Why the best digital strategies focus on humans Why the best digital strategies focus on humans

By Janet Balis

EY Americas Customer and Growth Market Leader and Marketing Practice Leader

Transformation leader in media and marketing. Innovator. Digital native. Change agent. Passionate advocate for women and gender parity. Influencer. Mother.

5 minute read 10 Oct 2017

To drive digital business strategies effectively, the primary focus must be on humans. 

It is human ingenuity that determines how technology is exploited to effect better human outcomes. Human judgement and creativity drive the innovation that frees us to focus on what really matters. And human insight is what’s required to navigate the limitless choices – the opportunities and threats – that a digital world presents.

This is why, while it is easy to internalize technology or data as being the core of digital transformation, it is far more valuable to look at humans as the key to success. The choice to use a word such as “human” is a conscious one. We must allow ourselves to focus on the individual and collective people that are part of our business journey. The sheer awkwardness of the word “human” gives us the pause required to have empathy and face the personal interaction head on, as opposed to words such as “audiences,” “people,” “consumers” or “users” which are often so abstract and impersonal as to lose the emotional connection. We must focus on humans to drive digital business strategies effectively.

The humans

As we transform industries to embrace digital at the core of business strategy, it is helpful to think of businesses delivering experiences to humans. Products, services and the way they interact with customers are re-contextualized when we move from the language of transactions to that of experiences. In a business context, there are three key species of humans for whom we power new experiences through digital.

  • Employees: First, businesses have employees inspired through a sense of purpose, motivated to create value in the companies where they work. And, increasingly those employees have new expectations about the role technology should play as part of their professional experience, largely shaped by the rapid pace of digital innovation in their personal lives. Digital has the power to surprise and delight employees by making tasks that should be easy actually be easy, enhanced by more intuitive interfaces, sheer speed and responsiveness, and deeper connections between things that should be connected.
  • Customers: Second, businesses engage with their customers – whether B2B or B2C – to connect supply with demand, selling products and services. This particular species of humans increasingly begs for the experience of discovery, delivery, and relationship to be enhanced by digital. Digital affords the promise of powerful new customer engagement: targeted marketing efforts that are more personally relevant, transactions without friction, and deeper relationships with companies that increasingly anticipate a customer’s needs.
  • Partners: Third, an ecosystem of partners – and the humans within those partner companies – surrounds a business and its digital endeavors. Businesses increasingly recognize that great value can be created by working more closely with a range of partners – from vendors to other industry participants, even those previously considered competition. As disruption transforms the shape of industries, digital enables better workflows across ecosystems, driven by stronger industry collaboration. Digital enables new value to be created with partners, from tightening a supply chain to transacting on industry-wide standards.

From employees, to customers, to partners, the common thread is that the digital experiences we create must put humans at the core to maximize engagement and value creation.

Business, not digital

As we start to recognize what digital brings to the human experience so, too, we must recognize what it brings to the organization. Digital is not some discrete function, rather it should be considered as part of the whole. We see business issues not digital ones. Likewise, we see business opportunities from the human experiences we transform through digital.

Digital is not a threat, but an opportunity to create new interfaces, enablers, connections and accountability to better serve humans across the business.

  • Interfaces: Digital innovation is rapidly creating new interfaces to a host of experiences. Typing text and clicking boxes as navigation are increasingly being replaced by new on-ramps, such as voice recognition and the power of natural language processing. Facial recognition now removes friction in personal devices as we are authenticated to a new generation of mobile technology. And, virtual reality and augmented reality are finding new use cases within digital experiences to allow a different, more engaging form of interaction.
  • Enablers: The human experience is increasingly being complemented by a host of technologies that allow a differentiated level of sheer process capability. Intelligent process automation is transforming how different workflows and processes get accomplished between people and technology – not to replace humans, but to enhance and elevate what they do. The spectrum of intelligent automation ranges from optimizing manual processes, to enabling self-service models, to automating decisions, to using artificial intelligence for true cognitive automation.
  • Connections: Digital, by definition, is about the connections it creates – across people, data, and experiences. Business have the opportunity to embrace the connections fostered through digital technology to create and capture more value. A new generation of enterprise platforms, data analytics, and cloud solutions allow us to draw connections – as humans – across things that could not be connected before like the physical-digital divide, to drive insights and ideally action in faster cycles than ever before. But again, the technology platforms are not the most profound challenge – the key is to navigate innovation around the humans and workflows in the organization so they can use those new connections to drive value creation.
  • Accountability: Innovation across the digital landscape also creates new obligations around accountability – to ensure that more quickly flowing data and technology respects security and does not breach trust – with consumers and businesses. Cybersecurity is no longer an esoteric luxury – it is a mandate to move faster, but safely. Blockchain is another fast emerging digital capability that speaks to the opportunity to secure transactions and exchanges of data. While technology enables new capabilities, the accountability is human.

Fundamental transformation

Transformation requires the right architecture of digital strategy – putting humans at the core – across five dimensions: strategy, innovation, experience, automation and trust. With these five elements in focus and with a consensus that digital strategy is fundamentally about business strategy, we can begin to transform the human experiences we create, the way we invest in differentiated assets, our ability to drive profitability, and ultimately our future business model. And, driving success demands us to keenly focus on the pace of change.

Given the totality of the mandate, we must battle the tension between incrementalism and wholesale change, honoring the duality of the businesses we are in and the ones we will be in as industries continue to evolve.


It is easy to think of technology as the core of digital transformation, but the real key to success is a focus on humans. 

About this article

By Janet Balis

EY Americas Customer and Growth Market Leader and Marketing Practice Leader

Transformation leader in media and marketing. Innovator. Digital native. Change agent. Passionate advocate for women and gender parity. Influencer. Mother.