I learned many valuable skills as a computer science and business management student, from creating complex systems to mastering financial accounting (which was not my strength). But it is only after years of work experience that I understood this one principle: there is no business without people – both as operators and as customers. While (or maybe because) this sounds trivial it is often forgotten, especially when it comes to how to best create and use technology innovations.

“If you leave us our money, our buildings, and our brands, but take away our people, the Company will fail. But if you take away our money, our buildings, and our brands, but leave us our people, we can rebuild the whole thing in a decade.” This quote from P&G CEO Richard Dupree in 1947 recognizes that it is people who bring the skills, knowledge, and experience to make a business succeed. 

Company culture is an intangible but essential ingredient for a successful business. Shared principles, values and behaviors foster better collaboration, creativity, innovation, decision making, and ultimately business results. The necessity of remote work in the last few years left many leaders concerned company culture has been eroded. Those who joined a company in the last few years, for example, never experienced ‘the smell of the place.’ Yet Sheela Subramanian, Vice President & co-founder of Future Forum, argues that virtual and hybrid work arrangements can actually strengthen company culture, depending on how people use digital technology to work together. It is all about building trust between people.

Digital technology can also encourage more inclusive opportunities for employees and customers. This includes those who have challenges processing information. Approximately 15% of people are considered ‘neurodiverse,’ diagnosed with ADHD, autism, dyslexia or other learning differences. Many companies are now designing more inclusive products like special browser functions or applications that make information processing easier. Empowered employees and a growing customer base are powerful incentives for business adoption. 

With the recent wave of remarkable developments in AI, illustrated by ChatGPT, it is easy to forget that technology inherits the potential flaws of its human creators. Joy Buolamwini, an MIT researcher, poet, and emphatic social activist, studies how artificial intelligence can insert bias into its results. In her Signal 2021 interview she explains that we need to be alert to the origins of algorithms and data sources to avoid amplification of bias. With increased use of AI in business this is an important reminder that technology comes with risk.

Sometimes the complex technology we create gets in the way of simple, people-centric solutions. With increasing amounts of data, technology is capable of predicting what people want. Much of the advertising we see and hear is controlled by advanced programmatic algorithms, for example. What if, instead, ad targeting was driven by people’s direct answers to questions? John Dick, CEO and founder of Civic Science, explains how he is planning to expand his consumer insight focused polling platform into a privacy friendly advertising platform ready for a cookie-less world.

Innovation often focuses first on what’s possible. We should never forget that technology is created by people for use by other people. 

Until next month.

Stan Joosten & John Battelle,
Editors-In-Chief, Signal360 / Co-founders, Signal P&G