Technology & Learning: Making the most of IT

So you’ve found a great productivity app that’s changed your life. Not only that, it’ll soon be well on the way to transforming how your business gets stuff done. So why not dive in and get everyone using it immediately?

A A few potential gotchas spring to mind: budget and security being the most obvious. But I’m interested in something less tangible. Something that’s well documented in the academic literature on technology and innovation but too often overlooked in the rush to get on with business:

Learning to use new technology is hard

Learning to use new technology is a bit like learning to play a musical instrument — it can be frustrating at first, but with practice it can be seriously rewarding.

The process of learning how technology can and should be used is not as easy as early adopters and tech evangelists might think it is. As a result, the overhead associated with the introduction of new technology might be higher than expected; and in the worst case scenario, the introduction of new tech in the workplace can damage productivity.

How does a business ensure that the technological capabilities of its people are up to date with the functional capabilities of its technology?

Avoiding new technology isn’t an option (unless you want to end up in 5 years struggling to catch up) so here are a few ideas to get you on the right track:

Find out what people are using now.

Start with a list of all the tools each of your teams use every day, and map out how your new solution is going to fit in. Too much overlap between technologies you’re using means you might be wasting money; while too little integration means you’re probably missing out on many of the potential gains. You’d be amazed at how many companies are paying for solutions they never use; and how many employees are using tools without the knowledge of the tech team.

Make sure the tech can be tailored to the team. Or, even better, to the individual.

Focus not only on the needs of your business as a whole, but also on the needs of specific teams and individuals. Choose technology that can be tailored to the different ways in which people work.

Get real people involved early on.

Get people to try your newly discovered productivity miracle out and ask them to suggest how it might help them, rather than imposing it on people. People who have bought into an idea are far more likely to see the benefits. Free trials aren’t just for the tech team to try — get a range of end users on a trial and you’ll have a much better chance of success if you decide to go ahead.

Choose complementary and familiar over revolutionary.

While the founders of tech companies talk about disruption, the key for anyone managing a busy team is to ensure that a new tool is introduced in a way that complements existing working patterns.

When you’re planning on changing or adding technology to people’s working lives, factor in how similar the processes and routines involved in the new solution are to those they are doing already. Small differences between the old and the new and you’re probably OK. Bigger leaps and you’ll have to factor in more learning and adoption time.

Be realistic about what you can achieve in a given timeframe.

When you consider that the technology evangelists in businesses are usually the fastest learners, the potential for a disconnect between expectations of uptake and reality are obvious.

Trust your instinct.

The rise of software as a service represents the gradual outsourcing of process innovation in businesses to third parties. As a result those third parties are ever more responsible for the success of your business. Make sure you’re happy that you feel comfortable working with your software / service suppliers — get to know the founders on social media; make sure they care about their customers as much as you do; and find out if they are as responsive as you need to be when things do go wrong.

In conclusion — if you find something new that’s going to change your world, consider how long it took you to figure out the best way to use your fabulous new tool, and to incorporate with your everyday work processes. How long did it take to identify the functions that it could replace? Can you communicate how you feel it should be used effectively and quickly enough to ensure everyone “gets it” straight off the bat? The reality is that the way people work is a complex jumble of interpretation, tacit (i.e. incommunicable) practices, and deeply-rooted routines that are hard to adjust.

Technological change isn’t as easy or fast as we might think. But the benefits can be enormous if it’s done with sensitivity to how people work best, if you have a solid plan in place for helping people learn, and if you take your time in choosing the right technology partners.

I’m the MD at Netfuse, a telecoms software company in Brighton, England. At the moment we’re building, which transforms your mobile into a business phone system. You can find me @netfuse.