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Human Ability — the Next Wave of Business Value?

by Mark P. McDonald  |  March 6, 2019  |  Comments Off on Human Ability — the Next Wave of Business Value?

Technology is an important force driving value creation in business, society and the environment.   Technology’s value creation legacy has centered around processes — the steps required to complete a task.   That wave is losing strength as technology automation levels cross a tipping point.  The big question is what is the next wave?

It is hard to predict the future without an understanding the forces shaping prior waves.  Past context provides a framework for seeing the next set of opportunities.  So before we move forward, lets take a look back.

Technology has been about process automation and integration.  Mainframe technology enabled functional processes supporting divisionalization and scale.  Personal Computers and networking moved processing power to the team, resulting in changing business processes.  The internet created direct connections between customers and the company via a website exposing previously internal processes direct to customers.  The resulting disintermediation and transparency dented just about every industry from financial services to airlines to employment.  The resulting consumerism reflects an initial move away from further automation, integration and cost reduction toward technology having an immediate impact on top line revenues.

That move is accelerating and changing as an expanding array of technologies builds from the web to include: mobile devices, analytics, artificial intelligence, social media, cloud infrastructures, intelligent objects, and on and on.

How and where these technology’s will create value requires understanding the fundamental nature of what we have and what we can expect in the future.  These technologies are different than their storage and processing intensive progenitors.

These technology’s are fundamentally human in the sense that they raise the ability of people to achieve their tasks, goals and objectives to their own, rather than corporate objectives. This sets the stage for the next wave.

Human Ability

Human ability is the capacity and capability of digital technologies to address individual, task, situational and human needs creates a new wave and a new direction for value creation potential — human ability.   It’s predecessor, process ability, created a value through streamlining, integrating company business processes to achieve greater efficiency, scale and effectiveness.  Human is consumer centric.  Process is business centric.

Human ability is more than hailing rides on Uber.  Human ability takes a different perspective on the the information intensity and connectedness created by an array of digital technologies. Analytics, AI and designed experiences present this information in ways that make people more capable professionally and personally.  Professionals operate closer to the ‘top of their practice’, people make more informed choices, their actions engage a network of actors to give them what they want.   This entails moving beyond the steps a company wants you to complete to the actions you need to take to achieve outcomes.

When you use technology to do more in ways that make sense to you, then you are experiencing an increase in your human ability.   The move to human ability fits well with the capacities of digital technologies.  Company predefined process steps require little insight and information when compared with the customers who are interacting through tasks to achieve their own outcomes.  The interfaces are different and more diverse, the touch-points and value moments occur throughout the interaction rather than being concentrated in a process complete payoff.

Human ability expands the range of value available to people and the companies they engage in.  Business process oriented solutions concentrate around solving problems or enabling opportunities — pretty straightforward stuff.  Technologies enabling human ability support those sources of value, providing innovative and disruptive ways to address problems and opportunities.  Human ability builds on these to encompass two additional value sources:  how the customer feels and how the customer looks.  Prior to human ability based solutions, look good and feel good value concentrated on consumer and physical related products.  Everything can create look good and feel good value with digital technologies.  If you feel smarter or want to let people know how you did something, then you are recognizing these sources of value.

If your thinking, wait a minute aren’t we already here?  After all I have a mobile phone loaded with apps and I use them all the time – that is human ability right?  Well not quite.  The majority of non-gaming based mobile apps remain process centric.  They are either the front end of a company process, capturing and authenticating information that historically was entered by company staff.  Apps that allow you to order things are an example.  The alternative is that they hire the user to perform tasks traditionally done by employees, things like purchasing an airline ticket, seat assignment etc.

The difference between the intermediate step where we are — friendlier business processes presented in a UX designed container to human ability outcomes involves adopting new ways of applying design techniques and making executive decisions.

Human Ability is more than design

The Human Ability wave touches multiple aspects of how we work — its about us, what we do, how we create value rather than executing processes.  We have seen the initial ripples of this wave in the form of digital transformation investments over the past few years.  The incorporation of design techniques and agile development are well suited for a world based on human ability.

