Archive for September, 2008

The Victims of Change

The Question:
“How do you suggest we deal with the victims of the changes we embrace?”

The Details:
“We produce a magazine. A new application offers too many advantages for us to ignore.  With decreased markets, we must be very  cost conscious if we’re to survive. This new solution will almost totally eliminate the need for our current Grpahic Designer

The downside to this new way of doing business is the loss of significant annual income for this designer.

I am looking at transitional solutions, but all so far are only temporary, and seem to delay the inevitable loss of income for this person.

Do you have any suggestions or broader perspectives that might help me find transitional strategies  that are more acceptable to both parties? (Us and the Designer).”

That you even feel the need to ask the question means that you’re doing more in this area than most. Whether you can take comfort in that or not is up to you. The question is a real one, New technologies often displace workers – as you point out in your description, there is an inevitable loss of income for the individual(s) being displaced. You also recognize that it’s the transition that’s most painful. The bad news is that unless we, both employers and employees, plan in advance for these types of transitions, then there is little we can do to mitigate the pain unless the organization is willing to assume the bulk of the burden and carry the employee through the transition. MOst organizations don’t choose this course.

The organization, for the reasons you offered, must more forward with any process that legitimately reduces costs without compromising quality of products & services. An organization can, either through incompetence or deliberate intent (or a combination of both), delay the deployment of an advantageous advance, but to do so for too long places the organization at risk.

To seize upon a displacing technology without considering the impact on the employees is not uncommon. As to whether or not it is ‘moral’ is another matter entirely, one I’ll leave for ethicists to debate. Regardless of whether or not such practices are moral or not, they do have inevitable consequences.

The survivors of any one particular round of technological displacement will inevitably ask themselves, “Is this how the organization will treat me when something comes along to replace what I do?”. The amount of loyalty & dedication they afford the organization in the future is in proportion to the amount of caring and compassion the organization displayed to them in the past. It’s not a complicated equation – and it’s one that the organization creates, and they control all the variables.

Putting aside the contentious questions of what an organization is obligated to do for their employees, there’s the legitimate question of what they’re capable of doing.

Helping an employee transition via re-training is one option. Another is to reposition the employee in some other capacity within the organization. This is one of those situations where the employee’s ability and willingness to learn new things is crucial. If the employee fundamentally does not want to learn a new skill, then they are deciding that obsolescence is preferable to change. An irrational, though common, response to this type of change.

The other side of the coin is that the employee can, I’m reluctant to use the word ‘must’, take responsibility for their own future. Unlike ‘Diamonds’, there is no guarantee that any skill is “forever”… A flint knapper has no place in a modern knife factory – a pen & paper draughtsman has no place in a modern architect’s office. The list is endless, and endlessly growing. Almost all the skills we have today WILL be obsolete before we retire. Anyone who thinks otherwise is going to be stunned and surprised by each transition.

It might sound like a cliché, but if an organization wishes to assist their employees through this type of change, then glorifying our ability to learn new things is a good first step. This means, that training budgets must increase beyond today’s paltry pittance, and such budgets must acquire a certain robustness that allows them to survive at consistent levels through downturns in business.

If the desire is to increase an organization’s ability to Change, then it must increase its ablity to learn.

September 30, 2008 at 10:38 am Leave a comment

An all too typical Change problem

“Hi Peter

Just wondered if you had any quick tips on approaching Change with someone who doesn’t believe their old system needs changing? (I am always hearing the line ‘when we were at Acme Co. we didn’t have a problem, This product worked fine!’) They always find something to complain about with the new way.  Plus they are very disgruntled that they are not the one in charge anymore and therefore not calling the shots – a bad fall from grace.   It feels like you can never do anything right for them. Aarrgghh!!!“

There’s nothing in the above question, not even the growl of frustration at the end, that’s unique. The described situation is present in the office environment of every reader, as are the beliefs that a) the employee is in the wrong and b) implementing Change should be easier than it is.

