Brokerage Ops the July/August 2019 issue

The Human Side of Digital Transformation

Behaviorists can teach us about leveraging technology.
By Kimberly Paterson

Yet in spite of its tremendous potential to improve productivity, profitability and customer experience, experts say adoption rates often fall short of expectations. In a world where we love to bark commands at Alexa, use our smart phones to see who is at the front door, and Skype with loved ones halfway around the globe, why are we so reluctant to embrace new technology at work? 

For starters, we’re hardwired to maintain the status quo. Trillions of neurons and synapses in our brains create patterns of thinking. These form behavioral habits. Adopting a different behavior means creating new neural networks that need to be activated over and over again before they become habitual. Change takes focus and effort. At work, where the pressure to perform is intense, we seek the path of least resistance. All too often it feels more expedient to do it the familiar way. 

Typically, technology isn’t our choice. Someone else made the decision, and our job is to comply. The benefits to the user may not be clear and compelling, and that triggers resistance. To make matters worse, business software tends to be more complex and harder to learn, and it delivers less immediate gratification than the tools we use in our personal lives. 

New technology means change. With change comes fear about what we may lose. Notions of loss are psychologically more powerful than notions of gain. Will that no-touch quoting and binding solution eliminate half our marketing department? Is artificial intelligence replacing my best underwriters’ authority when it comes to making decisions on my accounts? Does this new sales tracking system mean my manager is going to be scrutinizing how I spend every minute of every day? 

New technology disrupts deeply ingrained habits and beliefs about how best to do the job, and it challenges how we see ourselves and our value as professionals.

Moving from Vision to Reality

Digital transformation can’t happen without digital adoption. Organizations typically underestimate what it takes to bring users on board. While training is vital, it’s only one part of the equation. New technology disrupts deeply ingrained habits and beliefs about how best to do the job, and it challenges how we see ourselves and our value as professionals. Technical training can’t address the powerful but often unseen forces that control our actions. What is needed is a strategy that recognizes what it takes to change human behavior. The field of behavioral psychology offers many evidence-based insights. 

Take small steps. The underlying assumption is that change needs to be big and bold to matter. Research proves otherwise. The consensus among researchers is that focusing on one small modification at a time is more effective. That’s because the toughest part of behavioral change for most people is getting started. Make it so easy that people can’t say no. Choosing a step forward that feels non-threatening and easy to do decreases resistance and creates momentum. While a big and bold vision of the future is essential, it is the repeated pattern of small behaviors in the right direction that will get you there. 

Make the status quo more cumbersome than the new. Psychologically we’re programmed to avoid pain. Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman advises leaders to burden the old process just enough to disrupt reflexive behavior. Consider two companies that adopted Skype for Business. One company reported a 2% growth in adoption rate in the first year, while the other touted 426% growth in adoption year one. The difference? The second company removed employee desk phones completely.

Emphasize process over outcome. New goals don’t deliver results; changes in behavior do. Too much emphasis on the outcome can be a distraction. That’s because the factors that determine short-term success or failure can be out of our control. Instead, focus on the specific behaviors within your control that will ultimately drive success. Mastering process keeps people centered on the here and now and what they need to be doing every day to make meaningful progress. 

Use influencers. When facing the uncertainty associated with change, people look outside themselves for sources of information. They look to authority. According to Robert Cialdini, renowned psychologist and researcher on the subject of influence at work, the authority is not necessarily the boss: it is the individual who knows the subject best. They also look to peers who can be far more effective than executives when it comes to winning over skeptical employees and convincing them of the need to change. 

Successful tech initiatives build internal networks of influencers at every level of the organization. These are the people whom other employees look to for insight, and they have a major influence on morale, what employees believe about the future, and their willingness to support change. They use these networks to educate, generate user enthusiasm and increase adoption rates. 

Stack and anchor. One of the best ways to adopt a new behavior is to stack it on top of an existing one. The reason stacking works so well is that the patterns of the current behavior are already built into our brain and happen automatically. By linking the new habit to an existing cycle, it is more likely that you’ll stick to the new behavior. As you introduce a new technology, find ways to tie it tightly to a well-established component of the current workflow. 

The same concept applies when you link new technologies to the established norms of the culture. The more the new technology supports the well-entrenched shared beliefs of the organization, the easier it is for people to buy into the change. 

Ultimately, the ease and success of any transformation comes down to gain versus pain. While the tendency for leaders is to fixate on the gains, it’s equally important to understand the pain points—both functional and emotional. The more you do to minimize the pain, the more willing people will be to accept change. 


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