Designing For Technological Change: People In The Process
EDWARD O. LAUMANN, GERALD NADLER, AND BRIGID O'FARRELL
The papers in this volume, and the symposium on which it is based, reflect the work of managers and union representatives, engineers and consultants, professors, and practitioners. Despite their common interests in the implementation of new technologies, these groups do not often meet and talk together. There are language barriers across the groups as well as within; there is no more automatic understanding, much less consensus, among sociologists and psychologists than among managers and engineers from the same industry or even the same firm. There is tension because of conflicting goals and expectations: the theoretical interests of scholars versus the day-to-day concerns of managers; the technological priorities of engineers versus the human resource priorities of personnel managers and labor leaders; underlying values of autonomy or control, individualism or collaboration.
Nowhere were these differences more obvious than among the advisory group planning this symposium. As we struggled with the questions, recognizing our diverse backgrounds and experiences, we began to bridge these gaps by using a common perspective—the human element. This is a focus that is both narrow and broad. The focus is narrowly on the role of people in the process of implementing existing technology—not technological innovation itself or the myriad of other factors that are also important in implementation such as product mix, financing, quarterly earnings, or government regulation, although these are certainly touched on in the chapters that follow. The focus is broad in that
the issues related to human resources address people employed at all levels of an organization (from secretary and production worker to chief executive officer); in three different technological settings (manufacturing, medical, and office); in organizations of all sizes in both the public and private sectors (from three support staff members in a nonprofit organization to 3,000 employees in a manufacturing plant to more than 30,000 employees in a government agency).
To facilitate a useful exchange of information among these groups, the advisory committee developed a set of questions to guide both the development of the case studies and the discussions that followed. While each organization has its own unique elements, we found these questions (see the box below) helpful in thinking about common themes that could assist people who are contemplating technological changes in their organizations. They form the core of an ongoing process of planning and problem solving, which facilitates converting what we know about designing technological change into practice.
This summary and the chapters that follow were guided by, and expanded on, these questions. The case studies provide concrete examples of what worked and what did not work. The overview chapters in each section place the case examples in a larger conceptual framework and enable some generalizations about the success factors within specific areas. The opening chapter expands the discussion beyond microlevel project changes to larger questions of organizational structures and interorganizational cooperation.
Out of this diversity emerge some common views on what is known about people and the implementation process, enabling us to offer some ideas for organizations considering the adoption of new workplace technologies. There is also some agreement on what we do not know, thus suggesting areas of research needed to bridge gaps in conceptual and practical knowledge. This chapter provides a summary of what we, as engineers and sociologists, as well as cochairs and staff of the symposium, perceive to be part of the problem and several factors that have major effects on adoption of new technology. While we take responsibility for this summary, we also wish to acknowledge our special debt to the symposium planning committee as well as to the many other participants we consulted in this process.
New technologies have long been part of the American workplace. Never before, however, have the innovations been as fre-
QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER WHEN DESIGNING TECHNOLOGICAL CHANGE
I. A SNAPSHOT: What is the current structure of the organization (flat, hierarchical, centralized, decentralized, line of business, profit centers, etc.)? What areas would new technology change? What would a new structure look like?
II. THE PROBLEM: What problem(s) or opportunity, external as well as internal to the organization, are the technological changes supposed to solve?
III. SELECTION OF THE TECHNOLOGY AND ORGANIZATIONAL APPROACH: How is the technology designed and selected (capabilities, potentials, limitations, internal/external expertise)? What organizational factors are being considered (size, decision making, work force characteristics)? What are the key organizational changes planned?
IV. TRANSITION/HOW ACHIEVED: How will the technology be implemented, especially considering such organizational concerns as training, negotiation, and worker input and control? How is responsibility divided and what incentives are provided for change? Who gains and who loses during different phases of implementation? What are the likely effects on employees and on business performance? How are problems, set backs, resolved?
