Employee-driven Corporate Change - Reverse Ludditism?

19 November 2008

I was recently facilitating a client's requirements workshop and noticed that one of the attendees was swaying opinion by inappropriately evangelising technical solutions. Although some solutioneering is inevitable in these situations, the amount of detailed solution ideas this stakeholder was producing was inappropriate for a requirements-based workshop. In a formal workshop environment, this can be easily controlled with a gentle reminder. However, it is not so easily handled outside a workshop situation - in the wider corporate environment. This is where employees, either accidentally or deliberately, circumvent corporate procedures by introducing their own hardware or software technology into the corporate environment in the belief it will help their work productivity.

I call this "reverse Ludditism" as it the converse of the UK's nineteenth-century anti-technology movement. Reverse Ludditism is characterised by desire to use new technology irrespective of business benefits. The analogy isn't exact; whereas the original Luddites were destructive in their opposition to new technology, the reverse Luddites, when questioned directly will say that they are pro-actively trying to perform their job more efficiently.

The interesting question is: how do you (as a corporate resources manager or an HR manager, say) differentiate between new technology for its own sake and a potentially useful idea that could lead to improved working practices? As the corporate IT environment is now increasingly clamped-down, so "under the radar" efforts are harder to get established, perhaps limited to software on personal Smartphones or laptops.

The answer, I think is to treat it like a small agile pilot project, with complete with its own business case. Ask: who's driving it? Sometimes senior staff will want to impose their ways of working by indulging in the use of non-corporate-standard products, such as tablet PCs, or using Lotus Notes in preference to MS Office; or the use of mind-mapping software. The main problem here is supportability as the senior member of staff is unlikely to be willing to support it themselves; the responsibility will fall onto the corporate support department.

Also, you should perform a stakeholder analysis to find out which group would benefit, be it all employees or just one department or even just one person? As always, there is a benefits/costs trade-off; without quantitative information it could be hard to tell if this is a great business initiative or just a drain on resources. Think about the total cost of ownership, supportability and usability, legislative aspects (Freedom of Information Act, Data Protection Act), corporate archiving and security.

In addition, in order to make it suitable for all staff, the product may have to be features restricted (for example, for security reasons) which may reduce the benefits gain. Also, the knowledge transfer aspects need to be considered - some staff will not have the time or the ability to learn all the features in the new product even if the cost were justified.

Clearly, if the benefit/cost analysis reveals that the proposed technology is inappropriate, but the idea for the new way of working is sound, then any alternative supporting technology shouldn't be more difficult to use unless there is a clearly-communicated and well-understood business reason. A popular issue at the moment is the disabling of USB ports to prevent misappropriation of corporate data. However, leaving things in this state would make many employees' jobs difficult. Typically, an organisation will put in place encryption and data-auditing practices for all removable-media devices, rather than a complete lockdown of USB ports.

Another approach is to be more proactive: you can either perform your own technology scan to identify a likely technology, or better still, engage the early adopters and see what's on their horizon; watch how they use new technology and use them as part of a pilot project if the business case makes sense.

Interestingly, industry best-practice often won't exist (yet) so keep an eye on the trade press for additional ideas to fine-tune the pilot. Alternatively, if corporate policy permits, consider writing an article about your pilot which could give your organisation favourable marketing exposure.

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