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Article: Wednesday, 21 December 2016

Companies that introduce a new technology in their organisation’s workflow should realise that employees inevitably develop emotional and rational responses to it. Teams can reinforce and influence each other in these responses, so managers must continuously make an effort to listen to their employees if they want to see their technology used long-term. This is what Associate Professor Saskia Bayerl of Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University (RSM) discovered after studying how onshore teams and offshore teams from the same company reacted to a newly installed always-on video link.

Why do some teams adopt new technology more easily than others?

Saskia Bayerl: “I studied the introduction of new collaborative technologies in the oil and gas industry. In this industry, every minute that production is interrupted, every incident, can cost the company thousands or even millions of dollars. So these companies are permanently trying to make collaboration between the planning office, and the offshore platform where the actual production takes place, more efficient, more effective and safer.


Machine sounds

“To achieve this, the company introduced a new way of working which included always-on video conferencing, which for this company was unusual. Before the video link, onshore and offshore colleagues communicated by phone or by sending emails, which was really inefficient in some situations. Just imagine that something breaks down on the platform and you try to describe how a machine moves, or how the movement changed since yesterday, or the sound it makes. This is of course very important information if you want to repair a machine.

With the video-link in place, the company’s management suddenly expected offshore managers to work in a more inclusive and participative fashion, giving technicians more voice and freedom to make decisions.

Working autonomously

“When I talked to offshore engineers and technicians, they would tell me how they like to be offshore, because it allows them to work autonomously. Many of them are very attached to their own way of working, and some felt that the installation of a permanent video connection had turned their onshore colleagues into a ‘big brother’ that threatened their independence.

“That’s why the company also realised that that video link, which theoretically sounded like a good way to improve communication and collaboration, would definitely change the established way of working and could even have negative side effects.”

Pushback

To find out how teams responded to the newly introduced video link, Dr Bayerl visited the oil rigs and the onshore facilities. “I observed work processes directly onshore and offshore and conducted hundreds of interviews with staff. I soon noticed how some team members, or even entire teams, more or less overtly resisted the new technology. They would say: ‘we don’t need it and we don’t want it’. Some of the offshore technicians even put their hard hats and masks over the camera to block the view, or they switched it off altogether. And also some onshore engineers were not very willing to use the video link.


Top-down leadership

“But resistance also came from offshore managers. Their reasoning was ‘My task here is to manage our crew. Now, onshore engineers are telling the crew what to do and I am left out, which threatens the integrity of our planning’. Offshore management traditionally has a more top-down leadership style compared to onshore. With the video-link in place, the company’s management suddenly expected offshore managers to work in a more inclusive and participative fashion, giving technicians more voice and freedom to make decisions. That led to resistance from some managers.”


Guinea pigs versus goldfish in a bowl

Dr Bayerl further found that reactions to new technology also changed quite drastically over time: “In one of the teams we studied, the offshore group was very negative from the outset. They were upset that only the camera on their side was switched on permanently. They felt as if they were watched ‘like a goldfish in a bowl’.

“After a time the attitude of the onshore team soured as well. They were the pilot group and received a lot of attention from higher management and consultants. The whole situation started to feel like ‘a PR exercise for the consultants’ for them. They started to feel like ‘guinea pigs’ rather than engineers.

“So at that point both sides were very negative about the new technologies, although for different reasons, and they stopped using it all together.

I saw offshore technicians play theatre with each other using paper figures.

“Then 10 months in the project, the rig had its regular ‘turnaround’ check and maintenance cycle which requires intense collaboration between both sides. At that point both teams noticed the practical use of keeping the cameras switched on. It helped with the planning and made collaboration much easier and faster.”

From that point on, the team adopted the technology and also continued to use it after the end of the turnaround cycle.

“They even had fun with it! I saw offshore technicians discuss their latest holiday trips with onshore colleagues, do fashion shows with their newest T-shirts or play theatre with each other using paper figures. This would have been unthinkable before the video link,” said Dr Bayerl.

Different reactions

“We also noticed that other teams took to the new technology very easily and were very happy about the improvements. They tried the technology right away and used it frequently. In the end, we tracked several teams over two-and-a-half years. In that period, we saw very different team reactions to the same type of technology. For us the interesting question was: how and why does this happen?


Technology adoption states

“When we reviewed our observations, it struck us first how two different groups in one team can have very different emotional reactions towards the same technology. Second, they usually also had very distinct reasons why they did or didn’t like the technology; and mostly very good reasons.

“We realised that to understand how individuals or teams come to adopt a technology collectively, you have to look at both aspects: the emotions as well as the reasons for the adoption or rejection.

“Our study describes how different constellations of emotions and reasons lead to collective adoption or rejection decisions within teams. We call these constellations ‘technology adoption states’. This concept, or approach, helps to clarify how the way that different subgroups feel and think about the same technology influences how they together adopt or reject it, and why changes happen over time.

Collective adoption

“When applying this lens to what happened between onshore and offshore groups, we found two situations in which the technology was adopted. If both groups are positive about it, then they together adopt the technology. They might be positive about it for different reasons, but at least both see a reason to adopt the technology and to use it.

“Another possibility is that even if one group doesn’t like it, the other group can enforce their use. In this case, adoption becomes a power game in which one side says ‘I want the other to use it’. In the end, the stronger side wins while the other side complies, which leads to what we called ‘compliant adoption’.

“Similarly, non-adoption happens when both groups agree they don’t like the technology, either for the same or for different reasons, or if one group is strong enough to block the collective usage.”


Long-term adoption

Dr Bayerl believes her study demonstrates that technology as an artefact always creates a range of different reactions, both emotional and rational.

“When you want to understand why entire groups agree to use a technology together, as a collective, you have to seriously consider the emotions and reasons as a whole system. That is, it is the unique constellation of emotions and rationales across groups that drive adoption or rejection decisions. In that way, we also see our concept of ‘technology adoption states’ as a management tool that can help us to understand why teams adopt or reject a technology and what to do about it.

“The second key point from this study is that managers must be aware that implementation of technology is a continuous process. Even when the decision is made to use a technology, this decision might not be for the long term. “People change their minds; and this will have consequences for the way others use the same technology. That’s why technology adoption is a long-term process that needs to be carefully and continuously monitored and managed. Listening to the various groups of employees that will actually use the technology, and continue listening must be the first steps.”

Prof. Petra Saskia Bayerl

Professor of Digital Communication and Security

Sheffield Hallam University

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