Reader Question: Pushing Coworkers to Adopt New Technology

A reader asks: My director (my boss’s boss) has tasked me with researching new software (project/resource management) for my team to use. She asked me specifically because I’m good with technology/systems/organization. I’ve found a few good options that seem to fall into the categories of (1) offering more features that we want but are more complicated, or (2) offering fewer features but are simpler/easier to use. In an ideal world, I would prefer option 1 because I know that the obstacles can be overcome with training, and then we have more features to use. But many people on my team are (a) not tech savvy, and (b) averse to any change at all. One of these people is my direct manager.  Part of me wants to say that I shouldn’t care how much people *want* to do new things; if they want to work in the 21st century, they should accept that you need to have a basic level of understanding of how computer systems work and be willing to learn new things as technologies change. But I know I don’t have the authority to push that on people, and I know that my manager won’t hold people to that standard because he’ll be one of those balking at having to learn a new program. I know that my director should then be the one to push this, then, but I’m not sure how much she is going to do that. So I guess my question is: when you know that people are going to balk at a new process/program, do you take that into account when setting up the process, even if it means not getting the ideal? Or do you just go with what you think is the best solution, and push it through? 

It depends on a range of factors:

  • What your role is and how much authority you have compared to the people who will be balking. If you have authority over them, it’s much easier to say, “This is the system, and you’re expected to learn and use it.” If you don’t, those efforts are generally doomed, at least without someone who does have authority backing you up.  What’s more, not only is it hard/impossible to insist people learn new systems when you don’t have authority over them, it’s generally not appropriate either. In that context, you should lay out the case for the system you think will best serve your team, and be clear about pros and cons, but then it’s up to someone else to decide if they want to prioritize making everyone learn it.
  • How essential the technology is to the goals it needs to achieve. If the technology is the only way of achieving what you need to achieve, then it’s pretty clear cut. But sometimes there are other ways of doing the same thing. They might be slightly more expensive, or less efficient, or more unwieldy. But sometimes people are willing to tolerate a little unwieldiness in exchange for not having to teach 15 people a complicated new system when the old one does get the job done, just less elegantly.
  • How essential those goals themselves are to your team and company. If your team absolutely must achieve X, and that requires learning a new software, then it’s essential and that’s that. People might not like it, but if X has to happen, there’s not much room for argument. But on the other hand, if X is a nice-to-have rather than a must-have, your team (or its decision makers) might end up deciding that as nice as X would be, it’s not worth forcing people to learn a new and complicated system that seems likely to cause angst. So you have to balance the importance of what you’ll achieve over the price that will be paid for achieving it. And while you might think that people’s complaints about having to learn something new should never trump what a new system could achieve, there are times when it does – for instance, when their time is incredibly valuable and better spent on something other than a tedious learning process.

In your case, I’d go back to the director, tell her what the trade-offs are between the two types of systems, and ask her for guidance. You could even prepare a recommendation that offers two different systems – laying out the advantages and disadvantages of each. When you do this, you want to be very upfront about your concerns that some people on staff will balk at learning the new technology of the more sophisticated system. Don’t downplay those concerns because you think those people are in the wrong; if you do, and then the new system never takes off because people resist it, its failure might potentially reflect on you. You’ll boost your own credibility by being honest about the likely reception on your team.

Alison Green

Alison Green writes the popular Ask a Manager blog where she dispenses advice on career, job search, and management issues. She's also the co-author of Managing to Change the World: The Nonprofit Manager's Guide to Getting Results and former chief of staff of a successful nonprofit organization, where she oversaw day-to-day staff management, hiring, firing, and employee development.

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  • Lee Atherton

    Great question and great answer. I was recently part of a very involved tech change in my hospice agency where we went from doing medical documentation the VERY old fashioned way – pen and paper! – to documentation on site, on a tablet. Of the 15 people in the company, there were three who didn’t even use computers, 5 others who were mildly tech savvy, and two who were exceptional and would learn the new program easily and quickly. There were also a handful of people who did not like change in the least! We knew this was going to be a difficult transition.

    Having said that, I absolutely agree with Alison that you need the backing of someone above you. Our directive came down from corporate executives with no chance to “opt out”. You either learned the system or started looking for another job.

    Find software that will make a difference in their actual work. One of the reasons we were successful is that I had come from another agency that was already tablet based and I was able to tell folks how much time it saved – pen and paper took on average three times longer, and records weren’t at all available to clinicians in the field. With the tablet, all patient records would be at their finger tips.

    These two factors were HUGE for them – so there was big incentive to learn the new way.

    The last tip that was crucial to the success of our change was the encouragement and support along the way. It took about 6 months for the change to be implemented and folks feel comfortable.

    Wishing you well!

    Lee

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