Updated: Oct 21, 2020
When implementing new technologies or corporate system, many companies believe that “if we build it, they will come.” And while this may work with customers, it doesn’t always work so well with a company’s own employees. There is widespread belief that the root of many problems lies mostly in the technology and/or the business process. As a practical matter, it is not possible to overhaul business processes without a parallel technology effort (often a business unit just want new technology while keeping antiquated business processes in place, but that is another article). When embarking on a major technology upgrade, few companies spend a lot of time asking their employees for their opinions or thoughts. There may be lots of discussion at the top and among key company leaders, perhaps a bit more throughout IT, but the rank and file and mid-level managers are typically not consulted yet are expected to fall in line with whatever the company chooses to do. That’s not to say there may not be a pressing need for new technology that is acknowledged by most employees – it is to say that the impact of the solution on the people who will ultimately use it and be the barometers for its success are often left out of the loop. When the day comes when the employees start using the new system, many factors having nothing to do with technology determine whether the initiative was a success or not. The most basic question has to have been addressed: “What’s in it for me?” Most senior leaders often fail to recognize the power of this question. Left inadequately answered, employees will often circumvent a new system, sometimes intentionally, sometimes not. This is often called ”change management” and many consulting companies specialize in this area. The problem is that if a company announces a “change management” effort the employees will likely be very wary, if not
outright hostile and resistant.
Most new systems initiatives start with a “push” from leadership who see a need for improvement. This is all well and good and pretty normal, but, if during the journey from concept to go-live, the push from management does not turn into a “pull” from employees, then the system is in for an unpleasant reception.
Here is a simple example: my family was complaining about not having a calendar to keep track of all their activities (we have two young teenagers, so the list of activities was long, with lots of overlap). The paper calendar shown here wasn’t cutting it anymore. No one really updated it, and no one really read it. I suggested the kids use their iPhones, and I could send invitations with activities. However, the kids don’t like using their iPhone calendars. I’m not sure why. Probably because iCalendar isn’t as cool as SnapChat or TikTok. Since we already had an Amazon Echo in the kitchen, I bought an Echo Show, connected it to my Google Calendar, color-coded each family member’s activities so only family activities would show up (no corporate meetings from me or my wife), and then put it in the kitchen, right next to the old paper calendar. I encouraged everyone to keep it updated, after all, all they had to do was say, “Alexa, add a calendar appointment for skating for Julia on Tuesday at 5 pm.” Pretty simple. This was the result:
So, clearly, I had failed to create a “pull” from the family to want this fancy new technology. Although, as a consolation, when one of the kids says, “Why didn’t you tell me about so and so activity?” I can point to Alexa and say, “Alexa, show me the calendar.” But it doesn’t solve the real problem of getting them to WANT to use it effectively.
Now, imagine this problem at a company-wide scale. Instead of using Outlook or Google Calendar, people put Post-It Notes on their computer screens. What’s that you say? You know people who do that?! A more serious example is the classic CRM problem. In a sales-driven culture (of which many companies are) movement from a traditional individual-driven system like
ACT or even a (gasp) Rolodex to a cloud-based CRM like Salesforce can encounter much resistance. I was a witness to this at a prior company. Even though the entire company and all its processes were rapidly moving to Salesforce, the salespeople simply refused to use it. Only after the private equity owners stepped in and made threats did adoption increase. Rather than a traditional carrot-and-stick approach, they used a stick-and-club approach. Meanwhile, the rest of the company was eagerly moving over to Salesforce. I don’t recommend the sick-and-club approach for most companies, but it seems to work with salespeople.
Back to the big question: “What’s in it for me?” Answer this question! If you can’t, your system upgrade is destined, at best to a rocky start; at worst, doomed to failure. Get buy-in at the grass-roots level. The obvious answers to the question are: “You will learn the latest new technology, making you more marketable in the future.” “Your job will become easier or less stressful.” There has to be something in it for the average person, something at a personal level. Proclamations like, “You will help the company grow!, “We will increase revenue and profits!” Or “This will help us achieve our mission of being the best global manufacturer of widgets!” do not inspire people. They reinforce the perception that the company is about to make their life harder, and maybe increase productivity (i.e. make them work harder), and any increase in profits will go to the executives. Major system overhauls (some like to call them “Digital Transformations”) are an inflection point in a company’s lifespan. There is also the school of thought that, “They’re paid to do it and that’s their job.” If you believe this is an effective management technique, see my article on Newton’s 3rd Law of Motion. If you make it about the shareholders and executives - or even the customers (and, yes, I know this sounds heretical) – you are doomed to failure. Systems changes will always force skill set changes to people both in business and IT. Those who adapt to the change and embrace it can see their careers traject upwards. Other who resist or fail to adapt can be relegated to less impactful roles or be pushed out of the company. Aside from the regular turnover, it behooves companies to keep as many employees as possible and re-skill them, rather than face a mass exodus which can drain the company of smart employees, intellectual capital and decades of historical knowledge. There is a real and severe cost to this kind of loss. So, the moral of the story is this: Make it about THEM. Spin it from the employees’ point of view. Develop programs that will educate them on the new platform. Create opportunities that will allow them to use their new skills. Craft job titles and roles that empower and excite people. Create enthusiasm among the grass roots. The rest – customer success, increased revenue, reduced expenses – will follow. Many companies say that people are their greatest and most important resource – so now is the time to PROVE IT!