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Leading Technological Change: Anticipating the Human Response
By Diane Dixon, Managing Principal, D. Dixon & Associates, LLC
We readily acknowledge that we are living in ‘The Age of Technology’ but most would admit that the human response to it has been slower than the growth of technological innovation. For example, the healthcare sector must improve patient safety and reduce medical errors to enhance overall quality of care. However, both the electronic medical record and computerized provider order entry have met with some resistance and have not been implemented as quickly as needed. What keeps people from embracing technology that will help them to do their jobs more effectively and ultimately improve service and/or product delivery?
Ignoring or underestimating the human reaction to change is part of the problem. Understanding and anticipating the human response to technology is critical for successful implementation and advancement of innovation. Any technology intervention is not just technical and tactical but also about humans who will implement and use it. To lead technological change effectively, leaders must comprehend the dynamic interplay between technical systems and social systems. These systems are not separate but rather interrelated. So you cannot implement any form of technology and not address the human implications.
Human Impact of Change
The human impact of technological change can be positive. But in all too many cases it is negative because leaders do not adequately anticipate the human response. Stress and anxiety, anger, fear, and insecurity are normal emotions that occur in a change process. When leaders do not express empathy and attend to these emotions during change transitions, low morale, decreased trust, and reduced commitment can result which will erode the implementation of technology.
Dr. William Bridges in his work on ‘Managing Transitions’ indicates that change is situational and transition is psychological. Before people can accept a new software system, for example, they have to let go of the old one. And not only that, associated with that software system are processes and procedures that may be embedded in the culture and relationships with other people who are using the software that must change. This is not a simple destination with an endpoint but rather a journey to accepting the new system. It is the time between the old and the new that I call the ‘zone of ambiguity and unpredictability’, which is the hardest to manage. In this zone people are likely to feel anxious about their ability to learn new procedures and processes as well as the tension of developing new relationships. Also, there are questions about whether the new system will work and how internal and external customers will be affected. If leaders can anticipate these reactions and align the psychological transition process with the technical aspects of change, they will more likely achieve positive results.
Tips for Anticipating and Managing the Human Response
Here are seven tips that can help you to anticipate and manage the human response to technological change:
- Develop a Platform for Change
Provide information about the change as far ahead of implementation as possible. Put yourself in the shoes of the people who will be executing the technology. What do they need to know that will help them to embrace the change? Be sure to provide adequate information about the rationale for the new technology. Explain the purpose and benefits of the change. Describe how the change will help both people and the organization to perform more effectively. Include information about how the new technology will impact business operations and jobs specifically. One of the biggest fears about new technology is that people will be replaced. Be clear upfront about the human impact and do not make promises that you cannot keep. Let people know that assistance with job transitions will be provided during the change process. Make a commitment to keep people informed.
- Paint a Clear Picture of the Future
Communicating a picture of the change is important so that people can embrace it. Without an understanding of the future direction, people will not be willing to go on the change journey. Describe the intended outcomes of the technology implementation specifically. Re-emphasize why the change is necessary as well as the benefits achieved by the success of the new technology. In other words, when the new software and/or hardware is up and running, what will happen. The picture of the future may include:
- The new structure
- How the organization will ideally work
- Roles and responsibilities
- Changes in culture, leadership and management style, norms, and values
- New organizational goals
- New policies and procedures
- Decision-making processes
- Engage People Most Affected by the Change Early
The success of the change depends on the people who will implement it. It is critical that the people most affected by the change be engaged early in developing the implementation process. Transition teams are a mechanism for discussing critical ideas about what will help the new technology to work and what will impede progress. Leaders need to facilitate teamwork by making effective use of problem-solving and decision-making processes. Remember: teams do not happen on their own. Leaders at all levels have to become good team builders and facilitators. When people are involved in designing the change and implementation process, they are more likely to commit to the new way of working.
- Communicate Frequently
One of the key reasons people react negatively to change is because they do not have all of the information they need to support and implement it. In the absence of information, people make things up and misinformation can fuel a grapevine that frequently damages the best efforts. Here are some communication guidelines:
- Send consistent messages
- Be factual, clear, and honest
- Use multiple sources and media
- Open channels to get positive and negative feedback
- Make sure behavior and words match