What Can Technology Roll-Outs Learn from the Pioneers of Medicine?

What do today’s technology roll-outs and mid-19th century medicine have in common? Both have struggled to get users to embrace the latest innovations, despite their obvious benefits. Find out what the IT professionals of today can learn from the doctors of old. 

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I recently came across a fascinating article, published some years ago in The New Yorker, which discussed the introduction of anesthesia in surgery. It got me thinking about the IT industry’s criteria for success when introducing new technologies, especially our obsession with “on-time and on-budget” over actual adoption of the technology.

Now, no one in their right mind today would have a tooth pulled, appendix removed or broken arm set without the benefit of anesthesia. But that wasn’t the case in the mid-1800s. I’ll spare you the agonizing details, but the experience can be summed up as nothing less than excruciating.

What fascinated me about the article was the medical community’s response to this groundbreaking invention. While some accepted it, many others remained steadfastly opposed.

This new technology – one that could spare patients indescribable misery – wasn’t fully embraced by the medical community for a full seven years.

The more I read, the more I began to see parallels between the pioneers of medicine and what we as IT professionals do to help workers collaborate more closely.

Of course, I’d never equate our work with the lifesaving duties medical professionals carry out. But what’s interesting – and perhaps unsettling – is that many inventions, even ones where the benefits are obvious and perhaps even life-changing, struggle to gain acceptance.

We see that today in Unified Communications (UC). This new way of interacting doesn’t just promise great benefits to companies and employees alike, it actually delivers. Organizations benefit from better collaboration among employees, greater productivity and lower infrastructure costs. Employees benefit from additional flexibility in how they do their work, where they work, a less stressful work environment and a greater sense of job fulfillment.

And yet, despite all these positives, employee adoption of UC is only about 10 percent, according to one study. That’s pretty abysmal when you consider the millions today’s organizations spend on it.

Why?

It’s pretty simple, really: Old habits die hard. (Don’t believe me? Try living without your smartphone for a week.)

What isn’t so simple, though, is how to break those old habits. The previous ways of introducing technology in the workplace – deploy and hope for the best – don’t work, especially when workers are reluctant to give up previous ways of doing things. These legacy deployment strategies are ineffective because they don’t give users a compelling reason to break from the old and embrace the new.

New methods are needed. And that’s where we can learn from the medical practitioners of yore. These pioneers found that the key to getting doctors to accept their new technology was to show them how it could make their lives easier – eliminating the screaming and thrashing of anguished patients, so they could perform their delicate work with more precision – and then gently nudge them into adopting new behaviors.

In the present-day world of technology, UC deployments are beginning to incorporate new theories and methods from the world of behavioral economics to similarly overcome employee resistance to change. This usually involves using indirect suggestions and positive reinforcement to influence choices, instead of the traditional model of mandating behavior.

Examples of some of these new methods include creating spirited competition between workers to use UC; building online communities to share experiences, ask questions and get advice; and recognizing and rewarding workers or departments for embracing new UC technologies.

These methods – along with several other strategies, which we discuss in a new business brief – are working. Companies that have incorporated them into their deployments are seeing increases in the percentage of workers choosing to embrace UC.

As modern-day professionals, we can learn some lessons from the medical practitioners of the 1800s. No matter how beneficial your new technology may be, not everyone will share your passion for it. To generate acceptance, you need demonstrate how it benefits them personally and gently steer them toward embracing it.

I think we should be grateful to the doctors of old—and thankful we never spent any time on one of their operating tables!