Being a Digital Renaissance Man demands that you see technology as a tool than can truly transform the world, for the good of humanity.
By Charles Araujo
In 1989, Jim Fruchterman founded a unique organization that may provide some clues of how the IT organization of the future will operate.
Fruchterman, a cofounder of optical character recognition pioneer Calera Recognition Systems, had developed a novel machine that would allow the blind to read. However, he quickly learned that products that did not generate a significant financial return for investors would never be accepted in a traditional business. In turn, he realized the need for a nonprofit technology company that measured its ROI not in financial terms, but in terms of the number of human lives improved. With that mission in mind, Fruchterman founded Benetech—an organization that "develops technology to create positive social change."
Benetech specifically seeks out underserved markets and constituencies that others are not developing technology for because they cannot earn enough profit from them. Whether it is creating products for the visually impaired or software to help human rights activists or environmentalists manage their projects, Benetech seeks to produce technology that serves more than just a profit motive. It has had a dramatic impact since its founding, changing millions of lives for the better, all because one man dared to look at things differently.
Jim Fruchterman is a Digital Renaissance Man.
And as counterintuitive as it may seem, I believe that Benetech, the nonprofit technology firm, can teach us how we must redefine the idea of service for our digital age.
Reimaging the Idea of Service
I’m not sure exactly when it happened, but at some point in our recent past, it became cool in the IT world to talk about "services." Today, it seems that every IT organization is in a rush to develop and present its "service catalog" and to talk about the service supply chain. Overall, I think this is good, but it also reduces the big idea of service to a mere business transaction.
In the first article of this six-part series titled "What It Means to be a Digital Renaissance Man," I wrote about Roy Atkinson and how across a wildly diverse set of jobs and careers, the one constant was his desire to serve others. Whether it was an IT customer or concert audience, Atkinson saw it as his job to serve them and to provide value. This is very much in line with the spirit of servant leadership that I write about often (like here). This view of service is powerful on an individual level, but I believe that as we enter the digital age, the idea of service must be seen in an even larger light.
Being of Service to Humanity
One of the defining characteristics of the Renaissance period was the idea of "humanism." The Renaissance was a period of rebirth and transformation as the world moved away from medieval philosophies and toward our modern scientific worldview. A key part of this transition was a belief in the power and value of humanity. This belief was manifested in a variety of forms—such as individual expression, art centered on the beauty of the human body, and scientific exploration—but its central idea was that we should celebrate the beauty of humanity and strive to serve it.
I believe that it is this larger idea of service—that we should be of service to humanity—will define, in part, what I am calling the "Digital Renaissance Man" (which, of course, includes men and women). And this idea of service is why Benetech may be a model for IT organizations and leaders as we transition into the digital age.
Developing Transformational Technology
If I have one major complaint about how IT executives have seen their role, it is that, generally speaking, they think too small. For many IT executives, IT has been solely operational and financial. It has been merely a means to reduce costs and improve organizational efficiencies. IT executives have rarely sought to develop technologies that had the power to transform—whether that was to transform their business or human lives. Yet, Benetech shows us that technology can play a vital role in just this kind of transformation. And I believe that as we look to the future, it is the companies that use technology as a transformative engine that will be rewarded.
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