Digitalization is not about changing employees’ behaviours

Does technology determine how we work or should we determine how we want to work with technology? Maybe it’s a combination of both, a symbiotic relationship? Recently, digital behaviour change has been in focus of human resource professional discussions. HR is supposed to drive and support this behaviour change to fully embrace a company’s digitalization journey. “[…] Implementing a digital solution is one thing, to change people’s behaviour to use and like the solution is another.”, wrote an HR professional in a social media feed.

Here’s a balancing perspective.

Digital and analog Human Behaviour

Behaviours are actions triggered by a rage of stimuli around us. One stimulus could be for example the context you find yourself in. Whereas you can work in a more digital or analog context, we don’t behave systematically differently in one or the other. It is not even possible to sharply distinguish the two. Most of the times, we find ourselves in an analog-digital intersection. New solutions are not only about that your employees use them but about what they should and potentially could use the solutions for.

The buzzword digital natives exemplifies the above. We generalize that younger generations would be advanced users of digital tools because they are growing up with them. It would come naturally to them to use technology and this would give them an advantage in the workplace. Besides the fact, that those digital natives are angled from a western perspective (for more insights, I recommend this UNICEF report), it neglects that the effective use of a solution depends on knowing what you can do with it and how to apply other skills such as finding high-quality information and sharing them with others. Knowing the suggestion and comment function in a shared document will not directly translate into giving valuable feedback to a colleague. Read more about this in my own deep-dive related to education, the workplace, and in a recent ECDL publication on the fallacy of digital literacy.

If you want behavioural change, start with people (and a solid requirements analysis)

If we just had the right tool in place, we would of course share more knowledge and collaborate with the other departments. – said no one ever. It’s a common pitfall to believe that as soon as you have a new solution in place undesired behaviours will change for the better. The key question (“How will the new solution improve how employees can contribute to business success?”) remains unanswerred and people will still not talk to each other nor will they use the new tool. The attempt to change behaviour post-implementation is a manifestation of a poor understanding of business context and hence a poor requirement analysis.

A good starting point is people. Instead of assuming that behaviours will change with new technology, go and talk to people. How are employees collaborating and communicating? How are they sharing knowledge? Just because you don’t see it in the first place, it doesn’t mean that it does not happen. Especially in central and overhead functions, you tend to be far away from the business. We might make bold statements about communication which are not true. It is an exhausting process to do a solid user analysis. It demands planning and discipline. Big names in the HRIS market make it tempting to decide for a system without having a proper analysis in place. In the end, it’s not the name or the price tag of the solution that determines human behaviour, it’s the people and company fit. Besides the system requirements, you might find out about common behaviours that really need to change. However, this is not necessarily connected to the system you are planning to implement. What supported me in my understanding of people-oriented design processes and requirements analysis, was an update of my UX & HCI skillset. 

What if a bad solution would re-inforce desirable behaviours?

What if once you have the expected (analog) culture in place, you might be able to lean back and put less effort on selecting and implementing systems? What if you choose the system randomly and your culture would make up for the system’s limitations? As I wrote in an earlier post, “researches found that group members who identify with a group and believe that knowledge acquisition is important, might compensate for technical flaws in the tool used for knowledge management and social collaborations.” This might be a bold interpretation of the research results, however it underlines how human behaviour is dependent on context, a culture of belongingness and identification. Social connectedness is another factor, which might be easiest to establish face to face first. So why not start with the analog world first before deciding on how the digital world can complement it?

“Implementing a digital solution is one thing, …”

You might never find the perfect digital solution but as soon as you manage to translate a functionality wish list to clear priorities for essential system functionalities that have a purpose for the people working with it, you get much closer. And the closer you get, the more likely it is that the system will reinforce desired behaviours so you don’t have to change them.

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