Life would be so much easier for Management if people just did what they were told and didn’t complain so much. Of course… if we take that thinking to the extreme, then it leaves open the door for the nastiest of societies – where everyone must submit to the whims of whoever is currently above us in the pecking order. The ‘right’ to complain, the personal need to know and agree with the reasons for doing something differently – are things we all hold dear. In a sense, this ability to resist a new ideas is the difference between freedom and slavery.

Connecting someone’s reluctance to accept a Change at work, to the difference between freedom and slavery, might seem a bit hyperbolic – but accepting a Change we don’t agree with, without pushing back, does mean that we have to swallow our independent thought on the matter – give up our ability to choose what we do – and to the vast majority of us, that’s never done with a smile.

None of this solves the problem at hand – so how can we mitigate the conflict in this specific situation?  The description contains its own answers.

1)    “Someone who doesn’t believe their old system needs changing”

Here… management (or anyone attempting to bring about a Change) has their work well defined for them. Explain why the old system is no longer sufficient. Better yet? Figure out how you can help the person in question decide for themselves that the old system is now past its prime.

2)    “When we were at Acme Co. we didn’t have a problem, This product worked fine!’

Again, the answer is readily available, how is your environment different from their old environment? There is no harm in agreeing full heartedly that, Yes! In that environment the old system was the best solution… but in this environment other factors are at play. And yes, the old ‘cop out’, “we do it differently here” is allowed, if and only if, ‘doing it differently here’ is demonstrably better.

3)    “They always find something to complain about with the new way”

Yes. People do that. This goes away once people see the reason for doing it the way they’re doing it. A child being taught to ride a bicycle who doesn’t want to ride a bicycle will make the same statement when they fall off… I told you this wouldn’t work!…

Contrast that response to that of another child, one who wants to learn, when they fall off, they just take the problem in their stride and get back up on the bike – to try again and again, until they master the beast.

4)    “Plus they are very disgruntled that they are not the one in charge anymore and therefore not calling the shots.”

Yes, once again… people do that. People don’t like not being a part of the decision making process – especially if they were once an integral part of that process. Sooo… a possible solution? What can you do to include them in the decision making process? Understanding that if THEY had been the one to suggest the new system… ALL of your problems would never have arisen in the first place.

We all resist change we don’t understand, resisting change only becomes a problem when we’re the ones… trying to implement a change… on others.

Peter de Jager
Toronto, Ont
September 2008

September 29, 2008 at 9:27 am Leave a comment

How to Select a new Technology

It’s ubiquitous, (and it’s everywhere as well) and some would have you believe that if you’re not using the latest and greatest product, then you’re falling behind. This “you’re not keeping up” sales pitch is very effective at striking at the heart of our insecurities; am I falling behind? Will I lose out if I don’t buy this stuff? Don’t the ads claim that they’ll make me more productive, more efficient, and even more attractive to the opposite sex? How could I possibly live without it? Here’s my credit card.

Before attempting to answer the question, “How should we go about adopting a new technology or product?” we first have to have a clear definition of what it is we’re trying to accomplish. To decide what product we’re going to use to improve our organization, we need to embrace a strategy more reliable than submissively accepting the carefully chosen blather of the wordsmiths who wrote the glossy ads.

What problem are we trying to fix? What specifically do we want the technology to do? Better yet, since “technology” by itself doesn’t do anything, how exactly are we going to use this technology to change an existing process? To put this advice into concrete terms, how exactly will the work of department ‘X’ change because of the technology purchase we’re contemplating? And finally, in excruciating detail, what benefit do we expect to reap from our investment?

If that sounds like a lot of intensive work, it is, and it’s necessary work, unless you wish to add your organization to the long, and still growing list of embarrassing examples of how we shouldn’t implement technology.

Once you’ve done all of the above, then and only then are you ready to start looking at what’s available.

