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Digital transformation and psychology – increase innovation adoption by working together

By Joyce M. Clark, Alight Research and Advisory Center

The digital transformation has the best adoption where innovation was clearly married with psychology. Why? Because as humans we’re hardwired to resist change. People resist change because they believe they'll lose something of value, or they'll not be able to adapt to the new ways. In this blog, I explain how to balance the elements of change to ensure your HR transformation project works for individuals as well as the business.

When on a recent holiday I overheard two grandmothers talking about their iPads. While one was playing solitaire on hers she commented to her friend that this is all she used it for. The other, who it transpired had received one as a gift from her grandchildren two-years prior, admitted she’d not used hers at all. In fact, it remained in a closet in its original packaging.

I couldn’t help but think what a wasted opportunity this was for both of them. My own mother, similar in age to them (80+ years old), had enthusiastically embraced her iPad, and to such a degree it has transformed and expanded her daily routine for the better.

In recent years, my mother has ‘traveled’ the world, visited weekly with her grandchildren who live across the country, and during the 2020 pandemic lockdowns, was able to participate in family life, if virtually, even enjoying her youngest great grandchild grow and take her first steps.

And so, for me the million-dollar question was; why did and does my mother continue to embrace the opportunities her iPad opens up for her while the other two women of similar age had found the same tool to be of little or no value to them?


Why do some users adopt, and others resist digital transformation?

As a technology consultant, I recognized long ago that innovation projects that work best are those where digital transformation was clearly married with psychology.

Why? Because technology investments are only of value if they improve and / or increase process efficiencies and business outcomes. Consequently, I often have cause to not just wonder, but to seek to understand and then address people’s resistance to change.

As humans we’re hardwired to resist change. There are parts of our brains – the Prefrontal Cortex, the Amygdala, and the Basal Ganglia, which in parallel interpret change as a ‘threat’ and release the fear, fight, and / or flight hormones.

Armchair psychology comes from logic and introspection. We need to apply this psychology to every stage of digital transformation project, from inception to design, go-line and day-to-day use.

Joyce M. Clark, HR and payroll consultant
Alight Solutions

Similarly to a professional psychologist, in my capacity of ‘armchair psychologist’ as part of my role as a digital transformation consultant, I base opinions on objective data. Where we differ is the professional factors in scientific observations whereas, I think about how the client business operates now, and how this can be improved. Not just through innovation, but by ensuring the right communication, education and change management structure.


Addressing resistance to the changes of digital transformation

Often here we will bring in our colleagues from the value engineering team. They will more precisely map scenario outcomes. This helps ease the resistance because we can show how the technology investment will help individuals and groups of people.

If this level of resistance (fear) is greater at the decision maker level, digital transformation projects are less likely to be considered during the budget rounds. And, if they are, the final installation is rarely used to its full capacity. Think back to our two grandmothers and their iPads.

One grandmother had seen value in using her iPad to play solitaire, a traditionally manual ‘process’. She had continued to do so, because it was easy to do and evidently provided a positive change. However, she was not open to seeing other possibilities this move from manual to digital might bring.

The second grandmother was not even willing to try. Dismissed without a chance. The third grandmother (my mother) fully embraced the benefits, opportunities, and efficiencies that this ‘digital transformation’ had brough into her world.

People resist change because they believe they will lose something of value, or they fear they will not be able to adapt to the new ways. No two people will adapt to change the same way, because we interpret our own levels of safety and security.

Clearly, in the process of buying, setting-up and using the device, my mother had been provided with a more empathetic ‘change management process.’ The first grandmother had perhaps been shown a ‘standard setting’ on her iPad – maybe pre-loading Solitaire. The third had literally been presented with the box. It’s easier to leave it in the box than to get it out and not understand, get it wrong, break it, whatever the fear factor is. The same psychology and process applies to all, from boardroom to loungeroom.


Realizing value from ‘feared’ technology 

Some companies that have moved their HR systems to the cloud sometimes ask themselves why they’re not realizing the value they’d hoped for. It’s rarely the platform to blame, but the belief that once their implementation is over, their digital transformation is completed as well.