Yet, it can be hard to to see through the wall of sticky notes, but in many situations, current design practices are little more than warmed over process engineering.  Look at people’s journey maps and you see customers moving through what are essentially company marketing and service processes.  Starting with consideration and ending with completion or restarting the process, these journey maps are akin to level 1 process models, covering the big blocks of what company’s want their customers to do.

Design is an improvement over prior techniques.  Design has certainly helped make things more intuitive, improved how tasks are rendered on a mobile phone and the like.  These are all necessary steps in the move to human ability, but there is more.

Tapping into the potential of human ability requires moving beyond how people engage companies to how they achieve their outcomes on their own.  In a human ability mindset, outcomes become broader than products or services, they embody all aspects of value from solving a problem to how the person looks and feels about themselves in achieving that outcome.   This view is critical to defining extensible value propositions, potential business partners and the ecosystem involved in creating value.  Without a human ability perspective companies grind these opportunities out one linear journey map at a time.

Consider the difference between current designed applications for booking a vacation that consists of a series of individual user journeys build around airfare, hotel, things to do etc.  Compare those tasks and the scrap paper notes you have to a human able travel process that starts with the experience you want to have and then provides choices based on those preferences at different price points.  The later does not really exist, although TripAdvisor and travel aggregator sites are trying, but it’s a different game.

Human Ability changes executive decisions, considerations and actions

Moving to the next wave involves adjusting to the different issues and choices facing executives.  Process oriented technologies placed a premium on low cost, high reliability and scale.  Human ability technologies place a premium on outcome, relevance and fulfillment.  These elements are essential in building the level of trust and repeat engagement necessary to be profitable in a digital world.  Without them, business models falter against the cost of customer acquisition, continuous innovation, etc.


Moving from a world based on process and price to one supporting outcomes and premiums involves evolving the way we create, operate and improve business.  It specifically touches on the data we have, the outcomes we create, the interactions we use and the way we organize ourselves internally.

Data is important in a world of human ability. But data in context of the desired outcome is critical.  Starting with what we know about someone too often leads us to ask — well what more could we know.

The resulting insatiable appetite for data leads firms to cross the cool vs creepy boundary destroying trust and brand.  Mainstream approaches to data monetization, based on selling information to others for their use is limiting.  We already know that data in context — data wrapped in contextualization services — is worth 10X data provided largely in the raw.  Data in support of outcomes can easily be seen as worth 10X on top of that — but only when it is part of an out rather than the product itself.

Instead of asking what can we know, start with what must we know in terms of the outcome we offer to customers, the actions we want our workforce to take or the services we want suppliers to provide.  Starting with the outcome helps to keep things simple, rather than gulping up data and creating complex or sub scale solutions.  Amazon is an overused but clear example of outcome based thinking — sure they know a lot about you, but they apply what they know to clear outcomes that you value – instant shipping, expanding the range of options, etc.


Outcome thinking is different from process thinking.  Processes tend to be close-ended, focusing on what needs to be done to achieve a finite result like completing the sale, shipping the product.  They are the goal at the end of the process or too often the end of the journey.  This type of process thinking re-enforces narrow-linear solutions.  A poor fit with he open ended ambition of people equipped with powerful digital tools.

The alternative is defining outcomes that consider a range of actions that could be involved in achieving that outcome.  In other words, where is the customer in your digital world?  What do they want to become?  Are they at the end of a process or at the start of their own outcome?   More on all of this in a later post.

Human Ability as the next wave

The evolution of value is foundational to the future of business, society and the environment.  A value context defines how we see and seek to address issues across these different levels.  Current process dominant views see business problems like growth, societal challenges like income distribution and environmental sustainability in a process lens. Process intensive recommendations in these areas add complexity, challenge power structures and take time to enact.   We can solve a lot of challenges by being better at processes, but even process has its limits.

Business process is not going away.  It will always be with us and an essential part of our lives. But its not the only part as technology evolution and innovation continues, I expect the next wave to be one oriented around human ability rather than process efficiency.  Interested in your thoughts

Category: design-thinking  digital-edge  human-ability  trends-and-predictions  

Mark McDonald, Ph.D., is a Vice President and Fellow Emeritus in Gartner for General Managers Program.

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