I've seen some pretty awful articles in the the Wall Street Journal but today's "Do You Resist New Tech at the Office?" is certainly one of the worst.

It bemoans "seasoned employees" (read: Gen-Xers and Boomers) who don't immediately embrace new tech because, ahem, they feel they're "just not good with technology."

Let's get one thing straight.

Boomers and Gen-Xers have both been using computers at work for decades. If some are skeptical about new technology, it just might be because they have enough experience to know how crap tech can royally screw things up.

There are at least three solid reasons employees might resist and reject technology that's being shoved down their throats, reasons grounded in technical competence and experience rather than fictional technophobia:

1. Some technology sucks wind.

In addition to characterizing "seasoned employees" as the problem, the article trots out management advice like this gem:

"If a peer is struggling with new technology, express empathy and ask if you can help... You might say, 'Hey, you seem to be struggling with this. I found this really helpful tutorial you might like..."

Beyond that the advice is patronizing, here's a simple reality of computer programming that tech cheerleaders don't seem to be able to get through their thick skulls: if a user must struggle to use a program, it's poorly designed.

Programs that are well-designed are intuitive because their designers observed how people worked, interviewed potential users, tested the program with real users, and tuned the GUI so that it's easy-to-use.  In software land, if it's not intuitive, it's crap.

The article unwittingly provides a perfect example by quoting a business owner's complaints about his employees who rejected new software because "importing an old address list into the new system generated so many errors that I had to hire two helpers."

His diagnosis: "people are afraid of change."

Look, dude, if something as simple as importing an address list creates multiple errors that require additional staff to fix, the software you bought is a stinking PoS and you are a clueless bozo for buying it and then blaming your staff when it creates more work for them.

Employees who say "no thanks" to crap software do their company a favor because crap software always gets crap results. Tech cheerleaders never admit it, but a LOT of business software fails big time. And brings companies down with it.

2. Feature creep makes the even good technology burdensome.

Even well-designed programs gradually become less usable when they're loaded down with features that have marginal value-added. If a program is poorly designed, however, feature creep creates usability nightmare.

A perfect example of this is the once wildly-popular Quicken personal finance program, each version of which was successively more complicated and less stable. Eventually Intuit had to chuck it entirely.

There are plenty of business software packages that similarly get less usable and less stable with each successive release. That's why some users resist the installation of new versions--they know from experience the upgrade will cause more problems.

Feature creep also increases the amount of time users must spend wrestling with the system, often to the detriment of the organization's mission.

CRM is a case in point. 99.9% of CRM's usefulness is contact management. CRM, however, has over the years become a huge repository of time-consuming bloatware.

CRM implementations, however, have an abysmal failure rate, mostly due to "resisters"--salespeople who (surprise!) would rather spend more time with customers than filling out electronic forms.

CRM experts often recommend that companies not pay commissions until the CRM data has been entered. They see CRM failures as an example of how stupid salespeople are.

Hey, here's reality: salespeople IMMEDIATELY adopt any technology that actually helps them sell. They have never been enthusiastic about CRM (other than contact management) because much of the time, CRM simply does not help them sell.

Another example of once-useful software that's feature-creeped itself into a nightmare: Electronic Medical Record systems. As the New York Times pointed out two days ago:

"By far the biggest culprit of the mushrooming workload [in healthcare] is the electronic medical record, or E.M.R. It has burrowed its tentacles into every aspect of the health care system. There are many salutary aspects of the E.M.R., and no one wants to go back to the old days of chasing down lost charts and deciphering inscrutable handwriting. But the data entry is mind-numbing and voluminous. Primary-care doctors spend nearly two hours typing into the E.M.R. for every one hour of direct patient care."

I don't know about you, but that 2 to 1 ratio sounds seriously, serious out-of-whack. And it's the kind of workload shift that's likely to harm the quality of care, because 90% of the benefit of EMR comes from the 10% of the system (like ALL software).

Weirdly, the WJS article cites a 2005 study of doctor resistance to EMR as if it were an example of doctors being Luddites. In fact it was perfectly clear by 2005 to any perceptive healthcare professional that EMR feature creep was a slow-motion train wreck.

3. Some technology literally injures employees.

In many, many cases, technology that's designed to make a company more efficient does so to the detriment of its employees. As such, it's entirely rational and logical for them to fight it tooth and nail.

The most obvious example is technology that automates workers out of a job. Why would any worker want to make it easier for a company to install software that's designed to put them out of a job? That's asking a bit much, don't you think?

And then there's technology that literally injures the employee, by creating extra emotional stress, or repetitive stress injuries. Employees don't fight such technology because "they feel they're no good at tech." They fight it because it literally hurts them

Even when companies introduce technology that's suppose to make employees' jobs easier, it can backfire. Wal-Mart's in-store robots are a perfect example. As the Washington Post recently pointed out:

"Walmart executives have promised the all-hours robot workhorses will let employees endure less drudgery and enjoy "more satisfying jobs," while also ensuring shoppers see cleaner stores, fuller shelves and faster checkouts. But the rise of the machines has had an unexpected side effect: Their jobs, some workers said, have never felt more robotic. By incentivizing hyper-efficiency, the machines have deprived the employees of tasks they used to find enjoyable. Some also feel like their most important assignment now is to train and babysit their often inscrutable robot colleagues."

New technology can even upgrade a worker to their own detriment. For example, I once invented an electronic publishing system that upgraded production typists (hourly) into text coders (salaried). That meant no more overtime pay... and therefore lower pay overall.

Finally, a major effect of a lot of recent technology has been to extract personal time from workers' schedules by requiring them to be on-call and available 24/7. The net effect of this is that many office workers make less per hour than retail workers.

What experience tells us is that a healthy skepticism is more than warranted whenever anyone suggests the introduction of new technology into the workplace. Pretending that the problem is employees who are "afraid of change" is frankly idiotic.

Published on: Jun 11, 2019
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