People vs technology: managing technological change

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Cary Cooper
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One of the greatest HR challenges in the workplace over the next decade will be the relationship between people and technology. Einstein gloomily wrote at the start of the 20th-century technological revolution: “I fear the day that technology will surpass our human interaction. The world will have a generation of idiots.”

The reality is that we have adopted some instances of technology with the proverbial open arms, while resisting others due to concerns over their purpose.

As a working population we have now fully embraced the smartphone, emails, apps, Zoom or Teams calls, but remain worried about other technologies, such as AI, that are ostensibly there to enable more effective human performance, data protection or security, but are perceived by many as either tech-enabled systems for performance management or a threat to their jobs.

As the country enters a profound recession, with many people feeling very job insecure, we are likely to get more and more resistance to change, both technological and structural. And given the continuing COVID-19 health crisis, the recession and Brexit, uncertainty will inevitably permeate the workplace.

This will lead to people being more sensitive to any introduced technological change, with the unconscious worry that it is there to replace them or manage their behaviour rather than be a support system or an enabler for making their jobs easier or more manageable.

This is where HR comes in, and has an important and strategic role to play in managing the change process; to understand the fears and worries of employees, to engage employees in the design of the technology and how it should be rolled out throughout the organisation; and, most importantly, to help them understand that technology can be an enabler not a ‘job destroyer’.

It is certainly true that some major technological innovations may replace some aspects of a job, but with training and willingness by the employer and the employees to engage in new skill development, this can be minimised or eliminated. Change is here to stay and our challenge in HR is to manage the interface between man and machine better, and with humanity in mind.

HR has to keep in mind the two main psychological reasons that cause people to resist technological change in the workplace. First, that the technology in the medium term may replace their job; and second, that the technology is being introduced as a performance-management tool to micromanage higher performance.

The management of these two underlying fears should be the focus of HR, and will have implications for the training of line management in terms of their social and interpersonal skills; the need to encourage upskilling; in reassuring employees that the technology is not there to monitor their performance; and in carrying out regular employee wellbeing audits to find out how employees are perceiving their job and the organisations during technological interventions.

Workplace change is not easily managed, as Machiavelli wrote in The Prince: “It should be borne in mind that there is nothing more difficult to arrange, more doubtful of success, and more dangerous to carry through than initiating change... the innovator makes enemies of all those who prospered under the old order, and only lukewarm support is forthcoming from those who would prosper under the new.”

The challenge for HR in the coming years and decades ahead will be how to foresee the technological issues of the future and engage and enthuse employees to embrace change, take on new skills and work with technology to get the job done. But employers have the responsibility of developing their people for the new challenges, engaging them, trusting them, being supportive and above all, loyal.

And for employees, to try to embrace technological change and be actively involved in the change process. George Bernard Shaw wrote in his play Mrs. Warren’s Profession: “People are always blaming their circumstances. The people who get on in this world are the people who get up and look for the circumstances they want, and if they can’t find them, make them.”

Cary Cooper, psychologist and professor at the Alliance Manchester Business School, University of Manchester


The full article of the above is published in the 2020 Technology Supplement. Subscribe today to have all our latest articles delivered right to your desk.

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