Let me begin by saying no business leader or technology provider has ever asked me this question. But I have recently been involved in two surveys related to digital transformation where the workers themselves – not the buyers or IT leaders – were surveyed and have received questions as to why I made this unusual decision.

It is funny to notice I have never received the opposite question. I have dealt with top-down surveys for many years and never recall being asked “why do results about what IT/business says it will do matter when it’s up to the employees’ ability and desire to engage?”

Think about audience testing for TV shows. TV network execs care whether the viewers will be applauding or groaning when the product is delivered because they know the viewers can tune out if they don’t like it. Workers can tune out a digital transformation initiative too. But how many?

To properly address the question I need to define what “tuning out” means in the context of digital transformation. It can mean:

  • Active resistance: Outright refusal to use a new way of work, whether it is a process or associated technology. Often this includes vocal opposition or stonewalling.
  • Passive resistance: Feet dragging, using the technology at its bare minimum and with poor data quality; bad mouthing the initiative to others in their network. Trying to avoid the new thing, but staying below the radar so their resistance is not noticed.
  • Subconscious resistance: Workers just don’t seem to get around to reading the training material or using that new system even though they seem to think it’s a fine idea. Their habits are set, they are too busy, and they haven’t devoted the mental energy to changing them. For more see the work of Jonathan Haidt on the elephant and the rider.

Because of their ability to resist change in various ways, workers’ opinions about new ways of work always matter. But how much they can derail the efforts depends on several factors:

  • Engagement transparency: How obvious is it if workers are engaged with the initiative or not? As an example, it would be very transparent whether loan managers are entering their loans into a new system they are supposed to use (although the quality and timeliness of the entry could still vary). But how can you judge if a social network or suggestion box is being engaged in? Unless you read minds there no way to tell if a suggestion box is empty because the workers don’t have any good ideas or they have great ideas they are keeping to themselves.
  • Ability to compel change: Can you turn off access to the old way of doing things? Do you have carrots (promotions, pay) and sticks (low raises, firing) that could be used if a worker is known (see engagement transparency) to engage or not? Does the power lie with workers, employers, or an even mix? How much do workers fear losing out on raises or being fired if they don’t engage?
  • Substitution: If workers resist (whether active, passive, or subconscious) can I substitute the entire job category with an outside service or technology?
  • Social contract: Corporate social responsibility (CSR) involves self-regulation to address the needs of all stakeholders beyond what is required by law. While most organisations say their people are what make them special, true believers actually do care and wouldn’t want to force change on workers.
  • Legal contract: Worker councils and unions can formalise the process of acceptance or resistance to change and set its timing, metrics, and to whom the benefits flow.

This is all a way of saying that IT leaders should take the time to understand the ability and willingness of their workers to engage with new technology as part of any digital transformation efforts. And technology and service providers expecting long-running revenue streams (as happens with SaaS) and good word of mouth should offer products that workers are less likely to resist and provide messaging to their buyers that addresses how likely their product is to be adopted and how you can help with the transformation.

*This article is reprinted from the Gartner Blog Network with permission. 

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