Fighting the people problem: When employees resist change

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Consumerization is often driven by users, but there are forward-thinking CIOs who are leading the move -- and many are finding surprisingly strong resistance to change on the ground.

As companies seek ways to transform themselves and take advantage of digital tools, one huge challenge is is getting people to go along with the shift. People truly feel threatened when you change the way they work. They may see their information or their job as their power base, and they are reluctant to change how they do things, lest they lose some of that power.

Kevin Jones, who is a consulting and organizational strategist, works with companies to help them implement enterprise social systems like Jive and Yammer. At the CITE One Day Forum this week, Jones told the story of being in a meeting with a group of employees to discuss a new enterprise social system they were implementing at their organization. One woman was so adamant about not changing the way she worked, she literally took her chair turned it around and turned her back to the meeting. This is often the level of resistance you could face when you try to implement change.

Jones sees this type of transformation primarily as a people problem, rather than a technology one. He says a product like enterprise social that changes the way people work, encourages transparency, breaks down hierarchies is going to threaten some people, no matter how well you explain the advantages. That's why he sees project implementation as 90 percent people and just 10 percent technology.

That equation could apply to any major change in an organization.

The people problem is a hard nut to crack, and that's why Avanade's Chief Technology Innovation Officer Florin Rotar suggests starting with the people who are hungry for change and who understand the power of digital and its impact on the organization from a competitive perspective.

"I think it's a question of people who inherently get technology and people and people who require training and support. I'm not able to say it's generational or demographic. Some people are digital natives and I don't think it's related to age. It's something else. It seems to be some type of personalities which mesh naturally with technology and a new way of thinking," Rotar explained.

He uses social tools an example. It's hard to explain, but some people clearly get how to behave online socially and are very natural at it, and no amount of training or explanation is going to change that.

He says the other part is just the notion of change --the impact that wholesale change has on individuals, departments and entire organizations. "Topics like change management have had bad rap in some organizations, but this is something we have focused heavily on and we have built a change management practice," Rotar explained

But he said, the goal is not changing people. It's building systems that are human centric and that's whether the systems are internal or customer centric. He says the goal should be to make the tool "usable and useful and beautiful and capture human spirit and the way people think and work." Come at this from human angle rather than technology angle.

Dow Jones CIO Stephen Orban, who was also a speaker at the CITE Forum, is in the middle of a transformation at his company where he is changing the way IT works, moving to agile methodology and transferring a lot of processes to the cloud where they can scale to whatever needs the organization has. He is trying to get the team to think about how they can improve the experience of their internal customers and the external ones too.

He said a big part of his job is evangelizing, but he said he could talk until he's blue in the face and people just have to come to grips with the change. 

For the most part, Orban uses a carrot rather than a stick approach. He said he works hard to identify people at the business level who can act as his evangelists -- if the call for change comes from a peer who has seen the light and the advantages of the new approach, it has more power than an order from the boss.

Rotar said that Avanade projects are often tech heavy, but like Orban, his team looks for people from different backgrounds who aren't necessarily technologists, but look at a problem from usability and beauty perspective. "The mantra of the group we've created has been make technology human, useful, and beautiful."

Jones says you can also get at people's fears by asking them why they feel the way the do. If you ask why enough, you might find that the fears are unwarranted and you can address whatever concerns the employees might have about a new way of working. Jones also suggest taking a tough love approach and shutting down access to the old ways of doing work -- he told of one company that technically blocked sending attachments in email, forcing users to post files in a collaborative file-sharing system instead. If it's not there, the employees are forced to use the new ones, whether they like it or not.

In the end, you have to remember that implementing new ways of doing business is going to take patience not only because the technology might take time to roll out, but more importantly because people have to get used to the idea. Even when the new systems are better for the company, more efficient ,and make it easier to get your work done, many employees are going to feel threatened by change. If you build good systems, they will very likely come, but you'll have to use people skills to get them on board.

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