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Applying the Change Function

I recently read The Change Function, a book written by Pip Coburn. It clarified much of what I have been thinking about the adoption of collaborative technology and provides a perspective that every intranet strategist should read.

The subtitle for the book is "Why Some Technologies Take Off and Others Crash and Burn". I might have also added "...and why others just sputter along". A common complaint about collaborative technologies is they fail to deliver the results advertised beyond small pockets of groups.  Although, some of these problems are associated with the technology, much of this, I believe, is due to the way companies choose and deploy collaborative technologies. The Change Function strengthens my belief in this.

In short, The Change Function says that change is up to the user. The user decides to change (or not) based on the current level of perceived crisis versus the total perceived pain of adopting something new. If the current crisis is less than the pain of adopting something new then change will not happen.

Coburn says the tech industry's usual approach (and I dare say a large majority of IT organizations' approaches) to providing a value proposition is based on Moore's Law or Grove's Law. In other words make the technology cheap enough or fast enough (or with enough bells and whistles) and the user will change. If that doesn't work, well, then the users are simply not smart enough to see the value.

Using The Change Function as a guide, there are two directions we can take to help with technology adoption. Either increase the current level of crisis or lower the perceived pain of adoption. So often our approach to driving adoption of collaborative technologies is to show its numerous benefits and if the users can't understand that then we've done the best we can. Illuminating the benefits of collaborative technology is important but incomplete.

The concept of the change function is about focusing on the end user of a technology. We must first understand the user's current crisis. Coburn admits that the word "crisis", is ambiguous but it refers to the level of dissatisfaction, from indifference to crisis. An obvious example is the need for more convenient communication driving the development and widespread adoption of cell phones. A non-obvious example is the success of the iPod. Few of us understood the hassles we were going through with portable music until Apple introduced the iPod.

One approach might be to increase the user's crisis by convincing management that a new collaborative technology is valuable and must be broadly adopted to gain its full benefit. In this case, management's role in the change function is to increase the employees' crisis by making a particular change a priority for the company.

In his recent blog post, What's my real job, Jeffrey Phillips talks about how to get people to spend time on an innovation initiative.  Phillips illustrated the change function in action when someone at a recent engagement asked "how should I spend my time, and what's most important from the company's point of view?" Phillips' answer was the use of compensation and recognition stating "If we layer on other responsibilities but don't provide compensation, the tasks that aren't compensated won't get done or won't get done well."

The other factor in the change function is reducing the total perceived pain of adoption. In my opinion the increasingly wider recognition of the value of user experience, which many of us observed in the success of Web 2.0 technologies, takes us towards one possible approach. This has led to some companies using Web 2.0 solutions to improve internal processes and to the birth of Enterprise 2.0. Certainly, many Enterprise 2.0 solutions are much easier to use than their predecessors. But, we should not lose sight of the needs of the user and simply focus on the user interface of a tool. What are the crises that can be resolved by Enterprise 2.0 tools?

Perhaps Coburn provides some insight into this as well. In a section of the book where he describes the potential for business intelligence software he says:

Today's business world is becoming infinitely more complex, and modern companies generally have a large number of applications that take care of running the business. Such application diversity initially wasn't much of a problem because the applications were meant to automate self-sufficient independent functions, so there was initially little concern that the result of this diversity would be a mismatched collection of "stove-piped" applications rather than a unified network of linked systems.

But the resulting complexity is perhaps the single largest crisis facing enterprises in relationship to technology. The crisis: how to integrate and make sense of all this data.

Here is one area where I disagree with Coburn. Yes, complexity is the largest technological crisis facing enterprises today.  Enterprises not only have to make sense of all this data but employees have to use this highly complex set of applications, each with their own interface, method of controlling access, and independent repository. These "stove-piped" applications significantly impact the productivity of users who have to navigate each one independently, inhibit the sharing of ideas and use of company data within teams, and obscure opportunities where re-use and recombination of data can occur.

A primary goal for Enterprise 2.0 should be a simpler IT environment that provides the data we need to make a decision along with the capability to share the insights we gain. Wouldn't that be a change?

What do you think? Let me know by leaving a comment below.

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