Selling Old-School Management on an Intranet

By Paul Chin

Originally published in Intranet Journal (03-Aug-2004)

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I'm reminded of a riddle told to me by an old-time IT veteran who was about to ride off into the sunset at the tail end of the punch-card era: If you ask a horse to build a locomotive, what will it come up with? The answer: I don't know, but it's going to be something with a horse in it.

The lesson I took away from that is you can't convince someone to support a concept they see as a threat; something that will upset their routine or their job—and technology is about as upsetting to someone with an old-school mentality as gravity is to Wile E. Coyote. Out of self-preservation they will do everything in their power to incorporate as much of the old into the new as possible.

So how do you get old-school management to support and finance an intranet when they themselves are not likely to use it?

Who Are These "Old-Schoolers"?

Traditionalis Maximus: a rare corporate species characterized by an inability, or unwillingness, to adapt to new technology and tools; thought to have been extinct since the mid-1990s.

They look like us, talk like us, and work all around us. But unlike many of us—especially those of us in the technology field—they display a natural tendency toward complicating fairly elementary processes in order to avoid having to change their own habitual behaviors. A simple two-step process is, all of the sudden, a five-step process. And it doesn't even matter to the old-schooler that their roundabout methods betray all sense of logic; as long as they're comfortable with it, that's how they're going to do it.

The most common example of this behavior can be seen in the old-schoolers' handling of e-mail. While the majority of us have come to accept the use of e-mail as everyday as using the telephone (and in some cases, preferring it), the old-schooler hasn't faired so well. Rather than opening their e-mail client and reading the messages themselves, they would enlist the aid of a third party—usually an already overworked administrative assistant—to print out the contents of their inbox and, short of having their AA read them aloud, sift through their e-mail on paper. They would then dictate their responses for the AA to send out, completely failing to grasp the "e" in e-mail.

Old-schoolers simply delay the inevitable by finding ways around the technology, bending the tools to their will in order to avoid having to learn and adapt to new methods. And when this happens, all of the advantages that would have been gained will be lost because, rather than adapting themselves to the improved processes brought on by these new tools, they warp the processes and tools to adapt to them.

The Dangers of Technophobia

The technology train—in all its indifference—is going to forge ahead regardless of what we do. It's up to each of us to decide whether we're going to hop on board or stand by the tracks watching it roar by. But, if you choose the latter, be prepared to find yourself abandoned at a dusty weigh station with little more than the rustling of tumbleweeds to keep you company.

With the speed at which the technology train moves, if you allow it to get too far ahead of you, it will be tougher and tougher to catch up. So, while everyone is enjoying a cocktail in the train's lounge car, you'll be trying desperately to follow along the tracks with your old, manual hand-pump car.

What everyone in this technological age needs to understand is that you can no longer separate the technology from the process—they move in parallel, as one. Back in the 1980s many of the computer applications being introduced commercially such as the word processor were major enhancements to common, everyday business tools like the typewriter. However, the function of word processing existed long before the first appearance of the electronic word processor. The two tools serve the same purpose with a very different approach.

But now it's difficult to differentiate between the technology and the process because they have become so interdependent—the process could never have been conceived without the technology to facilitate its existence, and the technology would be a mere toy without the process it's meant to support.

Old-schoolers fail to understand that they can only hold technology back for so long because that new tool being introduced today will become the norm tomorrow. And as the days go by, it will be the only thing available to work with. If they don't learn to adapt to it, they will be going through the day trying to hide their techno-illiteracy.

This is not to say that everyone should be stalking technology trends gently balanced on the bleeding edge and jump on board blindly, but everyone needs to at least keep up enough to prevent themselves from becoming technological roadkill.

Old-Schoolers In Charge of Technology?

The greatest irony in this discussion is that the largest population of old-schoolers are those in management, and I mean high up in management—those we rely on to finance and support the implementation of new tools and technology in our companies.

