Strategies to Help Staff Adapt to New Technology

Associations Now May/June 2018 Issue By: Maria Mihalik

Planning to shed your old technology for a hot new product or service? You’ll need to condition your staff to accept and adopt the upgrade. Here’s how to build an agile, multiphase training plan that targets their needs before and after implementation.

For nearly two years, Amy Williams was deeply involved in developing and executing an important communications plan for the American Society of Anesthesiologists. As its director of marketing and communications, Williams made sure that tailored messages were crafted and sent out at carefully chosen times to the many different stakeholders who were depending on ASA for information that would affect their professional lives.

What made this communications plan different from others that Williams had led was the fact that her primary stakeholders were all under ASA’s roof. Her mission: bring full transparency to staff as ASA implemented a new association management system that would affect nearly everyone in the organization.

By keeping staff apprised of every step of the transition, “we really eased their anxiety,” says Williams.

Get Staff on Board

If a full-blown communications plan like ASA’s seems like overkill for what some might see as an IT department project, think again: Major technology adoptions are no longer the sole province of IT. Rather, they are a critical component of an association’s strategic plan and have the potential to improve or even revolutionize what staff can accomplish. With all eyes on the endeavor and often a whole new platform to master, it’s no surprise that staff—particularly those who are less savvy with technology than their peers—may feel disconcerted. This is one reason why “communication on steroids” like Williams coordinated is essential, says Larry Wolff, president and COO of Ouellette & Associates, a consulting firm that specializes in the human side of technology.

The message to employees who will need to be trained in how to use the new system should be, “We’re going to escort you through the change,” Wolff says. Staff should also understand how the new technology will benefit them individually, he says. This creates the all-essential buy-in that can mitigate a chief roadblock to adoption and learning: resistance.

In the Ouellette & Associates book Leading IT Transformation, managers are cautioned that “depending on the severity of the change … people’s natural inclination is to protect themselves, preserve their competence, maintain their comfort zone.” By answering their unspoken question—“What’s in it for me?”—you enable them to start “emotionally accepting” the change, says Wolff.

In addition, today’s highly customizable technology products allow associations to give staff a say in how the new product is configured. Wolff says project leaders should interview people throughout the organization about how they work—ideally before the technology is even purchased—and then invite them to explore the new system and suggest tweaks or additions that will make their work more productive or efficient.

“It doesn’t matter if you have the best technology in the world if you don’t have the ability to align the solution with the actual needs of the end users,” he says.

Optimal Networks, a technology services firm, sought this alignment when the company was transitioning to the communication tool Slack. Founder and CEO Heinan Landa set up a committee of people from every part of the organization and asked them to come up with a capabilities wish list for the app. Then, he formed a pilot group of users, including several remote workers, who spent a month using it among themselves. The collective feedback contributed to a final product that is wildly popular throughout the organization, Landa says.

Genuine employee input not only will allow an association to roll out a more powerful product optimized for each department, but people will also be more enthusiastic about using the new system because they will feel like they were heard and matter to the organization.

Time to Train

Once the new technology tool is selected, whether it’s an AMS, a cloud-based platform like Office 365, or a collaboration tool like Slack, associations can choose from myriad methods and strategies to train staff. Learning products can be purchased online or through the product vendor; contracted for with an association management company, technology services firm, or professional training specialist; or even created in-house.

Just “don’t go into this thinking one size fits all,” says Frank Green, a learning specialist and senior director of global development with the technology services company Alphanumeric. More important, he cautions that training should not be an afterthought to product acquisition.

He knows what’s coming when decision makers say, “‘Let’s launch it and see what bugs there are and what questions we get—then we’ll train,’” Green says. “Now you’ve got something operational, with people continually calling the help desk and asking their friends what to do. This happens with surprising frequency,” even in large organizations, and it “costs money and morale.”

When you are ready to devise a training plan, you can build one that fits your organization’s size and budget and accommodates all kinds of learners.

Guided Learning

Traditional guided or instructor-led training tends to be an organization’s default plan. Most people with several decades on their resumes are probably familiar with the “OK, everyone in the conference room!” approach to training. But it’s easy to go wrong here.

Having an IT manager walk the entire staff through the system start to finish is “penny wise and pound foolish,” says Green. Scheduling several days of this hours-long training only tempts employees to think, “I’m going to be sick that week.” And, customer service staffers who are required to learn a new AMS but who will never need to run a segmented membership report, for example, may think, “I just wasted three hours of my life.”

The better approach: targeted instructor-led training by department role that homes in on what users need. “This is crucial for the successful launch of any application, upgrade, or standalone,” says Green.

During guided sessions, it’s also important to prioritize “fingers on the keyboard,” says Wolff: “For adults, 70 percent of learning is by actually doing.” Keep observation time to a few minutes, he says, and then have staff practice real-life functions the rest of the session.

Pacing can be a drawback to guided training, particularly for staff who don’t grasp technology-related instruction as quickly as others do. Mentoring, including cross-generational pairing, can work well by allowing the more uncertain staff member to set the pace and feel more comfortable asking for a step to be repeated.

Other productive ways to provide guided training include:

  • Lunch and learns. Short, low-key sessions can impart bite-size chunks of knowledge that won’t overwhelm. This is also a good format to compare how functions in the old and new systems work. Bonus: Not only do staff learn the system, but they also help IT catch anything they might have missed, allowing the tech team to adjust while still in the conversion process.
  • Champions. During deployment, Wolff suggests enlisting champions or “superusers” to walk around for a day or two, physically or virtually, to guide employees through something they may have missed or forgotten. Champions can also help executives and staff with heavy travel schedules who may not be able to attend training classes by teaching them the essentials for their job in an hour or two and then referring them to microlearning tools.
  • War room. After bringing in experts to do intense training segmented by department and functions, ASA stationed an employee and a projector in “a war room, if you will,” says Williams, for four hours a day, twice a week, for several weeks leading up to the conversion and for a time afterward. Employees were welcome to drop in and get whatever individualized help they needed.

Solo Learning

Wolff has also found that when training people on new technology, many “will be pretty self-sufficient” and not need much face-to-face instruction. This is especially true among millennials and Gen X staff. Factored in with time and budget constraints, this has led to more self-guided learning methods, including these:

  • Playgrounds. Create a development site, as ASA did six months before launch, where employees can safely practice using the system’s features without fear of “messing up the whole database” (a common worry). This is a valuable learning tool for users like Williams, who prefers to dive in and play around to better grasp what she’s read.
  • Self-service knowledge base for microlearning tools. Microlearning lets users pick up complicated software functions in manageable portions at their own pace based on when they need the help. Tools can be housed together on the network and can range from purchased lessons and videos to low-tech infographics and cheat sheets.
  • Videos. Even a cash-strapped communications or IT shop with just a few staff can tap into the power of video by taking screenshots of step-by-step instructions, or filming a user demonstrating a task, and then posting the video clip to YouTube or the association’s network. As with other microlearning elements, shorter equals better.

By ensuring that all staff members know how they will benefit from the new system, receive clear communication on when and how it will be implemented, and get practical training that meets their specific needs, associations are likely to end up with a success story like Williams experienced at ATA. 

Being transparent and supportive “really created camaraderie among staff,” Williams says. “The messages of ‘We’re in this together’ worked.”

[This article was originally published in the Associations Now print edition, titled “Training Camp.”]

Maria Mihalik

Maria Mihalik is newsletter and supplements editor of Associations Now in Washington, DC.