –What is one of the most powerful learning experiences you’ve been involved in, as an adult, since finishing your formal education?
Kate shares about her experience being part of a speakers mastermind Facebook community and how valuable this community (and format) has been to her learning.
[39:38] –How to connect with Kate and/or learn more:
[40:15] – Wrap-Up
- What is your learning business trying to do at scale, and how might technology help?
- Do you need to refine your view of those you serve so you’re less focused on the learner experience and more focused on the human experience?
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[42:18] – Sign off