V. FUTURE ISSUES/EVALUATION: Were there surprises and how were adjustments made by managers, technical experts, and workers? After implementation, what challenges remain? What did the organization learn from the experience that could be useful in the future?
quent and as generally accessible. Technology enabling the flow of information and materials from homes to offices, factories, world capitals, and remote villages has transformed the way products are made and services delivered. At the same time, however, there is increasing recognition that new technologies are often underused or inefficiently used, particularly in manufacturing. As Adler discusses in his overview chapter, for example, the proportion of machine tools that are numerically controlled is less in the United States (40%) than Japan (67%) or Germany (49%). These utilization problems are linked to declining productivity in the increasingly global economy as well as to deteriorating product and service delivery at home. While clearly many businesses continue to innovate and grow, problems such as these might be avoided by learning from the experiences in the manufacturing industries.
One factor that has emerged in the reassessment of the complex process of technological implementation is the role people play in the process. Although technology is often considered a product of science, mathematics, and engineering, any piece of hardware is part of a larger system, including the individual and organizations that apply the science and engineering, build and operate the machinery, ensure a smooth flow of inputs to and outputs from the system, and determine the strategic importance of the desired change to the organization, whether it be improved productivity, reduced costs, or better service delivery. Technology is fundamentally an organizational and human endeavor linking what is theoretically possible to what happens in the laboratory, in the design shop, in the operating room, in the office, or on the plant floor.
Recognition of this factor, however, is relatively recent. Historically, engineers have assumed that implementing technology means that people will adapt and learn to use the new equipment. This approach has been reinforced by social scientists studying worker satisfaction, motivation, and organizational structures to better understand and improve the relationship between people, technology, work, and improved performance and productivity.
The implementation of new technology most often has been explained and shaped by theories in which work was divided into small tasks with clearly defined responsibilities and standards of acceptable performance based on low levels of employee skill and motivation. Management roles were highly specialized, and authority was reinforced through sharp status hierarchies. Labor and management relations have for the most part been hostile.
Emphasis on the individual fit well into large bureaucratic organizations where breaking down work into its smallest components and having strict rules and regulations were critical to turning out the mass production products. Collective action was discouraged, collaborative efforts were not rewarded, internal competition was fierce. New technology was often associated with the ''deskilling'' of jobs and job loss. The pyramid structure set the competitive framework for management, and a strong resistance to unions led the way for nonmanagement workers. The manufacturing model led the way for government bureaucracy and the burgeoning service sector in both public and private institutions.
Today more than ever the successful introduction of technology is tied to the understanding of existing organizational struc-
tures as well as employee perceptions and expectations. Underlying these changes is a shift in basic assumptions about people from ones of limit and control to trust and cooperation, reflected in each of the overview chapters. For example, Kanter's identification of four characteristics of successful technology adoption, "the four Fs: focused, fast, flexible, and friendly," Adler's development of a dynamic model of technological change, Van de Ven's revision of Roger's basic innovation model to reflect organizational complexities, and Bikson and Eveland's emphasis on the implementation process all incorporate these changed assumptions through discussion and documentation of increasing employee responsibility, decreasing management control, and designing technologies that people can understand and adapt to their work situation.
This shift is complex and there are no easy answers for managers considering the use of new technologies. Yet out of the combined research, case studies, and discussions at the symposium it seemed to us that six factors emerged related to people's involvement in the process that are important to consider in designing the implementation of new technology in any organization: leadership, employee involvement, training, incentive systems, organizational structures, and technological characteristics. Together these factors form the culture of the organization, which can either facilitate or discourage technological change and the implementation process.
Innovations can come from any level in an organization, but leadership is necessary to implement changes. Leadership for technological change can come from managers, executives, professionals, and union leaders. In most organizations the decision to invest in new technology appears to be primarily a management decision, with professional or technical consultation, although there are some joint labor/management initiatives. Depending on the scope of the technology and its organizational implications, the case studies provide examples of decisions that rest with office managers, unit directors, district or division managers, vice presidents, chief executive officers, or the board of directors. Even in relatively flat organizational structures a person or relatively small group of people initiate the change, commit the resources, and establish the cultural framework for implementation.
