Technology and Change Management
For the last 20 years or so, I have watched how organizations have turned to “hi-tech” in order to address a variety of problems or challenges in a rapidly changing, highly turbulent, and competitive environment where they have to operate and succeed. Globalization has opened the doors to new competitors as well as to new markets and lower labor costs. Companies around the world have been engaged in what I call the “Golondrina Factor” which literally means the “Swallow Effect.” They move their plants from country to country in search of the lowest labor cost, most favorable taxation, appropriate infrastructure, and adequate accessibility to ports or airports, but when a company moves, they leave behind high unemployment which can often cause violence and other social problems as a consequence—which is what happened in Detroit, Pittsburgh, Ciudad Juarez, and many other cities around the world.
The rapid pace of change is also triggered by the incredibly fast change in technology. Companies rely heavily on technology in order to increase efficiency, reduce labor costs, improve product quality, allow 24/7 communication with their plants, divisions, or stores around the world, and create “virtual” teams to address problems or tackle opportunities. I have noticed with several clients in the retail and hospitality industries that applied technology has become the key strategy that they rely on in order to compete and succeed in the marketplace. Retail stores and restaurant chains use technology to increase sales and customer loyalty as well as to manage labor costs and deployment, etc. As technology evolves, the life cycle of technology solutions becomes shorter and can make current solutions obsolete even before they are fully implemented which, consequently, creates a constant state of disruption and organizational anxiety.
As I think of what I have witnessed in the last 20 years and looking at this ongoing, technological turbulence through an open-systems-thinking approach, I translate this dilemma as a paradigm of asymmetry. I see organizations as open systems that are formed by three subsystems—the people, the technology, and the structure. In my opinion, these three subsystems always need to be moving toward being and staying symmetrical. If an organization invests large amounts of money and energy in technology as a way to achieve a competitive advantage at the expense of or in disproportion to its people or structural subsystem, the organization will experience a great degree of imbalance that often translates to poor employee morale, disengaged employees, high turnover, uncontrolled cost variances, role confusion, inefficiencies, increase of dissatisfied customers, and diminished customer loyalty. All of this is as a result of asymmetrical, technology-driven change. In the two models below, I have tried to visualize this concept.
A case in point: Company X, a retailer in women’s clothing, spends a large sum of money in order to create, develop, and implement a very sophisticated, state-of-the-art, mobile application. The application enables customers to access the company’s fashion showroom from their computer or any mobile device and provide them with the capability to customize a dress, suit, or jacket. Customers can choose the garment’s color, fabric, length, button type, and zipper color and style in ten different sizes with a promised delivery date of seven days and a money-back guarantee. The amount of pressure on the existing structure and people to fulfill a customer’s order on time is immense, and employees may find it difficult to deal with the complexity and variety of available choices, which could result in numerous mistakes in what is delivered to any given customer.
Consequently, a dissatisfied customer will call customer service to complain about the wrong product received and customer service will call client support in order to send out a new order with the right product—and that may require disruption of the production line, and so on, and so on. The implementation of the new mobile application may have been a success but its impact on the organization created chaos, disruption, and confusion which was all due to the “asymmetric” change that was triggered.
Symmetry in Change Management is imperative in order to gain the benefits that technology offers—unfortunately, however, with today’s technologically-inclined customers, organizations tend to be proactive in implementing new and sexy technology but reactive in managing the change in symmetry of the other two subsystems.