February 1, 1998

Editorial: Keeping employees satisfied as technology keeps changing

As we write this column, there is an ironic juxtaposition of events in the news.

In Las Vegas, the International Consumer Electronics Show is highlighting the latest wave of high-tech tools and toys. From high-definition television to a new generation of computer-assisted household and automotive gadgets, the message of the show is that technology is continuing to change our lives for the better.

A few hundred miles west, the Unabomber trial presents a much different perspective, a view that technology has ruined our lives and that simpler is better. The same debate confronts many employers who are adding technology to the workplace: Do such changes enhance or detract from workers’ quality of life? And how does this affect worker performance?

Unlike Theodore Kucyzinski, our position is that technology is inherently neither good nor evil.

In many cases technology has made work easier, less dangerous, and more efficient. Electronic mail and the Web have given us wondrous new tools for communication and information gathering, and pagers and cell phones have freed workers from their desks. Telecommuting has opened up new employment possibilities and the opportunity to redefine the relationship between work and home life. Yet each of these and other technological changes also present a challenge to workers’ quality of life. Pagers, cell phones and portable computers can extend working hours into commuting time, evenings and weekends.

Clerical and production workers often feel that automation has made their work mindless and that computerized performance monitoring systems have created electronic sweatshops. Especially for professionals, the traditional business lunch has been replaced with lunch in front of the terminal, catching up on e-mail or other computer chores.

Two important lessons can be learned from management research on the effects of technology. The first is that changing what workers do, or the conditions in which they do it, has tremendous potential to cause dissatisfaction. And it is dissatisfaction — much more than technical design issues — that cause technological “improvements” to fail.

The second lesson is that most of these problems arise from how the new technology is introduced and implemented rather than from the technology itself. Introducing technology by imposing it on workers, particularly those who are highly skilled in earlier work practices and unskilled in technology, is a recipe for disaster.

Implementing change

Three practices are key to avoiding implementation problems.

The first is to involve workers closely in the analysis of work that should precede any

implementation of technology, as well as in the subsequent planning and implementation of the new, technologically-based work processes. The second is to help workers understand how the change makes their life better. The third is to provide workable options for solving the problems

that inevitably occur during the implementation of technology.

These options include access to people who have the power to improve the new systems; opportunities to use both earlier and newer systems during the changeover; and availability of well-designed, self-paced, and respectful training on the new systems.

Two experiences we have had with organizations illustrate how ignoring these principles can interfere with the successful implementation of new technologies.

The first was a publishing company that employed a large work force of highly experienced color strippers, whose entire work experience was based on doing the work by hand. When the company implemented a computerization program, we recommended that the strippers

be closely involved in the implementation of the new system, that the technology-based and “hand”-based systems be used in parallel, and that a training program be implemented.

The production manager endorsed our recommendations and confessed her concern about a potential looming disaster. But the CEO’s response was, “We’re paying $500,000 for this new

system and these people can damn well learn how to use it.” The consequences of his approach were unfortunate — and easily predictable.

In another example, an organization was experiencing constant work force dissatisfaction due to a change to a computerized employee scheduling system. The scheduling program was designed to provide an optimal solution to fluctuations in business volume, but it did not give

sufficient consideration to how scheduling affects employee productivity.

To try to match business demands, employees constantly were changing shifts and schedules. Employees were unable to anticipate or regulate their work schedules, which in turn wreaked havoc with their personal lives. The result was rampant dissatisfaction, lowered productivity, and revolving-door turnover.

The problem in both of these cases was not the technology, but the failure to use it in a way that met the needs of workers as well as the company. Relying exclusively on technologists and ignoring workers’ responses to change is a high-risk appr oach to implementing technology. By involving workers in every phase of a technological change, you gain both their

insights into improvements and their allegiance. The result should be improved productivity and enhanced quality of work life.

On Management, written each month in cooperation with The Center for Human Function & Work, or CHF&W, in Boulder, examines critical issues about managing the human side of a business. Comments, criticisms, questions and topics are encouraged, and can be mailed to The Bounder County Business Report, faxed to 440-4950, or e-mailed to joseph.rosse@colorado.edu or jwlewis@bcbr.com. Joe Rosse is associate professor of management at CU-Boulder and an associate of the CHF&W. Bob Levin is director of the CHF&W, a CU-Boulder Research Park organization conducting research on work performance issues. They are the authors of “High-Impact Hiring: A Comprehensive Guide to Performance-Based Hiring.”

As we write this column, there is an ironic juxtaposition of events in the news.

In Las Vegas, the International Consumer Electronics Show is highlighting the latest wave of high-tech tools and toys. From high-definition television to a new generation of computer-assisted household and automotive gadgets, the message of the show is that technology is continuing to change our lives for the better.

A few hundred miles west, the Unabomber trial presents a much different perspective, a view that technology has ruined our lives and that simpler…

Related Content