Almost everyone in IT can name a technology project they have been personally involved with that never lived up to its original promise. But no
matter how carefully scoped and crafted the project, it has often been the way the organisation has rolled out the system – resulting in a lack of end-user enthusiasm or a downright refusal to use it – that has been the problem, rather than the technology itself.
With three-quarters of big IT projects classed as failing to meet their original goals, according to analysts at the Standish Group, and many billions of pounds wasted, organisations need to look at the way they apply IT and how it impacts users if they are to reverse the trend and establish a clearer pattern of success. In other words, they must achieve user ‘buy-in’.
Any project means change in processes, and change is never universally welcomed. "People tend to be afraid at the beginning [of an implementation]," says Keith New, vice president of the mobile business unit at workforce management company Aspective. "They’re uncomfortable and distrustful of the motives of management: is it Big Brother in disguise or do they plan to get rid of 20% of us?" In common with many organisations implementing systems, he finds most end users are initially resistant to new technology.
"I’ve seen businesses where they deal with email by having the secretary print out each email, have the exec scribble out a response on each, which the secretary will then respond with," recalls Khalid Aziz, chairman of communications specialist the Aziz Corp. "It’s hugely resource wasteful and not a very edifying use of a trained secretary’s time."
But, says Aziz, most end users are not actually technophobic or resistant to technology. "This is very much an area where people feel very insecure. When we brought in electronic diaries six years ago, we found that people did not believe them, trust them or rely on them, not because they weren’t working, but because they hadn’t had experience of using them." The company decided that to cushion the impact of the implementation, it would initially run a parallel, paper-based system, until employees were comfortable using the new system.
"If you only look at the cash cost and say, ‘My God, we’ve spent all this money on computerisation, we ought now be able to ditch this antiquated stuff’, then you will throw the baby out with the bathwater because you will actually disaffect the people you need to work the system. What you have to do is let individuals feel their way and gently nudge them."
For big projects, the best way to get employees to use a new system is to get them involved in its design from the outset.
"What we’ve found is that if you get people involved in the nuts and bolts of the project early and involve them all the way through, you get buy-in," maintains Mark Williamson, client services director at change management consultancy Partners for Change. Design workshops and interviews with users to identify who is critical to an implementation’s success are both good ways to introduce end users to the reasons why the organisation wants to implement the system, while giving end users the chance to voice their opinions and shape the project so they benefit. This can even invigorate systems that have already failed and are lying unused, although many organisations are rightfully wary of throwing good money after bad.
"In any rollout, there has to be something in it for the users, otherwise you will never carry them along with you," says Kevin Jones from TEC International, a mentoring organisation for chief executives and managing directors. "You can tell a salesman to put orders into a customer relationship management (CRM) system, but I think you’ll get far more willingness if, as a consequence, they can also get information on prospects and customers. It’s much better to give them a benefit than argue that it’s their job and they should just key it in." Involving users at an early stage, consulting them regularly on progress and problems
(but without overloading them with technical information) and even engineering into the system new features that will give users rather than the organisation added benefits, will likely lead to greater end-user take-up of the system.
While it is impossible, of course, to involve all users at this stage, opinion-formers among the target users can be brought on board. They in turn can help explain to their colleagues the benefits of the systems – something that carries greater weight than the coercion of management if these champions are well respected.
Aspective’s New says that in his experience, most users actually want to adapt to technology change. Initial fears – most common among employees who grew up before PCs were commonplace – are often overcome through training. For example, says New, in the case of a rollout to field service workers at a major utilities company, end users quickly appreciated the fact that new PDAs gave them more information about the jobs they were working on than the existing telephone-based dispatch centre, plotted more sensible routes between jobs and, most importantly, eliminated hours of filling in timesheets and other administration. It is only when companies begin to implement features that ride roughshod over previous practices (and rights) or impede an individual’s ability to get the job done that employees complain and find their systems a burden rather than an improvement. For example, a large telecoms company recently withdrew a proposal to add global positioning system technology to its field engineers’ PDAs, that would have enabled the company to pinpoint their location at any point during the day, after misgivings from employees about the sense of being spied on.
There will, however, always be recalcitrant users, unwilling to accept change and unwilling to use a new system. A combination of carrot and stick is useful for many, with both the advantages of a system (eg it will help the end user do his/her job better) and the disadvantages of not using the system (eg he will not be paid any commission unless he enters his/her orders into the system) being used to sell it. In some extreme cases, it may even be necessary to make special arrangements. Partners for Change’s Williamson suggests that if a salesman is so vital that it would be impossible for the organisation to fire him even if he refuses to use a CRM system, it might be possible to work round the problem. "With a CRM system, it might be just the issue of inputting information. An interim or long-term solution might be for a PA to be entering information via a fax or phone call. You need to balance the benefits of the project against the risks of key people leaving the organisation."
One big problem for most IT departments, however, is the issue of communication: most are not very good at it. "We thought we were the intellectual visionaries who knew how to run the company," TEC’s Jones recalls of his days in an IT department. "We had more intellect in our little fingers than all the senior management. That was never the recipe for success, was it?"
The Aziz Corp’s Khalid Aziz agrees. "The kind of person that makes a good IT person is often not particularly good at thinking about the needs of the user," he suggests. "Most people who went into IT didn’t go into it on the basis that they liked talking to people: many actually prefer sitting in front of a computer screen and interacting with that."
Aziz says that it is vital to demonstrate to IT staff the importance of communication and how to look at things from the end user’s perspective. "You need to teach them understanding and tolerance. It’s immensely frustrating when you know how something works to see someone who just doesn’t understand it."
Meta Group analyst Ashim Pal agrees that communication is vital and an IT department’s attitude to communication can determine whether or not a project is successful. By promoting what the IT department does and "selling" the systems it deploys, the department is more likely to have successful rollouts.
To get end users to use a system requires a combination of managing expectations, persuasion, coercion, education and training. But successful implementations often require a two-way process, with management and end users negotiating on features. Give employees the ability to do their job better, in a way they believe is better, and a system is far more likely to get used than one that is simply imposed from above.