How on earth do you convince old-school management to support new technology when they are the ones least likely to use it? If you try to go it alone and freelance an intranet project without support from management, the user community will view it as a special interest project developed by small departmental cliques. And the project will only survive so long before it gets abandoned due to a lack of interest and support.

Unfortunately, there's no silver bullet. You can't convince old-school management to accept an intranet any more than you can convince a river to flow upstream. But when you think about it, an intranet is one of the more benign IT implementations out there. Even old-schoolers have used the Internet, so an intranet shouldn't be that much of a leap for them.

The mistake many intranet developers make is in the way the old-schoolers are introduced to the system—without adequate training or understanding of the what they are looking at. And it's this lack of understanding, not the system itself, that causes much of their discomfort and anxiety.

However, there are ways to increase your likelihood of successfully helping old-schoolers get over that hurdle without resorting to hypnosis:

Develop a Pilot Project

If a picture is worth a thousand words, how much is a fully functional demo worth? You need to realize that management sits through a lot of presentations, from investor meetings to departmental project proposals of all shapes and sizes. And a lot of things look great on paper but don't turn out so well once put into practice. So if you want them to support your intranet initiative, you're going to have to bring more to the boardroom table than the usual PowerPoint presentation.

A pilot project is your best tool to get buy in from management. It gives your potential sponsors—especially the old-schoolers—a chance to kick the tires without any commitment. And, unlike viewing a static presentation, they will have the opportunity to get a feel for what an intranet does and how it will function based upon a working model of the system, combining theory with practice (see my previous article, "Look Before You Leap: The Importance of an Intranet Pilot" for a more in-depth look at intranet pilot projects).

Provide Personalized Training

Don't use a single, blanket training session. It doesn't make sense to lump old-school management in a room full of engineers and software programmers because the language used by techies and non-techies is completely different. Old-schoolers will not digest an overly technical training session too well and will further their distaste for the new system, possibly blurring an already foggy concept.

A more productive way to approach this is to provide smaller sized, even one-on-one, training instead of a packed classroom. And be sure to design your program so that the topics covered will reflect their day-to-day operation; tell them how the intranet applies to them. This extra attention paid to the old-schoolers will make them feel as though the new system isn't something that's being thrust upon them. Although this requires more time on the instructor's part, it's a very small price to pay given that this will hopefully be your core group of supporters.

Easing Them Into the New System

If you throw someone into a lake of cold water, they will likely seize from the shock. But if you ease them into it slowly, they will have a much easier time adjusting to the temperature, little by little, until they don't even notice it.

Unless there's a danger of process overlap or data conflict between the old and new system, the old system shouldn't be flipped off like a light switch. Instead, the old and new system should run in parallel over a period of time, slowly phasing out the former to allow the old-schoolers to adapt to the latter without too much shock. Those more likely to adopt new technology and systems will naturally gravitate towards them anyway, but old-schoolers cling onto what's familiar like they would a railing on a sinking ship—you don't want to take that away too quickly.

"Old systems" don't always necessarily mean old technology. A perfect example is a corporate newsletter. Many companies print high-quality newsletters to inform employees of corporate affairs, special events, and the meeting of major milestones. But the advent of intranets made printed newsletters redundant. Rather than stopping the printed version immediately after launching an intranet-based newsletter, the print run can simply be reduced little-by-little until the intranet becomes the sole place to find the newsletter.

Final Thoughts

Old-schoolers hate change, and the proof is baked right into the name. But you can't really hold that against them. They have become so accustomed to doing something a certain way over a long period of time that they may find it difficult to adapt. And while it's normal to expect that a certain amount of time is required to adjust to new technologies, the danger comes when there's a failure to adjust—and this is what you need to educate the old-schoolers on. You need to help them understand that it's not necessary to find a way to get a horse to pull a train; the train will move on its own, so they may as well enjoy the ride.

Copyright © 2004 Paul Chin. All rights reserved.
Reproduction of this article in whole or part in any form without prior written permission of Paul Chin is prohibited.