End User Resistance to Change

July 11, 2011

A few IT professionals recently asked me why employees are so attached to old tools, and so hesitant to embrace new ones.  This resistance to change frequently forces IT staff to maintain legacy solutions, or to select suboptimal BI platforms, simply because they look familiar to business users.

It is a somewhat paradoxical behavior.  People buy a new car every four years, on average.  They change cell phones every two years.  And they frequently acquire new “gadgets”.  With each change, they have to learn how to use neat new features, which contributes to the excitement and enjoyment of the purchase.  Yet, at the work place, these same people are resistant to this type of change, especially when it comes to using new software or technologies. They prefer to stay with the true and tried, even if it is outdated.

But the problem doesn’t end there.  When systems are replaced, end users ask that the new interface be exactly the same as the old one.  Imagine if the iPhone interface was exactly the same as the Motorola StarTac interface.  Things like gestures or interactive apps would never have come into existence.  

So, how can we explain this paradox?  Why are people so opposed to changing the tools of their trade?  

There are three factors that contribute to this resistance, which IT can manage:

  • Lack of internal marketing:  New phones and cars are aggressively marketed to us.  Vendors tell us that new is cool, trendy, and fashionable.  Plus, we face pressure from our peers to use the latest products.  Enterprise IT does not market its goods in the same way.  Instead, they talk about scalability, security, metadata, caching – concepts that are foreign to the end user.  Imagine if the iPhone was marketed as a device with an advanced multi-tiered architecture, a multithreaded processor, and a screen density to decrease image pixilation.  Would you want it? Probably not, unless someone told you to ignore the tech speak and buy it because it was cool. 
  • Lack of conceptual clarity about the transition:  People quickly swap old models for new ones when they clearly understand how their old habits will fit into the new paradigm.  When buying a new car, I may have to learn some new controls on a fancier dashboard, but I do not have to re-learn how to drive or how to read the speedometer.  New user interfaces can be more problematic, as they may look completely different from the old ones. The Windows 2007 ribbon interface was a radical departure from the old toolbar interface.  Such a transition requires a detailed mapping of past user habits to the new interfaces. People need this to be assured that the interface change is a workflow change, and not a change in the underlying professional knowledge they must have in order to use the new solution.  End users don’t necessarily mind changing tools, but they do not want it to be as difficult as, say, changing their career.  IT needs to help users see the link between their past knowledge and the new tools.
  • Lack of an early adopter group to create peer pressure:  Very often, a tool upgrade or replacement project is initiated for cost cutting purposes, and a selection has to be made quickly to avoid paying maintenance to another vendor.  Therefore, such projects have a short time line, and are frequently executed in a top-down manner.  What if your cell phone company did the same thing?  Imagine that you receive notice that you have to trade your Blackberry in for an iPhone within three days.  It does not matter how you feel about the lack of a physical keyboard, or the fact that you do not have experience with touch screens.  When people feel deprived of choice, resistance will likely double.  By taking this approach, IT is missing the opportunity to create early adopter groups, who can serve as advocates and create internal peer pressure.  This is a problem of planning.  With so much BI software available for a “test drive”, companies can easily create “test beds” well in advance of their deadlines for change.