The significant role of committed and involved leaders was noted in all of the cases presented at the symposium. For example, in
the Ambulatory Care Unit case, the board of directors and trustees were fully committed to the project and to the resulting organizational changes and provided the necessary support throughout. Leaders develop the shared vision and goals and effectively communicate them throughout the organization. They provide not only the necessary financial support during the change process but also psychological support to project and middle-level managers who implement the technology and to the employees who are the ultimate users.
Leaders also make or allow the organizational modifications necessary to accommodate the change and the transition process. They create the mechanisms for employee participation, training, incentive schemes, organization design and structure, as well as technology choice and development. In all the automated manufacturing cases, for example, leaders supported employee training, work process redesign and improvement, and changes in the incentive schemes so that employees would be stimulated and engaged by the process.
Sometimes a change in one level of leadership is necessary to motivate, accommodate, or guide the change. In the Shearson Lehman case, new leaders were chosen to identify the main purposes and goals and methodically guide the technological changes to accomplish these goals. In this case, the new leader communicated a clear vision of a successful application of new technology and made the structural changes that made success possible: new personnel, new incentive schemes, new organizational structures. There was a high cost, however, in personnel, and many people lost their jobs. This is in contrast to the Boeing case, where efforts were made to involve the current employees, or the United Way case, where building on the expertise of the current staff was one of the primary goals.
Basically, leaders set the cultural context within which people implement technological change. If this means more shared decision making and flatter organizational structures, it also means a change in the role of the leader, perhaps requiring the leader to give up some control and authority and work in a collaborative structure that has not been common in U.S. organizations. There is a fine tension here between leaders initiating change and controlling the resources for implementation while at the same time delegating authority and involving people at all levels of the organization. How leaders resolve this tension, as well as the very practical ways in which they communicate goals, build trust, and delegate authority are in need of further research.
Employee involvement appears to be an important but not clearly defined concept in the implementation process. It becomes more important as the technology advances more quickly and facilitates user feedback in what Adler calls the dynamic model of technology. Bikson and Eveland report that participative decision making in all aspects of the implementation process is a strong predictor of successful transition to new computer-based tools. This approach assumes that organizational members have ideas and skills that make them a valuable resource and they can build on and improve the technology being introduced.
The case studies provide several examples of employee participation. First, in the Boeing case a major planning meeting was designed to gather employee input into the plant design from all levels, including production workers, union representatives, and supervisors. In another example, at the Los Angeles Times, editorial and production staff were assigned to the new technology project on a full-time basis and a wide-ranging and rotating advisory committee was established to provide first-hand use feedback rather than technological feedback from the computer department. Consolidated Diesel provides an example in which an entirely new organization was established. They had the opportunity to hire employees who desire to participate in decision making. A fit with the participative culture was determined by peer as well as management interviews. Research at Rochester Methodist Hospital underscored the importance of involving first-line supervisors, in this case head nurses, in the design and implementation process.
The opposite of employee participation is of course resistance. Van de Ven provides a summary of why people resist change: "They resist change when the need is not well understood, it is imposed from above, perceived as threatening, seems to have risks that are greater than the potential benefits, and interferes with other established priorities." Because people tend to reject solutions they did not create, when they actively participate in the decision-making process they develop a sense of owning the change they helped develop. Consequently, tensions, uncertainties, and insecurities are alleviated and replaced by commitment to realization and functionality of the project. Interestingly, Bikson and Eveland were more likely to find resistance in the organization rather than in the employees. They report "countless examples of individuals doing old tasks in new ways and doing new tasks they
would not have anticipated when they entered their current jobs." Organizations, however, were reluctant to recognize changes in employees' skills, tasks, or standards with changes in job titles, job descriptions, or pay.
