Old Staff and New Workplace Technology

By Andrew Bass | Change, Change-&-Persistence

I ran one of my Breakfast Roundtables last week. One executive told us a story about a shared services centre in a large construction business. This centre has recently done a Robotic Process Automation (RPA) project. If you’re not familiar with RPA, it’s the idea of automating routine business processes with “software robots”. A typical example would be payroll. The aim is to improve efficiency and quality, and the gains can be dramatic. In the best cases, you also free people up to deal better with non-standard situations and do higher-value work.

The biggest problems with introducing new work place technologies such as RPA (and CRM, ERP etc) are not so much technical. They’re more to do with the human factor. At worst, naive IT ‘leaders’ use technology to impose new behavioural demands on people, but offer them little help in adapting. They then blame people for being ‘resistant.’

Those leaders tend to bring problems upon themselves. But even enlightened leaders might reasonably regard the human side of tech implementations with trepidation.

As they prepared for their RPA project, the team was pretty sure that there would be resistance from older workers. In particular they felt certain that one guy, call him Bob, would be a real problem. Close to retirement, Bob was one of their oldest, longest-serving, most tech-phobic, stick-in-the-mud managers. This was someone who hated computers, and hated change! He was bound to be a blocker, and because he knew everyone, he might poison others against the project, too.

But they were in for a surprise.

Against all stereotypes about older staff, technology-phobics and ‘resistors of change’ Bob became the project’s most enthusiastic champion. Because he deeply understood the nature of the work being automated, he saw real advantages. And because of the respect people had for his expertise, he was a highly effective advocate. His credibility and enthusiasm helped convince the ‘swing voters’ to engage.

I loved hearing this example because it exposes one of the biggest barriers to doing more with existing resources: what I call “Casually-accepted BS.” (BS is a technical term in management science which stands for ‘Belief Systems’.)

The workplace is full of casually-accepted BS (In this case, ideas such as “Older workers won’t embrace technology” and “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.”). Such beliefs create a kind of hypnotic blindness to potential.

These statements may sometimes be true for some people, but there are many exceptions. It pays to seek those exceptions out. Many older people have embraced iPads, Amazon accounts, internet banking, Netflix, Skyping their grandchildren and booking their holidays online. Of course they can embrace workplace technology if they can see how it helps them.

Going further, they can often enhance technology initiatives by bringing deep experience, influence and perspective. It’s a huge waste when all that is overlooked.

Andy’s Advice. Challenge casually-accepted belief systems, especially the stuff that ‘everyone knows’ about what people of a certain age or background can and can’t do (and not just beliefs about older workers – if anything there is even more dubious stuff spread about ‘Millennials’). To get an edge, look for and capitalise on counter-examples.

© Andrew Bass. 2019.