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How to design systems to drive behaviour change and change management: Part 1

Lindi Cawdry
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The evolution of IT systems, software design and product development has resulted in IT consultants but also internal IT departments promising and promoting extended benefits to their solutions, such as change management or behaviour change. Unfortunately, so far statistics show that this isn't happening. In fact, research shows a 70 - 80% worldwide failure rate in all change management programmes and initiatives. A specific critique is that many IT technology or systems interventions are failing to address end-user's concerns sufficiently, which is a fundamental need to ensure change actually happens. Why does this happen?

In the past ten years, there has been a dramatic increase in using psychological theories such as behavioural game theory and behavioural economics to design effective business strategies. These theories and associated techniques, if used effectively, will make a huge difference in the ability of all business initiatives, including those driven by IT, to increase their success rates.

Both of these theories are based on a common and well-researched premise - that is 'people are not always altruistic in their actions and decisions and so will not always do things that are in the best interests of the organisation. Rather, it's human nature for people to act in ways that protect 'their' best interests and drive their own agendas. This means behaviour, and importantly decision-making, is fairly predictable and patterns and trends can be anticipated if these agendas and motivations are understood.

Technical people don't naturally engage with psychology

Individuals, such as IT specialists or product developers, see psychology as the prerogative of HR. If that is the case then don't sell behaviour change or organisational change as one of the benefits of your IT solution.

However these types of theories have significant potential to improve the results of IT projects and solutions by tapping into end user aspirations so increasing motivation for end users to collaborate and enthusiastically support initiatives and influence behavioural change.

How do you marry psychology and IT?

The first step to implementing any new IT solution - using the behavioural change theories mentioned - is to increase your understanding of the end users within the context of their historical and current organisational environment. For example, if you're working in an organisation that is going through, or has recently gone through, a restructuring or retrenchment process, you'll tend to get less support for IT initiatives as people are suspicious about how these will impact them and their job security. Conversely, if an organisation hasn't changed in years then you may also get resistance, but this will be because of individuals preferring to keep the status quo, seeing any change as threatening.

Behavioural challenges that limit the effectiveness of technology-agnostic systems

Designing a customised solution using methods like technology-agnosticism – i.e. being a generalist, rather than a specialist - is popular in the IT field as it encompasses principles of stability and also innovation.

But in reality, real-time innovation happens when there is a great deal of freedom, flexibility and adaptability to change at the user interface. Unfortunately in South Africa (and worldwide) the capability to do this at an employee and organisational level is woefully low because of applied skills and structural deficiencies.

Gallup Management Consulting has been researching a growing international phenomenon called 'parochial and territorial leadership'. This, they describe, arises from fear-based, survivor-focused behaviour often related to rapid economic challenges. This phenomenon produces leadership behaviour in which micro-management, quick fixes, narrow decision-making and disconnection between managers and their subordinates replace teamwork and effective problem-solving. This process severely limits the creative and dynamic engagement end users bring to their roles, which ends up restricting collaboration and information flow.

The outcome of this is often an expectancy mismatch where the IT solution is not aligned to end user or department priorities. This causes a separation of processes from systems, which effectively prevents technology-agnostic solutions from achieving a measureable real-time impact.

So what does it take to use IT systems to drive behaviour change (associated with organisational change), ultimately effecting longer-lasting and more effective change. How can this be achieved? Find out in the next instalment of this series, which will be published on Monday.


Lindi Cawdry has a broad range of experience  working in large organisations and consultancies. Lindi is the strategic solutions executive for Cetana Africa, which has a strategic partnership with NeraSA.

Lindi has skills in research, leadership development, strategic consulting, business transformation, organisational development and development programs.



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