clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

People First, Technology Second: It's Time for Businesses to Get Personal

User experiences have long been defined and controlled by IT based on technology, not the people who use it.

We live in a world of instant gratification. We can order a taxi that arrives at our doorstep within minutes, identify a song and the artist no matter where it’s playing, and deposit checks via mobile devices effortlessly. It’s also a world that increasingly caters to us based on an individual’s traits and preferences — home temperature, mood, entertainment choices or location. And while these “people-centric” experiences have consumed our personal lives (and companies that create them have grown massively — think Uber, Nest and Netflix), they’ve hardly penetrated the business world in a meaningful way.

In a business context, user experiences have long been defined and controlled by IT, and for many important reasons, decisions around what those experiences looked and felt like were based more on the underlying technology than on the people using the technology. As the line between technology companies and non-technology companies fades — not to mention that environments get more complex, security risks more abundant and user expectations more intense — the people involved become the focal point of any interaction.

In order to unlock the opportunity for “people-centric” experiences and to realize the new kinds of business value those experiences can generate, IT leaders need to re-prioritize, understanding their people — employees, customers and partners — and their needs first. The technology that should serve those needs comes second. The ease at which end users are able to interact with your business and get the information they need on their terms becomes the differentiator.

And I’m not just talking about white-collar office jobs. This “people-centric” focus is also central to how retailers better understand customers in a brick-and-mortar setting, how pharmacies allow consumers to refill prescriptions more quickly, or how franchises analyze sales totals across multiple locations. No matter what industry we’re talking, it’s time for companies to get more personal than ever before.

Following a new rule book

The focus on technology before the user made sense when boundaries were clearly defined — when everyone used one kind of device with one fixed screen size and one operating system — work applications were hosted within company walls and collaboration strategies were generally limited to one-on-one phone calls and lengthy emails.

But we’re not in Kansas anymore. Experiences can now be defined by an individual’s preferences, what information people have access to at various points of time, what devices they’re able to access that information from, and the extent to which they’re allowed to interact with that information. There are a lot more rules to follow — and businesses are under much more scrutiny by which rules are enforced. The only relics of the old world are the users involved in each instance, but even that variable has gotten more diverse and outspread.

As my friend, Box CEO Aaron Levie, recently told Fortune, we’re moving toward a world that is increasingly defined by a company’s ability to make better decisions with better information. That’s hardly limited to immediate headcount and company firewalls. In addition to the proliferation of devices and systems, businesses must also address the proliferation of end users with whom they work. Employees increasingly demand more flexible, intelligent experiences to get work done, but so do customers, partners and prospects of your organization. It’s no longer just about the experiences you’re creating for your internal employees, but also how you engage with external constituencies that has become of utmost important in this extended enterprise.

Knock, knock

Of course, companies must also be absolutely sure the people knocking on their doors are indeed who they say they are before they invite them in. Understanding who someone is — and being able to identify them beyond a shadow of a doubt — is the linchpin to not only enable those personalized experiences I discussed, but also remove barriers for people to get business done whenever and wherever they want.

Not surprisingly, this essential step is seeing similar evolution. The RSA hard token that enabled employees to use a VPN to access corporate networks is hardly the solution to address today’s myriad challenges. Between multifactor authentication — which requires two or more unique factors to verify legitimacy of the user — the regenerating soft token many cloud security companies offer customers today, and now, Apple’s TouchID fingerprint-scanning capabilities, authentication methodologies are becoming as personalized and specific to the individual as the experiences they’re trying to access.

Only once you know a user’s identity (and have confirmed it in multiple ways) can you easily determine what kind of information that user is allowed to access, what devices he uses, what role he has, what groups he belongs to, what permissions he has, his location, preferences, etc. That’s where the fun begins.

Identity is the constant

To mirror the consumer world full of personalization and instant gratification, it’s not enough to just pour money into the latest and greatest and expect success to follow. Unlike the old mantra, businesses must pivot from business processes and data flows to first focus on helping the user do what they want to do — and then on implementing the technologies required. This shift involves an entirely new way of thinking about IT, with no shortage of implications for how companies manage and secure the users, mobile devices and systems they invite into their environments.

IT is no longer in the business of managing systems or resetting passwords, but instead, it’s putting the power of information back into the hands of users and delivering experiences that enable that information to be instantly accessed, analyzed and acted upon. Whether we’re talking retail, manufacturing, software or real estate, IT must focus on giving users what they need, where they need it, and getting out of the way.

Enterprises today are more complex and interconnected than ever before, and with the new challenges associated with these changes come massive opportunity for those companies eager enough to make the leap. The benefits in terms of productivity, collaboration, speed and convenience in today’s world are unprecedented and simply too great to just use tools that “work” and keep things moving.

(Image courtesy of

Todd McKinnon is CEO of Okta, an enterprise-grade identity-management service that addresses the challenges of a cloud, mobile and interconnected business world. Reach him @ToddMcKinnon.

This article originally appeared on

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.