Making Knowledge Work

May 15, 2018

People and Tools: Encouraging Rewarding Interaction in the Workplace

Filed under: Change Management, Collaboration, Communication, Knowledge Management — virginiahenry @ 8:07 pm

 

An article I wrote for Business Information Review:

The Humane Factor

As a knowledge manager, responsible for supporting others to use technology to ‘work smarter’ by sharing information and knowledge, and collaborating effectively, I have a lot of helpful advice and models to draw on.

From Harold Leavitt’s 1960s Diamond Model featuring People, Task, Structure and Technology through to the 21st century specialised knowledge management assessment tools, maturity models, frameworks and implementation processes – there is a wealth of knowledgeable reference resource.

Most of these incredibly helpful tools, models, guides and studies will, in one way or another, emphasise the importance of three factors: people, process and technology.
In many cases, these three “ingredients for success” are awarded equal emphasis.  I don’t disagree with the analysis – successful organisations obviously must take their people, their processes and their technology into account.  But I believe greater focus should be placed on the people than on the processes and technologies they use, and I’m convinced that investing care, thought and effort in them as the primary “ingredients for success” is a more reliable way to achieve genuine success.  Over the years, I’ve come to regard this as paying attention not so much the human factor, but the humane factor.

In this article, I want to explore the powerful effect of the humane factor.  I’ll explain why I think it is sometimes overlooked and often underrated, and examine the subtle, but important, contrast between theories and the realities of working life.   And I’d like to begin with the most difficult aspect of adopting the humane factor – being honest with yourself.  Time for some introspection……

Not them, but we

If I’m claiming this: That in order to encourage rewarding interaction between people and their workplace technology, it is vital to invest care, thought and effort in working with people. Then there is an obvious admission I have to make:  that I am one of them.
Laughably obvious, you might think.  So apparent that it goes without saying?  On the contrary, I think it is worth examining the implications of acknowledging that I am one of them.
Most profoundly, there is no longer a them, only we.

How many workplace conversations have you been party to, or overheard, in which “I’ve given them the tool/software/application, but they won’t use it”?  I’ve heard it many times: when an IT manager has iintroduced SharePoint in an organisation, but staff insist on ignoring it in favour of their shared drive folders; when a director has “told them” they must use the new CRM system, but rebellious teams are using spreadsheets instead and claiming the CRM is “not fit for purpose”; when a communications team or knowledge manager has launched an intranet only to find their colleagues determinedly stick to sharing updates on email.
Perhaps you have also worked in organisations where there are multiple (usually incompatible) solutions, fulfilling the same business purpose, being used by different teams or departments?  Invariably, there are as many reasons for this as there are software solutions, but I’ve found a recurring theme is the persistence of “them” (“we are different to them, so a different system suits us better”).

Another implication of liberating oneself from the notion of them, is the need to accept (however reluctantly) that we all, in one way or another, have trouble with tools.  Sometimes it’s because we lack personal discipline: as a knowledge manager, managing my electronic documents and files should be second nature – but I tell myself I’m too busy to be rigorous in sorting them sensibly.  Sometimes it is caused by reluctance to let go of the familiar: I’ve encountered numerous instances in which teams are using software that is several releases out of date.

With estimates varying from fifty to seventy percent of business IT projects failing, there is strong motivation for understanding how to succeed with technology adoption in the workplace.  Much business consulting and academic thought had been devoted to investigating our behaviour in relation to technology.

Some interesting work was published in the Journal of European Psychology Students.  Called “Understanding adoption of new technologies: Technology readiness and technology acceptance as an integrated concept”, the research paper analysed data employing two paradigms.

