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Why Do Workers Reject New Technologies?

It's a familiar situation: a company adopts a new software tool and tells its workers it will make their job faster and easier. Implementation doesn't go so well, and the software is dropped. Workers blame management for providing them with unhelpful software; management blames workers for their unwillingness to change.

Paul Leonardi, the Breed Junior Chair in Design and assistant professor of industrial engineering and management sciences at Northwestern University's McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science, observed such a situation at a major automobile manufacturer. But what his research found was that the software was indeed helpful, and the workers weren't unwilling to change. His results, published in the July edition of the journal Human Communication Research, might surprise you.

Autoworks (Leonardi's pseudonym for the automobile company he observed) is like many product development companies that are looking to reduce costs. In the creation of a consumer vehicle, engineering costs can run anywhere from 20 to 30 percent. So the company developed a software tool that would help crash performance engineers automate preprocessing and postprocessing tasks that they perform, ideally giving them more time to do more analysis work.

"Analysis work is the real fun of engineering," says Leonardi, who is also assistant professor of communication studies. "It's problem solving and using your expert knowledge to interpret the the results to decide, how you can make something work better?"

The software tool was multifaceted and could perform many tasks, but management — under the impression that engineers would resist any sort of automation that could potentially threaten their jobs — decided to try to persuade engineers to use it by telling them it would speed up their work.

But the software wasn't effective at speeding up work — and in many cases, it made tasks slower. So the engineers decided the software wasn't worth using.

"Engineers were looking for a tool that would allow them share their results with one another. This tool had capabilities to help them to share their work, but management didn't market those features," Leonardi says. "Instead, they marketed a small subset of features that they thought engineers would want, but they didn't have a clear understanding of what the tool did or what engineers needed."

This miscommunication, coupled with the fact that the engineers' interactions with each other reinforced their negative views that the software wasn't fulfilling expectations, led the engineers to quit using the software altogether. They weren't lazy or unwilling to use new technology — they thought that the technology made their jobs slower, so, in the best interest of the company, they stopped using the technology.

"This study points to the importance of having both the developers of the tool and the managers understand how the people they manage work," Leonardi says. "If they had a better understanding, they wouldn't have said, "'this will make you work faster.' They would have picked a better frame to try to convince the engineers. Picking the right means of influence is incredibly important."

Leonardi is continuing to look at technology implementation among organizations — next he will study how one company's tool is implemented at another organization, and how that implementation affects both organizations.

"Our research consistently shows that rhetoric that surrounds technology implementations really do influence if and how people will use a technology and whether or not desired organizational changes will happen," he says.