When introducing technology into the workplace, it pays to be realistic. For example, the introduction of new digital technologies into a company often does not radically improve a company’s operations. Despite high level planning, it is more common for frontline workers to figure out how to get technical tools that will help them to some extent.
This task can easily fall on overworked employees who have to deal with the completion of tasks, but do not always have a lot of say in an organization. So is there no way to systematically think about implementing digital technologies in the workplace?
MIT Professor Kate Kellogg believes it is, and calls it “experimentalist governance of digital technology”: Let different parts of an organization experiment with technology – then centrally remove barriers to emerging best practices across the enterprise take.
If you want to take advantage of new digital technologies, you need to enable local teams to adapt the technology to their environment. You also need to create a central group that tracks all of these local experiments and revises processes in response to problems and opportunities. If you just let everyone on the ground do it all, you will see resistance to the technology, especially from the frontline workers. “
Kate Kellogg, David J. McGrath Jr. Professor, Management and Innovation, MIT Sloan School of Management
Kellogg’s perspective comes after doing an 18-month ethnographic study at a teaching hospital examining many facets of everyday work – including things like the integration of technology into everyday medical practice.
Some of the lessons learned from this organizational research now appear in an article Kellogg wrote, “Local Adaptation Without Work Intensification: Experimentalist Governance of Digital Technology for Mutually Beneficial Role Reconfiguration in Organizations,” which was recently published online in the journal Organizational science.
In the hospital
Kellogg’s daily on-site ethnographic research took place in the primary care department of an academic hospital in the northeastern United States, where there were six medical teams, each made up of seven to nine doctors and three or four nurses and medical assistants, and four or five receptionists.
The primary care group moved to use the new digital technology of the electronic health system to provide clinical decision support by indicating when patients needed vaccinations, diabetes tests and Pap smears. Previously, certain actions may only have been necessary after seeing a doctor. The software made these things a part of the preclinical patient routine when needed.
In practice, however, the introduction of digital technology led to a significant increase in the workload for the medical assistants, who were responsible for using the alarms, communicating with the patients – and often asked doctors to do more background work. When the advice provided by the technology did not match the physician’s individual assessment of when to take a particular action, the medical assistants were tasked with learning more about a patient’s medical history.
“I was surprised it didn’t work well,” says Kellogg.
She adds, “The promise of these technologies is that they will automate many practices and processes, but they don’t do that perfectly. There often has to be people filling the gaps between what the technology can do and what is really needed, and often less skilled workers are asked to do so. “
Kellogg found that the challenges in using the software were not just technological or logistical, but also organizational. The primary care unit was ready to have its various groups experiment with the software, but those most affected were the least well placed to request changes in the hospital routine.
“It sounds great that all of the local teams are experimenting, but in practice… a lot of local people ask to do lots of things, and they ask [the workers] have no way of pushing that back without being seen as whiners, “notes Kellogg.
Three types of problems
Overall, Kellogg identified three types of problems when implementing digital technologies. The first, which she calls “participation issues”, is when lower-ranking employees are uncomfortable voicing job problems. The second, “threshold problem”, is to get enough people to use the solutions found through local experimentation for the solutions to be useful.
The third is “free rider problems” when doctors, for example, benefit from having medical assistants perform a wider range of work tasks, but then fail to follow the suggested guidelines required to free medical assistant time.
However, while digital technology offered some benefits, the hospital had to take one more step in order to use it effectively: create a central working group to use the solutions identified in local experiments while meeting the needs of doctors with realistic expectations in relation to medical assistants.
“What I found out was that this local adaptation of the digital technology had to be complemented by a central governing body,” says Kellogg. “For example, the central group could introduce technical training and a new performance assessment system for medical assistants, and quickly disseminate locally developed technology solutions such as re-programmed code with revised decision support rules.”
For example, the appointment of a representative of the hospital’s medical assistants to such a governing body means that “the lower-level medical assistant can speak on behalf of her colleagues, rather than” [being perceived as] a resistance, now [they’re] asked for a valued opinion on what all of their colleagues are struggling with, “notes Kellogg.
Another tactic: instead of asking all doctors to follow the recommendations of the central group, the group sought “preliminary commitments” from doctors – a willingness to try best practice – and found this to be a more effective way of getting everyone ins To get boat.
“What experimental governance is, you allow all the local experimentation, you find solutions, but then you have a central body made up of people from different levels, and you solve participation problems and take advantage of opportunities that arise from local adaptation” said Kellogg says.
A bigger picture
Kellogg has long done much of her research through extensive ethnographic work in medical institutions. For example, her book “Challenging Operations”, published in 2011, examined the controversy surrounding the hours doctors demanded on the basis of on-site research. This new paper is again a product of over 400 sessions Kellogg spent accompanying medical staff in the primary care unit.
“The holy grail of ethnography finds a surprise,” says Kellogg. It also requires, as she notes, “a persistent focus on the empirical. Let’s get past abstractions and look at a few specific examples to really understand the generalizable challenges and best ways to meet them. I have learned things which you would “not be able to learn through a survey.”
So, with all the public debate about technology and jobs, there is no substitute for a detailed understanding of the real impact of technology on workers.
Kellogg hopes the concept of experimental governance could be widely adopted to capitalize on the promising but imperfect adoption of digital technologies. It could also apply to banks, law firms, and all types of businesses that use various forms of business software to streamline processes like human resource management, customer support, and email marketing.
“The big picture is that we want to encourage experimentation in digital transformation, but we also need some kind of centralized governance,” says Kellogg.
“It’s a way of solving problems experienced in the field and making sure that successful experiments can be disseminated. … Lots of people talk about digital technology as either good or bad. But neither the technology itself nor the nature of the work. What I’m showing is that companies need an experimental governance process to make digital technology beneficial for both managers and employees. “