The Technology Acceptance Model – which is used to determine:

  • perceived usefulness (how much someone believes using a particular system would enhance their job performance)
    and
  • perceived ease of use (to what extent a person believes using a particular system would be free of effort)

and the Technology Readiness Index – which looks at people’s inclination to embrace and use new technologies using the categories:

  • Optimism “a positive view of technology and a belief that it offers people increased control, flexibility and efficiency in their lives”
  • Innovativeness “a tendency to be a technology pioneer and thought leader”
  • Discomfort “a perceived lack of control over technology and a feeling of being overwhelmed by it”
  • Insecurity “a distrust of technology and scepticism about its ability to work properly”

The researchers concluded that it was important to take into account users’ general attitudes toward technology when introducing new systems. But that even in organisations where people are generally optimistic towards technology some systems are rejected because perceived usefulness and ease of use may be low.

Interesting, and certainly worth bearing in mind.  On the other hand, I think it’s equally helpful to refer to practical experience: perceptions of usefulness can change with use (we might all know somebody who couldn’t see the point of smart phones, but will not be parted from the one they now own), and our “technology readiness” can shift markedly over time.  Where we once felt discomfort, we may now feel optimistic about certain technologies.
Knowing about the factors that feed failure is useful, but it’s up to us to figure out how to even up the odds.

Where’s Your Conviction?

Again, a good starting point is with oneself.  Before implementing a new system in an organisation, you and/or your team will have done the groundwork.  For example, you will have:

  • a clear understanding of the strategic business case
  • analysed users’ needs
  • identified all the stakeholders
  • carefully chosen the appropriate software
  • classified the risks and benefits
  • have a dazzlingly thorough implementation strategy!

Your knowledge of the new software and its capabilities, your trust in the implementation plan and your understanding of the ways in which adoption will be of benefit to people, are crucial components of the Humane Factor.  It is from these practical understandings that you draw your conviction that the technology is right for the organisation.  It is important not to underestimate the confidence you feel, because it can be genuinely influential.  This isn’t simply a ‘rose-tinted spectacle’ belief of my own, there has been a lot of research into the influence of confidence.

A detailed study published in the Journal of Neuroscience entitled “Independent neural computation of value from other people’s confidence” looked at the ways in which another person’s confidence can influence our own.  In the authors’ own words:

“This study finds that using cues of the reliability of other peoples’ knowledge to enhance expectation of personal success generates value correlates that are anatomically distinct from those concurrently computed from direct, personal experience”.

The team used Neuroimaging to track effects in the brain during experiments such as the way participants predicted the colour of marbles being randomly drawn from an urn, based on their observations of the apparent confidence of other observers.  The study is illustrated with colourful fMRI images and the team concluded: “our findings provide new neurobiological insight into the transmission of value information between individuals and the mechanism by which confidence expressed by others assures or discourages us in our decisions.”

So, there are very good reasons to show how confident you are in the benefits of the new software you are implementing.

Do as I Do

Frankly, the best way to demonstrate your confidence in the value of a software application is to use it yourself.

Remember my example of the director who told staff that they must use the CRM?  The demand had most likely been accompanied by missives or PowerPoint illustrations of the business value, the benefits to be gained in customer or relationship management, even screenshots of the impressive reports that could be run from the new system.   The advocacy might not have included an admission that the system was somewhat unwieldly and would demand dedicated commitment of time and effort to use.  There almost certainly wouldn’t have been a confession that the director disliked using the interface just as much as the staff, and had rarely accessed it since having an initial training session!

Perhaps the director has mitigating reasons for asking staff to do as they say, rather than as they do.  After all, they are very busy and might see it as less crucial that they adopt the new technology, but vital that the staff do.  Those of us whose job descriptions include responsibility for supporting others to use our workplace technology don’t have any excuse.  We must master the technology if we are to have a hope of inspiring others to do the same.

In order to become confident in using the technology, it’s important to set aside sufficient time to learn how to use it.  I don’t mean that you should spend some time becoming familiar with the system’s main features and functions.  I mean you need to really learn how to use it: explore it, find out what it does and what it can do for you.  If your experience of vendor or supplier manuals is like mine, you will already know that in many cases these documents offer scant assistance.  I’ve often wondered who writes these things, and what kind of audience they think they are speaking to……
Even in those cases that the out-of-the-box documentation is compiled to be helpful, your organisation’s customisations might make large parts of the manual redundant, and the rest of it is unlikely to align well with your organisation’s priorities or culture.