Phase 1.0: Advertisements and articles from your trade publications will provide you your first truckload of information. Read everything you can lay your hands on. Create, and maintain a research file. Keep in mind that all of the advertisements and most of the articles will paint the rosiest of pictures. According to most of what you read, everything works as intended, it’s as effective as was promised and the tooth fairy will visit you tonight while you sleep.

At this point, every product claiming to address your problem is a possible candidate.

Phase 2.0: Put on a large pot of your favorite brew and head to the internet. The websites associated with the products you’re researching will provide details beyond what they decided to put into the ads. Use this information to connect what they claim to do, with what you need them to do. From your perspective, every claim is an unproven assumption. The more you need a specific function, the more you must verify the company’s claim that they can deliver the functionality.

By now, you’ve rejected at least a few of the products you found earlier. You’ve made some progress, not much, but some.

Phase 3.0: Get another pot of that brew, and head back to the internet. This stage is incredibly informative, even entertaining. You want to track down the discussion groups where users of the products are talking about the real world functionality of the product, the actual delivered service, their pet peeves, the new, next and previous releases, the known bugs, problems, anomalies and their general experiences. You’ll find some of these discussion groups on the product sites, others you’ll have to search for, a good place to start are the discussion groups of your industry associations.

If you don’t see the answers to the question unique to your organization then post those questions and wait for the results. It’s important to remember, if you decide to purchase a particular product, then there are dozens, if not thousands of existing users all with more experience than yourself. These existing users represent a goldmine of experience, of use to you only if you ask for the information you need. Don’t be shy, most people are more than happy to answer your questions.

After reading just a few product discussions, you’ll have quickly trimmed your list down to a more manageable size.

Phase 4.0: Put a call out to your existing associates, do any of them use the products you have your eye on? If so, it’s time to get on the phone and arrange a meeting. If they have the time, spend an afternoon with them; see how they’re using the product. What problems have they encountered, what benefits have they gained? The assumption here is that you already trust their opinion.  If you have the time, attend an industry conference and buttonhole anyone who uses what you might decide to use.

Have you noticed we’ve not even spoken to the vendor yet? By now you should have only a handful of products in mind.

Phase 4.9: Buy some insurance. I don’t mean life insurance or accident insurance; I mean something a bit more peculiar. Rent yourself a technical consultant who knows far more about technology in general and perhaps this product category in particular, than you’ll ever need to know. They’re your hired gun; they’ll accompany you to vendor meetings and demos.

Their role? Just by introducing who they are and then by having them sitting quietly in the back of the room they’re going to keep the vendor honest. If necessary, they’ll ask the relevant ‘hard’ technology questions, they’ll ensure that the demos presented to you are ‘real’ and not simulations of what the product might do someday. (In the next release — honest!)

They’ll also ensure that the questions you’re receiving to your questions are accurate. They’ll do that just by being in the room, but again they’re your technical backup, ready to jump into the fray conversation if there’s something missing or unclear in the answers given to you.

This type of companion is a vendor’s worst nightmare in any demonstration, that alone justifies having them along for the ride. Life is fun; enjoy it while you’re here.

Phase 5.0: See the demos of the products on your short list. Narrow that list even further, and then make no commitment until you’ve had the chance to experiment with a pilot project, using your data, your people, and your environment. Does it work the way you expected? Are you getting the benefits you hoped for?

Phase 6.0: There is obviously a technical component to your search. Will the product you’re purchasing operate within the context of your existing infrastructure? If not, what gaps need filling? Will it handle the expected workload? What about the unexpected, but reasonably likely spikes in that workload? Will you be able to operate and maintain this product with existing skill sets? Or will you need to hire experts? How available are these experts and at what cost?

You might have gathered the answers to all of these technical details in earlier phases, or you might not. The most likely place to verify the technical details is in Phase 5.0, nothing is more effective at weeding out problems than trying to actually implement a pilot project. What is important is that they all get answered before you sign on that dotted line.

Congratulations, you’ve selected a new technology, all you have to do now is ‘implement’ it, but that’s another story.

September 2, 2008 at 12:52 pm 1 comment


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