Employee resistance due to fear of job loss is a reality, however, as demonstrated in the Shearson Lehman case. Adler finds that this is often the source of union resistance to changes, and this fear was certainly the perception, if not the reality, in the United Way case. Adler and Kanter also find, however, that trust can be developed even in the face of layoffs if goals and information are honestly shared with employees, and humane efforts are made to relocate employees who must be let go.
Resistance may also be related to the deskilling of jobs or decreases in the level of control and responsibility. The Neonatal Intensive Care case provides an important example. The technology was successfully implemented and babies' lives were saved. Yet there was and continues to be staff resistance to the new technology because the responsibility and control of the medical staff were shifted to other medical professionals without staff involvement in the decision.
Although employee participation is generally seen as a factor contributing to successful technological implementation, there is also a fundamental problem defining what employee participation in decision making actually means and reconciling employee participation with the reality of job loss, deskilling, or reduced responsibility. More research is needed to explore the meaning of participation—for example, what is the degree of control over outcomes—to describe the political and psychological dimensions of participation, and to analyses of linkages among all these aspects. Providing everybody with the opportunity to participate can also become costly if it involves endless inconclusive discussions that do not come to closure in concrete actions. Further efforts are needed to better understand the most cost-effective roles at various stages of the change process (e.g., evaluator or generator of ideas) and in various positions in the organization (e.g., middle manger, design engineer, consultant, shop-floor worker, financial analyst).
From the research reviews in this volume to the participant discussions at the symposium, training is noted as an important aspect of implementation. While there is continuing debate about
the overall effect of technology on job skills, in those cases where technology clearly upgrades the skills, for example, see Adler's discussion of the CAD/CAM jobs, training is necessary. Related organizational changes may also require new management techniques emphasizing cooperation and support. Bikson and Eveland's findings in office automation may also be widespread, however. The importance of learning support for effective computer use was widely acknowledged but rarely manifest in organizations. Most of the organizations in their research provided brief beginning-level training, but then users were expected to progress with little besides self-instruction.
Several of the cases presented here required job redesign, whereby employees' jobs are altered to include a greater variety of tasks and to require more autonomy in decision making. Workers were required to act rather than react as they acquired skills in many jobs and learned to plan effectively how to convert knowledge and ideas into action. Managers had a more supportive role, acting as teachers and resources rather than as authoritative directors. At Consolidated Diesel Company, for example, a training center was established where each employee received 28 weeks of training between 1982 and 1987. Training encompassed not only courses on work methods and technology but also on communications, finance, group dynamics, and conflict resolution.
Assessment of training needs requires a thorough evaluation of current and projected skill levels of the work force and the jobs. Measuring skill levels and designing successful training programs, however, are developing areas of expertise. There are few packaged programs that will apply to any situation. Several research questions emerge: What are the trade-offs between training and replacement of employees; for example, increased motivation and training costs of current employees versus costs and the political impact of firing and hiring? What skills are needed by managers to drive the adoption of new technologies? Does training in these skills actually improve the process? What is the relationship between project success and different training approaches given varying skill levels in managers and employees?
Measurement of skill levels of employees as well as of job variety, task authority, and other job-related variables at the national level is also needed. This would allow for comparative studies over time between industries. Better measurement of current and projected skill levels and training needs are necessary for realistic and effective educational reforms as well employment planning on individual, organizational, and national levels.
Incentives and rewards are an inherent part of organizational structure. They include both the external rewards such as increased pay, promotions, and job titles, as well as intrinsic rewards such as job satisfaction or autonomy. These systems can be used to encourage the development as well as the implementation of technological change. They must also be adjusted to reflect real changes in skill levels and responsibility brought about by new technology. In general, awards to individuals are expected to increase the number of completely new work processes or products and the number of ideas for improvement. Group awards on the other had are expected to shorten the time needed for innovation implementations and to increase the number of incremental innovations or small improvements on existing work processes or products.