The humane factor takes careful account of the need to inspire confidence in others by preparing well yourself.  The time you invest in getting to know as much as you can about the technology you are implementing will pay dividends for everyone.

Means of Support

By becoming a confident user of the new technology, you will have equipped yourself well to support your colleagues through the critical stages of launch, adoption and embedding into business as usual.

Launch

There are a number of dos and don’ts to bear in mind when launching a new software application in an organisation:

Do Not

Do

  •   Make your colleagues’ first experience of the new system a “big bang” launch day of banners, presentations, demonstrations from vendors and general disruption orchestrated by the internal communications team or the marketing department.

Enthusiasm is likely to fizzle out long before your branded launch balloons become deflated.

  • Lead up to launch with regular short and informative briefings, and bite-sized familiarisation sessions delivered by early adopters across the organisation.

    This should help set realistic expectations, and show that real users are confident that the system works for them.

  • Launch the system by ensuring it suddenly appears on everyone’s desktop or laptop without explanation.

How would you feel if that happened to you? 

The software could become the totem focus for a range of negative emotions – about the organisation’s attitude to its employees, the cold indifference of management, the unreasonable demands made on overworked staff…..  You really don’t want to engender “hate at first sight”.

  •  Consult with staff, well in advance, about the options available for accessing the new system.
  •   Listen carefully to their responses, you will learn from those who have reservations and misgivings as well as from the enthusiasts.

 Even if, for sound business reasons, you decide to deliver access in a way a number of people do not desire – explain the reasoning and reassure colleagues that you have not ignored their concerns.

  •  Launch with a “show and tell” demonstration for users, then reassure them that there is a video on YouTube if they want to learn more.

 

It is unreasonable to expect everyone to dash back to their desks and immediately start using the system with the knowledge they’ve gleaned from your overview session.
Sure, some people will pick it up with ease – but they would be just as likely to figure out how to use the software without sitting through your demo.
Also, the usefulness of videos, unless they are produced in thirty-second segments showing specific interactions, is much over-rated.

  •  Make sure you have organised training sessions tailored to users’ needs, and their capacity to absorb the new information.
  •   Use your knowledge and experience of the system to create a set of user guides – with screenshots and step-by-step instructions – so that colleagues can refer to them as they need them.

 

Just-in-time learning is often more useful to people than intense training room sessions.

  •  Make the mistake of believing that launch day signals the end of your project or your responsibilities.
  •  Remember that although you have been living with this system for long enough for its features and functions to be very familiar to you, that is not the case for your colleagues.

Adoption

When the implementation of new technology is a case of replacing an existing resource, such as introducing higher-spec multi-function copiers, launch and adoption may run relatively smoothly.  Although it can take time for users to become familiar with the new features, and they are likely to need those user guides you prepared for a while.

However, in most instances people will not only be adopting a new technology but new processes, and new ways of working and collaborating.  The change brought about by new software systems is cultural as well as functional.  The humane factor is a powerful resource at such a time.

The humane factor will ensure that the cultural impact of implementing the new technology was recognised in your business case, identified during risk/benefit analysis and carefully planned for in the implementation strategy.  It is during the adoption period that the full implications of that cultural change will become apparent.

If you have prepared well, you will have:

  • created training materials that incorporate strategic aims and behavioural change with the “how to” learning
  • made sure there are enough early adopters and “local experts” for team members across the organisation to turn to when they need guidance and support
  • planned for the regular communication of success stories

What may have been overlooked (and it’s easy to do so) is preparation for the unexpected.  But when people come together with new processes and technology, the unexpected is likely to occur.
When you think about it, this is inevitable:  People are curious and inventive, so if we are given a tool we are likely to experiment with it and explore what it can do.

