How to drag your users out of the Stone Age

Too many businesses try to compete using last-century work habits. Here's how IT can help shift their outlook to this-century mastery

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Did I say culture change? I meant to say three culture changes because that's what you're going to need: two changes in IT culture and a third throughout the business.

IT's two culture changes

IT first: It's time to jettison the whole whiteout-on-the-screen/didn't-realize-it-was-a-power-outage/dumb-user-har-har-har culture that permeates so many IT organizations. It's time to replace it with an at-home-they-figure-out-a-new-user-interface-for-every-online-game level of respect for the fundamental ability most employees now have to figure out new technologies if they see a reason to do so.

It's also time to jettison the assumption that the fewer tools you provide, the lower the "total cost of ownership" will be. That's a good thing. Replace that attitude with one that assumes employees have work to do and need the best tools available. As for TCO, ignore it as a pointless metric that pays attention only to cost, forgoing the benefit side of the cost/benefit equation.

How does leader behavior have to change to support these changes in IT culture?

First, don't allow dumb-user stories, and above all don't participate in them. When you hear someone in IT telling one, respond by pointing out that for every dumb user story we tell, those dumb users have at least three dumb-IT-propeller-head stories they tell about us. Point out that if employees aren't adept at using the technology we provide, shame on us for doing such a poor job of educating them about it. Make sure everyone is clear about the companywide goal of having a 21st-century workforce and what that means. When referring to employees in their use of information technology, use nothing but terms of respect for their ability to master it.

Finally, and perhaps most important, engage in storytelling -- talk about workgroups in the company that have mastered one or more of the technologies IT provides to them, to become more effective and to help the company be more competitive.

Business culture change

This one is easy. At least, it's easy to understand what's needed: Every business executive must commit to mastering at least one modern communication or collaboration-enabling technology, and use it when communicating or collaborating with the employees and business partners with whom they work. Even if it's as basic as using Microsoft Word's red-lining and commenting features, it sends a message about expectations. Using SharePoint's co-editing capabilities transmits the message more powerfully.

Collaborating through the company's Web conferencing system instead of accepting the limitations of a conference call, making use of some of its more advanced features -- this does more than simply improve executive effectiveness. It establishes that using these technologies is how we do things around here.

Relying on an administrative assistant to set it up and make it work? That sends a very different message: that the path to success is to leave learning the tools to others because important people don't do those things.

Structural barriers to 21st-century change

Business structure includes such matters as the organizational chart, facilities, and compensation system. From the perspective of achieving a 21st-century workforce, pay attention to the compensation system, and in particular whether "mastering the tools" has earned a place in the standard performance appraisal form.

If it hasn't, encourage HR to revise the form immediately and to establish a leader education program that emphasizes the importance of tool mastery to the company's success. As part of that program, HR should make sure every business leader understands the nature of culture change, that this is one, and that their behavior as business leaders is where the culture change will succeed or fail.

If they aren't clear as to the nature of culture, here's how to explain it: Culture is what everyone expects everyone else to expect. If everyone expects everyone else to expect everyone to master and use the tools, they'll use and master the tools. Otherwise, why would they bother?

This story, "How to get your users out of the Stone Age," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Read more of Bob Lewis' Advice Line blog on InfoWorld.com. For the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.

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