Why People Participation is Crucial for Technological Change

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Time and again we have seen the same story play out in sci-fi movies: the robots rise up, and then the humans defeat them. But it’s not just on the silver screen that people combat technology. It’s happening, albeit on a more subtle scale, up and down the country in businesses right now. People are fiercely resisting new technologies that will shake them out of their comfort zones.

More and more companies are seeing the opportunities offered by the smart factory. Gathering data digitally and gaining an unprecedented insight into operations can help improve uptime, throughput and decision making. As companies draw up their implementation plans, they run the risk of cost overruns and failure if they forget about the people involved. Technology can only succeed with the support of those who use it, and those affected by it.

Just the Fax

Let me share an example with you: There’s a company in the chemical industry that still uses fax machines for ordering processes. Faxes are slow. They’re clumsy. They generate paperwork at both ends. Few would argue that they’re superior to email and the web.

But the staff feel comfortable using them. They’ve always used the fax, and there’s a reassuring certainty in repeating what you’ve always done, rather than trying something new.

These people who resist change are fundamental to the day-to-day success of the business. They ensure a smooth flow from order receipt, through raw materials ordering, production and ultimately customer delivery. A business depends on its people, and can only successfully implement technological and process change with their participation.

Eliminating the Fear

Why do people resist change? Often, it’s out of fear.

They might be afraid that they won’t understand the new technologies, or that their jobs will change in such a way that they’ll find them more difficult or impossible to do. They might fear a loss of status. If you’re the guy who knows how the fax machine works, and you’re revered in the workplace for your knack with it, it’s hard to say goodbye to that. Many employees see automation as a threat to their jobs.

These are all valid concerns. Some jobs will change. New skills will be needed. And, yes, some people might need to be reassigned to different roles.

The answer is to involve your people in the change process, from early on. Help them to understand the new opportunities created by automation, and so reduce the likelihood of resistance.

Digitalization creates new jobs, which in many cases will be of higher value in terms of wages. It may present opportunities for personal growth as well, as employees adopt new skill sets and enrich their jobs with new activities.

Some automation can increase headcount in factories too, even as it increases efficiency. Streamlining a production line might reduce the number of people required to manage it, but the increased output could lead to new jobs elsewhere in the business. The extra output needs to be processed, packaged, and shipped, for example.

Training will also be important so that your people have the skills to operate the new technology, and also the confidence they need as processes change. A good training programme will help them to feel supported and involved in the process of change, and empower them to make the technology a success.

Taking a Holistic View

Many companies want to install the latest and greatest technology, but often forget to build a full business case for digitalization. It’s not just about the software and the hardware. You must take into account the people and processes, as they stand today, and as they will need to be in support of the new technology. Identifying the gaps and creating a plan to bridge them is essential for ensuring a new software, automation or robotization project is successful.

Companies that understand this have the opportunity of competitive edge. They can gain efficiencies and become more agile in the face of market changes. Most importantly, they can become more innovative, by fostering a culture where change is more readily accepted and more successfully introduced.


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