Reward structures work better if they ensure equal pay for equal work and the same types of special benefits to all employees who contribute to productivity improvement. Shearson Lehman, for example, modified its salary and bonus system to facilitate and encourage collaboration between end-users and data processing professionals. Both groups were able to receive similar bonus pay for outstanding results.
Adler presents an interesting case of an auto plant (New United Motor Manufacturing, Inc., NUMMI) where new, technology-facilitated jobs were broken down into smaller parts and time pressures increased well beyond the standards of the old system. Yet workers appeared satisfied. He accounts for this by the fact that workers themselves were involved in setting the standards and all were aware of the common plantwide goals they were working toward. He suggests that managers need to rethink some of the basic assumptions about employee motivation and satisfaction as new systems are brought into existing organizations.
Underlying the discussion of rewards and incentives are three areas of tension: short-term versus long-term goals; allowing for mistakes; and subjective performance appraisals. As the case studies ably demonstrate, the larger the proposed change, the more time will be involved. While clear targets can be set for measuring accomplishments, there must be time for errors, reassessments, and plan adjustments. A major criticism of U.S. industry in general has been the emphasis on short-term goals, especially in comparison with Japanese industry. Managers responsible for implementing major technological innovations will be hard pressed to
meet the standard weekly, monthly, or even yearly targets with any precision under a short-term philosophy that does not foster risk taking and allow for making mistakes.
No matter how much an organization professes that it wants change, if managers' and employees' career decisions are based on short-term measurements, there is likely to be little progress. The core of the LA Times case, for example, took more than seven years. Yet admitting to error in year six and virtually starting over with new software did not stop the project, which ultimately resulted in a successful new system.
The reward system cannot be separated from the personnel evaluation system that informs it. One problem is that the judgments involved in evaluation systems that put a premium on innovation may be inherently more subjective than systems dependent on more easily measurable performance indices. Subjectivity in personnel evaluation is often perceived, and sometimes rightly so, as putting more power in the hands of managers and supervisors at the expense of the technical and nonmanagement workers.
Many questions remain unanswered in developing appropriate reward systems to support implementation. For example, what rewards are more appropriate for an idea generator and technological implementer, both of whom play a significant role in the total solution? What happens in pay-for-knowledge systems when employees have learned all the necessary skills? How does an organization continue to motivate employees? How have long-term benefits been recognized and long-term incentives been institutionalized?
Organizational structure provides the context in which all of the above factors operate. It encompasses both the formal rules and regulations, and accompanying organizational charts, as well as the informal associations, methods, and procedures that govern daily work lives. In mature industries, rules and procedures are desirable in order to avoid continually revisiting problems that have been solved. These same codified rules and procedures, however, can predispose workers and managers to a myopic view that overlooks opportunities for innovation. Thus, there is potential conflict between static and dynamic efficiency. Rapid technological improvement requires a flexible and fluid organizational structure that risks insufficient control and unnecessary error in more mature operations. Conversely, requirements for error-free mature
operations may conflict with the innovative behavior needed for continuing improvement. This conflict in the life cycle of organizations is not new and must certainly be recognized in developing structures and people that will encourage innovation, while maintaining that which is necessary for the ongoing operation of the organization.
Flexibility in organizational structure is a theme throughout this volume and the symposium, beginning with Kanter's opening remarks highlighting the importance of flexibility at the work unit level, across work units, and in the innovation project itself. A major strategy to increase flexibility is to develop flatter organizational structures, with fewer layers of management, thus reducing the hierarchy of the traditional management pyramid. The development of the traditional structures has been well documented, including a fierce competitiveness among managers and teams to secure the relatively few positions at the top.
