Human element can make new IT a tough sell

A company’s successful use of information technology often has little to do with the technology itself, an issue highlighted at the recent Microsoft Business Solutions (MBS) Convergence 2005 event in San Diego.

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Among other things, the conference was a meeting of the minds for those working with customer relationship management (CRM) and enterprise resource planning (ERP) tools. CRM software tracks and analyzes information an organization gathers during its dealings with customers, building an intelligent profile of their needs and buying patterns. ERP software provides ties between various business processes, basically allowing different departments to share information efficiently.

The general consensus was that these days, the nuts and bolts part of the average IT upgrade project is usually pretty straightforward. A company typically assesses retrofits and, if necessary, replaces the computing infrastructure required to support whatever is being introduced. The applications get integrated, configured, and voila, things are up and running.

That’s perhaps an oversimplification, but the installation process is still easy enough compared to what follows.

As with many things IT, the greater complexity lies in the human element. That’s because people, being people, tend to stick to their old familiar ways, so getting employees to use new technology and IT-enabled processes properly can be a tough sell.

Businesses get caught up in calculations of the dollar costs, timelines and expected returns of a project, and often neglect to work out a plan to get employees to actually make use of the things being installed. How many IT upgrades ultimately fail to bring the promised rewards simply because people don’t change their routines and do what’s necessary to make the new stuff go?

A lot, apparently. According to IDC Canada research vice-president Joel Martin, it’s No. 2 on the list of pitfalls encountered by Canadian companies installing CRM systems (behind problems related to tying the system into necessary databases).

The problem is that CRM and ERP are all about information. If databases aren’t kept up to date by employees and business partners, it’s like having a high-performance engine that’s starved for fuel.

Liquor distributor Mark Anthony Group of Vancouver successfully deployed a CRM system. At the end of a work day, employees now update a central database with the latest information they’ve gathered about dealers and distributors.

While praising the benefits of the technology, chief information officer Robert Eckley admits this buy-in to the new CRM process by everyone, especially those on the front line of sales and distribution, was critical. “Everybody had to share in the vision … one or two [dissenters] can sandbag the whole thing.”

While he’s had lots of experience with CRM technology, Mr. Eckley called in consultant Dean Guest, the director of business development for Vancouver-based Ifusion Solutions Inc., who has learned a thing or two about gaining user buy-in.

Mr. Guest tries to be proactive by, for example, anticipating the areas or departments within a business where the highest levels of resistance to a new technology or business process are likely to exist. Typically the stiffest opposition comes from sales professionals, who are traditionally independent-minded and oftentimes have little experience working with sales force automation tools such as CRM, he said.

Once the areas of greatest risk or highest resistance are identified, he presents what he’s learned to the project chief and discusses direct and indirect methods to address it. A direct method might include offering sales-related incentives to encourage and reward those who embrace the new system and processes. An indirect method would be to invite certain individuals from high-risk departments to join the project team during the stage where business processes and functional requirements are being analyzed. In the ensuing hours, days and weeks spent with consultants and invited participants, Mr. Guest seeks to build understanding of why changes must made to existing routines.

“Due to human nature, we find it is much easier to have our clients come to their own conclusion that their [existing] processes may be unhealthy and therefore require change in order to ensure that best practices are followed,” Mr. Guest said.

Training is another critical component that many companies overlook. Mr. Guest and his consultants provide what he describes as “fundamentals” training sessions, where users are taught how to navigate and understand all of the core elements of the new system. Business process training, a second step, involves entering real data into the training system so that people are comfortable using it from day one.

“This part of the training can go slowly at times due to high volumes of questions and in-depth discussions,” Mr. Guest said.

When the training is complete and the system is live, Mr. Guest and his consultants work with the customer to assess the quality of the data being entered, and follow up with employees who may still be struggling.

Carol Vorster, general manager of infrastructure planning for wastewater and energy specialist Terasen Utility Services Inc. in Richmond, B.C., agreed this is the best type of approach. “Changing user behaviour is one of the most challenging aspects of a system implementation or continuous improvement approach to working with existing systems.”

Ms. Vorster, when introducing an ERP system, sought to identify two or three productivity gains for each user or group in the company. “We typically look to the frontline managers to bring these areas to our attention, hence giving us their buy-in,” Ms. Vorster said.

“Cultural acceptance can easily be an inhibitor to success. Focusing and marketing those ‘win-win’ situations that make people’s jobs easier goes a long way to overcoming the initial resistance. Once the users find something that can really make their life easier, they are more open to adopt future changes.”

— This article appeared in The Globe and Mail on March 17, 2005.

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