Post: Employee Cynicism and New Applications

Antares Orb-3 launch failure of October 2014

Employee Cynicism and New Applications

Employees are already overburdened, so asking them to learn a new application can be futile.

Or, employees are afraid of an unfamiliar interface, so they’ll push back against adopting it.

Perhaps you’ve encountered these explanations from people in your organization. Sometimes they’re right. However, unwillingness to adopt a new application isn’t always about lack of bandwidth or fear of technology. Those explanations may mask an entirely different issue – employee cynicism.

Front line employees have good reason to be cynical, especially those who have been around long enough to have witnessed several failed projects. When a company has a poor track record of implementing new software, getting employees to adopt a new application can be difficult.

Cultural Differences Can Be a Problem

Some of this is rooted in the difference in cultures between IT and the frontline staff that uses their applications. For example, new software is sometimes described as “future-facing.” But “the future” is something very different depending on who you are talking to. To the IT department head, it means the next two or three years. For staff in the finance department, it more likely means the quarterly close in two weeks. This isn’t suggesting that end users are myopic, just that they may define urgency using a different timescale.

Here’s another cultural difference: to IT people, mistakes are expected, and as such are learning opportunities. You’re not making a mistake, you’re “expanding your understanding of the problem space.” Innovation, even for the sake of innovation, is important.

To front line staff, a mistake is a problem, one you may get dinged for. Once in a status meeting, I criticized an end user’s error on a critical task. I didn’t realize my words would result in him being called into his boss’ office for several minutes of abuse. Of course I didn’t – as a developer, I was insulated from that kind of treatment.

In IT culture, people move along to new jobs very rapidly; even a failed project qualifies as a bullet point on your resume. For office staff that’s not always the case. An employee may stay at a position for a much longer time, moving up through the ranks. During those years, they acquire deep subject matter knowledge about the applications they use.

With time, those applications pass from “modern” into “legacy” status and end up on the docket of systems to be replaced. Sunsetting a legacy application can be a cause for cynicism in end users. An application that to IT appears to be a good candidate for replacement (for example, one that uses a non-supported database or a legacy language) may still work perfectly fine for end users. Our engineers at Orbit encounter this often, when users don’t want to migrate off legacy reporting solutions like Discoverer.

I’ve found that employees have a valuable insight into their applications, and an intuitive understanding of the ramifications of replacing it. They may be cynical about the benefits of a new application because they have had to clean up from prior projects. Management and IT may not remember a “disruption” that required re-entry of data into a new system, but the staff who had to redo data entry for two weeks remembers it very well.

Often, cynicism exists because users don’t believe that management necessarily has their best interests in mind. These users may have resolved application problems their own way, often after considerable work, and they’ve learned to depend on each other, not IT.

And cynicism can affect IT staff as well. An Orbit colleague shared her experience with IT managers who were reluctant to move to a new platform. These were people who had many years invested in their legacy application. For them, the costs of rebuilding and relearning were just too high, which caused them to dismiss the need for a new solution.

The wheel of innovation continues to roll on, leaving older technologies and applications in its wake. It’s hard not to be cynical about this. But when you are launching a new application, it’s important to address user cynicism. Fortunately, human nature is on your side, because long term, people prefer the opposite of cynicism, traits like optimism and curiosity. Find employees like that (here’s a tip: they’re the ones you are happy to see when they show up at your desk) and rely on them when it’s time to move to a new application.

Image credit: NASA/Joel Kowsky [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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