To some extent a change in the structure of many organizations occurred in the 1980s through downsizing. As part of the increased global competitiveness, extra layers of management have been stripped away, and the number of unemployed managers is at a record high. Flexibility, however, requires that not only the number of managers but also the actual layers of management in the pyramid be reduced. This reduction is most often accompanied by a decrease in the number of job titles, while the jobs themselves may be enlarged and enriched in scope. Decreasing the layers of control increases communication and the flow of information across departments and groups, while also making the organizations more complex, differentiated, and decentralized. All of these changes call for new working arrangements and related training (discussed above).
Most of the cases presented show that flexibility through a shift to participative management is a significant factor in successful technological change. For example, in the Bio-Synthetics case the organizational structure was redesigned, leaving it only three levels of management. This shift was also easier when the organization was new, as in the Boeing and Consolidated Diesel cases.
Questions remain about when and what new structures are most effective. How can companies make a successful shift when they are not starting new? Who are the key decision makers in the reorganization process? What are the appropriate changes in organizational structures for various changes in the environment? Which organizational design, by function, product, or something else, is more adaptable to uncertainties?
Finally there is the question of technology. Selecting and adopting technology is a complex process that must be based not only on technological alternatives but also on organizational strategy and ideology as well as social system considerations. It is generally recognized that deciding to implement state-of-the-art technology simply for the sake of using the best available processes may not bring about the expected benefits. Technology must be matched with the problem to be solved. The Forest Service case describes a very large organization systematically balancing these needs with the technology available; in this case, not a particular technology, but a set of integrated technologies to be implemented nationwide. The LA Times case offers an interesting contrast. When the process started there was no satisfactory technology available, so newspaper employees worked with a computer company to develop their own software. After several years this did not yield a workable system. By then, however, a new technological package on the shelf could be adapted to meet their needs.
As noted by Adler, many engineers have "idiot-proofed" their innovations, making it virtually impossible for the user to interact or offer suggestions to adapt the technology to meet their specific needs. This lack of confidence in users and distrust of people other than the developers has outlasted its usefulness. It is time to move beyond the "black box" concept of technology where users do not really understand the technology but must learn to work with it. Bikson and Eveland find user participation, including working with systems designers to be the most effective way to link complex tool development to substantive task performance.
Affordable and proven technology can be carefully adapted to suit the needs of the people who will work with it. In the manufacturing area, for example, the Boeing case illustrates technological design that is going through iterations to accommodate the decisions that are made on the way work will be organized, such as in groups. At International Bio-Synthetics, technology was designed to fit the needs of the employees as they themselves defined them. In office automation, students at the United Way built a system based on input by the employee users. As both the technology and the organizations evolve, the developers and designers of the technology can take these changes into account. According to one participant they must "design for surprises."
Who should participate in selecting the solution, expert or user? When should experts on technology participate, in generation or
implementation? What is the relative effectiveness of different approaches to implementing technology; for example, is it more effective for an organization to start as a centralized system and to allow decentralization or to start with islands of automation and try to integrate them later. What steps can be taken to ensure that technology will be flexible, modifiable, and expandable? Finding the best fit among technology, organization, and people is an evolving process informed by experience and ongoing research to answer these questions.
In sum, the implementation of technology is a complex process that may facilitate or require organizational change or both. Underlying the calls for flexibility, user input, and cooperation is a fundamental shift in the assumptions about people, theories of management, and technological design. Employee roles, at all levels, are expanded rather than minimized, and this means increasing autonomy and responsibility. Managers give up control and become resources encouraging cooperation and trust rather than authoritarian guards. Engineers move from designing black boxes to designing interactive technologies that change and develop over time.
The human resource factors identified here as contributing to or hindering successful implementation are not meant to be exhaustive, nor are the remaining questions. Rather they highlight important issues discussed in detail in the remainder of this volume and provide valuable information to engineers, managers, labor representatives, and social scientists who are designing, implementing, and studying technological changes so important to future U.S. development and growth. This symposium and this volume underscore the need for continuing cooperation and exchange among the people involved in technological innovation as they grapple with converting what we know into daily practice while continuing to resolve unanswered questions.