The value comes from understanding that any transformation from old ways to new is a journey. The firms that recognize this are most likely to quickly realize the value of their investments. The real winners are the companies that implement enhanced business processes, communicate them throughout their organizations, and have teams that promote continuous process improvement efforts.

A great example of positive results for organizations managing change well is the evolution of the annual review process to continuous performance management. It takes courage to decide that your company will no longer conduct annual performance reviews, the staple people development process for companies for more than 100 years. “if it’s not broken, why fix it?”

Whilst the annual review process is not superseded per se, it’s no longer the best way to manage, nurture and grow individuals or teams of people. It’s static while work today is, as are the roles we do, agile.

Added to this, we have to address the reality that most of us can no longer have ad hoc meetings, quick chats over the desk or a quick doodle to share ideas. Rarely now are we sitting together. Lots now work flexibly, with it being common for a single team to have upwards of 30 different nationalities represented.

Or can we? Yes. Cloud-based HR, conferencing, and collaboration apps (even accessed via an iPad!) bring us together. We can work as if not more effectively that we did pre-digitization, with the advantages that agility bring us professionally and personally. We’re used to on-demand banking and entertainment, for example and live more and more in the now.

Therefore, feedback circa 8-months hence is of little value to our digital mindsets. For our younger colleagues it’s almost incomprehensible to discuss look backwards and if the organization is not forward looking like their ambitions, we start to get caught up in the talent retention conundrum. With the technology even the most straightforward HR modernization projects bring performance reviews can easily be conducted and documented daily, weekly, or monthly, whichever increment your organization, department or team chooses.

Not only are these regular check-ins great for teamwork, they service also as mental health check-ins and ways to build relationship. According to a 2019 Forbes study looking at employee engagement and wellbeing, those who feel their voices are heard are 4.6 times more likely to feel empowered to perform their best work. There are many other statistics that support the concept of manager and employee engagement improving employee performance.

For sure, it takes time and effort to transform business processes. But, based on third-party as well as our own client project statistics and studies, digital HR transformation projects tend to be worth it.

‘Tend’ suggests this is not always the case. To be successful, business process transformations require strong, effective change management for a company and its people to benefit. With this, I would be as bold as to say modernization projects are almost always guaranteed to deliver results not possible with legacy systems and processes.

We’ve touched here on an easy to comprehend benefit of workplace digitization, but every aspect of your people processes can benefit from modernization. Single-source, integrated data, and the analysis of is a huge benefit of digital transformation and one I will focus on in another blog.

Getting back to my 80+ year old mother, when she first received her iPad, following a series of ‘change management sessions’ with grandchildren, she was downloading apps so she could do online what she had for years been doing off-line (manually). She now reads newspapers online and listens to old-time-radio shows she hadn’t heard since she was a child.

Using a recent downloaded app, she’s now creating a family recipe book so future generations can enjoy her cooking. Knowing my mom, she will most likely transform some of the older recipes to a healthier version. All possible thanks to a well-managed digital transformation that’s shares the same principles as that delivered for a multi-country project. It really is nothing to be scared of!

Alight has helped many companies realize the potential of their HR cloud implementations, and we continue to partner with many clients to ensure their digital transformation journey is a success. We can partner with you too. Learn more on our transformation page.


6 steps to use digital transformation and psychology to overcome resistance and effectively implement change

  1. Accept there will be resistance. We all fear change.
  2. Inform and then listen to and be honest with employees from the start. We all fear the unknown
  3. Help them to understand the change and its effects on them as people, not just the business. Afterall, most people work for their financial reward foremost
  4. Phase the changes. Give people the chance to learn in parallel with the transformation. Feeling overwhelmed scares us
  5. Recognize that for many, the immediate fear is that automation means job loses
  6. Be human. Digital transformation projects are supposed to make life easier for us!


Acknowledging types of resistance

Group – when groups of employees’ challenge change

Individual – when powerful employees are against change

Active – when employees actively oppose change

Passive – when employees are negative about change

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