Your organisation may have a post room, where incoming mail is sorted and distributed by hand.  Before email, that was also the method by which internal mail – memos, agendas, minutes, reports etc – was transferred person-to-person.  I doubt that anyone foresaw the profound reality-shift that would occur once internal mail had been replaced by corporate email.  People found ways of employing email that could never have been envisaged, and the dominant role it now plays in our working lives is far more intrusive and demanding than internal mail ever was.

Perhaps you remember a time you discovered a function in Excel and realised that a world of possibility had opened up at the click of a mouse?  You might now work in a very different way than you did before you got to grips with such a formidable software application.

What I’m saying is that for each individual in an organisation, adoption of a new system will be an individual experience, and it is important that you support, and learn from, all of them.
If we go back to the perceptions described by the Technology Acceptance Model – there will be people who see the system as useful to them and easy to use, and others who don’t feel that the rewards for them and their work are worth the effort of mastering the system.  Where one individual will need greater support, and help to realise the benefits of adoption, another will embrace it and look for additional benefits to those you initially envisaged.
There will also be individuals who share characteristics with the types described in the Technology Readiness Index:

  • The Optimist might be included in your group of early adopters. They can help overcome glitches with the system, as well as demonstrating the benefits they experience from using it.
  • The Innovator will also be on the scene early. They might discover unforeseen advantages of the system and, as a consequence, its impact on the way the organisation works.
  • The person who feels Discomfort is not likely to be an early adopter. They can, however, help you to develop robust training and support resources.  If the materials enable them to feel in control of the technology and more confident about using it, you can be assured of their quality.
  • The individual whose Insecurity is demonstrated by scepticism and distrust of the technology might also be the person who asks the most challenging questions. Your confidence (and, sometimes, your patience) may be tested, but providing clear and reasoned answered to the difficult questions will help you strengthen your business case, and sharpen your communication skills.

All of these features of the humane factor mean that the adoption process across the organisation can be a lengthy process.  It is iterative, rather than linear and finite.  It may continue at the same time as you move to the phase of absorption into business as usual.

Business as Usual – the way we work here

Encouraging rewarding interactions with technology in the workplace is not the role of a single individual or discipline.  It may, though, be your responsibility to help everybody – from the Board and the CEO to the newest intern – to understand that it is the organisation’s culture and values that set the expectation of interaction.

This might sound like a tall order.  However, because the humane factor doesn’t recognise them and us, but only we, it is very helpful in dealing with this issue of the way we work.   It is the people that express an organisation’s values and bring its culture to life.  The use of adopted technology is an integral part of the life of the organisation (business as usual), therefore it should be reflected in how the organisation talks about itself and how it behaves.  This means that the expectation of interaction with the organisation’s essential tools and technology needs to have a presence in:

  • Recruitment advertisements
  • Job specifications
  • Induction and onboarding processes
  • Appraisals and objectives
  • Corporate websites
  • Annual reports

By acknowledging that the way we work, and the technology we rely on, sits at the heart of our organisation’s life and culture we weave it into our organisational narrative and make a collective commitment.  The latest “IT project” is no longer an irritating disruption or an irrelevant distraction.  Getting the best from the software we have is not simply the domain of the geeky optimists and innovators.  We are all invested in using technology successfully, and our expectations of ourselves and our colleagues are that we will collaborate and support one another in the way we work here.

 

References:
Godoe, P. & Johansen, T.S., (2012). Understanding adoption of new technologies: Technology readiness and technology acceptance as an integrated concept. Journal of European Psychology Students. 3(1), pp.38–52. DOI: http://doi.org/10.5334/jeps.aq

Independent Neural Computation of Value from Other People’s Confidence
Daniel Campbell-Meiklejohn, Arndis Simonsen, Chris D. Frith and Nathaniel D. Daw
Journal of Neuroscience 9 December 2016, 37 (3) 673-684;
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1523/JNEUROSCI.4490-15.2016

 

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