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HUMAN RESOURCES

Trust Me: You're Gonna Love This
 

Getting employees to embrace new technology.
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Although the promise of the paperless office has long eluded businesses, David Zugheri, co-founder of First Houston Mortgage, a mortgage bank based in Texas, really wanted to take a stab at it. Three years ago, his 125 employees were using about a million sheets of paper a year. The files for each of First Houston's 1,500 customers usually contained up to 250 pages, including applications, credit reports, tax returns, pay stubs, and other documents. And employees would often make two or three hard copies of each file to send to underwriters, title companies, and other parties involved in the mortgage approval process. Plus, because most of the documents contained sensitive customer information, First Houston was shelling out $550 a month to a shredding service.

Zugheri decided to buy a few multipage scanners, and one night, after all his workers had gone, he went around the office and unplugged every printer. The next morning, at 8 a.m., he announced a new rule: no paper. All documents would be scanned and stored digitally. An uproar ensued. Two employees threatened to quit. By noon, Zugheri had plugged the printers back in. "After playing a human punching bag for four hours, I realized that we couldn't just change our technology overnight," he says.

When it comes to instituting new technical systems, snafus like Zugheri's are common. Up to 70 percent of IT projects wind up as flops, according to Forrester Research (NASDAQ:FORR). In many cases, the new systems -- whether hardware, software, or Web-based applications -- sit idle because employees either find them too difficult to use or simply refuse to try. "IT projects fail not because of the technology but because human beings resist change and uncertainty," says Moez Limayem, who chairs the information systems department at the Sam M. Walton College of Business at the University of Arkansas. Here are a few ways to get your employees on board with your next upgrade:

Work From the Bottom Up

The most common mistake in implementing new technology occurs when the selection comes solely from the top, says Stephen Andriole, a former chief technical officer who teaches business technology management and corporate strategy at Villanova University's business school. Employees bristle at being force-fed new ways to do their jobs, especially if the technology is difficult to use and actually makes those jobs harder in the short term. "Many users will happily nod their head as the technology gets deployed," Andriole says. "But within days, they have figured out ways around it so they can do their job the way they always did, which results in a big waste of time and money all around."

Ben Swartz, co-founder and president of Marcel Media, an interactive marketing firm in Chicago, learned that the hard way about five years ago. He spent several hundred dollars on software that was supposed to help employees find the best search-engine keywords for clients. Months later, he discovered that employees had stopped using it. They told him they got better results using their own methods and the free tools offered by the search engines.

Today, Swartz goes about things differently. He holds weekly meetings at which his 14 employees are encouraged to discuss ideas about new software. "By getting employees involved from the beginning, we no longer run into issues of buy-in," he says. For example, when the company recently began shopping for new project management software, a group of employees researched programs and tried several demos. When it came time for a decision, Swartz allowed employees to make the call. "We operated like a jury room," he says. "We didn't move forward until we had a consensus from our employees."

Invest in Training

Another mistake companies make is skimping on training, says Patrick Gray, president of Prevoyance Group, a Fort Hill, South Carolina, consulting firm that specializes in IT strategy. "The more training employees receive," he says, "the greater the chances that the project will be a success." Gray says rolling out new technology over a period of months, while employees continue to use existing systems, helps iron out unforeseen problems. Because employees don't all learn the same way -- some may prefer more formal sit-down sessions, while others would rather just learn on the fly -- organizations benefit when they take a multipronged approach. He recommends giving extra training to "power users," select employees who will be able to guide their peers and help reduce the number of calls to the IT help desk.

Barkley, an independent advertising agency in Kansas City, Missouri, has taken this concept to another level by creating an internal training program it calls Digital Ninja. Every month, employees meet to learn about the latest technology in advertising -- topics such as blogging, podcasting, and virtual reality. Employees who have earned the distinction of "subject matter experts" teach the lessons, says Mark Logan, who heads the program. "This helps us get everyone in the company fired up about the latest tech trends," Logan says.

Create Incentives

Often, business owners don't give employees enough motivation to use the new systems. "Simply saying, 'The company will be better off if we do this' just doesn't cut it," says Limayem. He suggests stronger incentives: making a salesperson's commission tied to his or her use of the new CRM system or giving bonuses for completing training programs.

After his first attempt at creating a paperless office tanked, Zugheri at First Houston Mortgage decided he needed to create an incentive: a more flexible work schedule. He paid a programmer about $30,000 to devise an electronic mortgage application, a tool for accepting electronic signatures, and a program to organize the company's electronic documents on its servers. Zugheri spent about three months designing a formal process for the saving, naming, and virtual handling of the files.

When he finally gathered his employees to demonstrate the new system, Zugheri emphasized the benefits for his workers, many of whom commuted an hour or more each day. Because the customer files would now be stored on an Internet-accessible server, employees would be able to work from home on Fridays, stay home with a sick child, or take a weeklong vacation without worrying about losing track of their accounts. "I could literally see their attitudes change through their body language," Zugheri says. "And I felt confident that when we left that room, we were all moving in the same direction."

Zugheri's company, which is in the process of changing its name to Envoy Mortgage after recent acquisitions, now employs about 475 people and has been praised by mortgage industry publications for its use of technology and for cutting back on paper waste. Though Zugheri concedes that his firm will never be completely free of paper, he is excited about the progress his employees have made -- and that he is saving about $150,000 a year on paper and toner. But perhaps the greatest benefit of Zugheri's new system came in September, when Hurricane Ike devastated the Houston area. Even when 80 percent of his employees were unable to make it to the office because of flooded roads and debris, business continued to hum, as many of them were still able to log in via the Internet and do their work.

For more on educating and motivating employees -- including advice on developing lesson plans, structuring employee rewards, and calculating training costs -- read Inc.'s how-to guide on employee training at www.inc.com/guides/hr/training.html.

Last updated: Nov 1, 2008

DARREN DAHL is a contributing editor at Inc. Magazine, which he has written for since 2004. He also works as a collaborative writer and editor and has partnered with several high-profile authors. Dahl lives in Asheville, NC.




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