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You are here: Home i In Focus i In focus 2010 i Theme: Seeing the human in the work place i Changes to IT affect systems as well as the social environment

Changes to IT affect systems as well as the social environment

| Text: Björn Lindahl

Many businesses and organisations change their IT systems, yet in 70 percent of cases the change ends in failure with regard to time, budget or function. There have been many studies of what went wrong. Einar Iveroth chose to study what went right in the cases that succeeded.

Einar Iveroth"Most bosses seem to think as long as the 'IT people' do their job, new technology will spread through the organisation and employees will easily adapt to the new system," says Einar Iveroth who is a researcher at Uppsala University and an expert on IT and change.. He has studied how Swedish telecom company Ericsson changed their finance and accounting (F&A) department. 

Ericsson is one of the world's leading producers of telephone exchanges and mobile telephones. The company employs 80.000 people across 140 countries and has more than 200 daughter companies. Before 2004 all these units ran their own routines for wages, invoicing and reporting.

Ericsson reorganised it all into a network of ten so-called Shared Service Centres (SSCs). More than a hundred different IT systems turned into one single one. 

Einar Iveroth wrote his thesis on the process behind this, and recently he published his conclusions in the California Management Review. 

"What many tend to forget is that IT is deeply connected to the organisation and the way people go about their daily work. As such, successful IT-enabled change implies managing both IT and its social and organisational implications," he says.

The core is in the relations between people

"Apart from the hard factors, the management must work hard in fields such as education, organisational culture, values and political questions. The core of the soft parts lie in the interaction and the relations between people." 

Iveroth interviewed at length the twelve key people responsible for the project,  also called the change agents, even though they don't refer to themselves in that way. He also talked to many of those who were affected by the changes as well as studying the written documentation and making observations during the three years the process lasted.

He divides the process into four dimensions which all needed to create a sense of community. Every dimension requires its own unique structures, roles, activities and focus. Together these dimensions form a framework which is called "The Commonality Framework for IT-Enabled Change", which is a tool that can be used to create checklists and as a base for discussions at the company's board meetings.

Firstly, a sense of common ground must be achieved, so that everyone understands what has to be changed. In Ericsson's case there was already a common culture among employees in the economy departments. They were already aware of the problems caused by so many reporting systems and knew that if nothing was done their own jobs and departments were at risk.

The next step is to get a common meaning of the change which will be made to the IT-system and the practical consequences of it. The change agents must explain what the new system will mean to the individual's working day.

Also negative changes

Even if those affected understand both why the change must happen and its consequences, it doesn't necessarily mean all the employees share a common interest in seeing the change through. It might mean many loose their jobs, that departments are closed or that deeply rooted routines disappear. The change agents need to create both political alliances and change attitudes. One of the twelve central persons explained the task in this way: 

"Imagine that people have been eating with a spoon in their right hand their whole life. Suddenly you come and tell them that they have to change, that ‘now you have to use your left [hand].’That is not easy. In order for them to accept this, they need to understand why this is important."

In this dimension the change agents need to work both as a mediator and like a coach. One of them says:

"Personally I think that emotions are important. This is my message here: we are working with people and never, ever forget that. Try to understand the situation they are in. If you do that then it is little bit easier to help them."

The last dimension is to make sure the change also leads to a common behaviour, so that the IT-system functions as it i supposed to do. The change agents now turn more into observers who only intervene when they feel something is not working as it should. Ericsson felt the project was successful as it finished on time and because the units reported and invoiced in a common and transparent way after the change. 

Difficult to measure

The human aspects are harder to measure than whether a certain task is carried out in a certain way. One of the change agents used his own Key Performance Indicator (KPI): the number of times he was invited to private social occasions by those negatively affected by the change. 

New education

Sweden's Uppsala University understands that leaders of the future need to be able to handle people as well as understand IT. Next autumn the university launches a new master programme for management, communication and IT.

"Management and leadership to a large degree centres on communication, and for this communication IT becomes a more and more important resource," the university writes in its presentation of the new course. It will run over two years and give 120 study points - equivalent of a master degree. 

The programme covers four subjects:

- Business economy

- Information systems

- Human-computer interaction 

- Media and communication studies 

The main idea is to link management, communication and IT. Tutors specialising in the four subjects will cooperate to provide a common perspective in important questions.


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