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Leading and Managing Technological Change in the Life Sciences

By Diane L. Dixon, Managing Principal, D. Dixon & Associates, LLC

Advances in technology will enhance innovation and growth in the life sciences. As increasingly complex information is generated, the need to develop smart technology becomes even more important. Bioinformatics will have to continuously discover new ways to collect, organize, interpret, share, analyze, and reconcile often incompatible information formats. There is no doubt that innovation and technological change are inextricably linked. The challenge is keeping up with these changes and managing the human impact. All too often the focus is on implementing the new technology without taking into consideration how the people who must adapt to the changes will be affected. It is essential to understand that technical systems do not stand alone but rather they are interdependent with social systems.

Social systems are comprised of groups of people that interact and influence each other’s behaviors such as a biotechnology organization. The organization as a social system has a culture embedded in it that is built on basic assumptions, values, and beliefs about how work will be accomplished and decisions will be executed. This is why it is so important to include in the implementation strategy how the impact on social systems and people will be managed. Leaders need to facilitate the dynamic interplay between technical and social systems so that they can lead technological change effectively. Ignoring or minimizing this core aspect of change frequently causes unintended consequences that short circuit results.

Important Questions to Consider

There are several key questions to consider as the strategy for implementing new technology is developed. Stakeholders, including the users, need to be engaged in dialogue circles focused on answering these questions.

  • What are the organizational culture and environmental forces that will support the change?
  • What are the organizational culture and environmental forces that will be barriers or inhibitors to the change?
  • What is the current leadership capability and capacity for leading and managing the change?
  • What will it take to help people adopt and adapt to the new technology?
  • What will it take to enable users to implement the change?
  • What do we need to do to embed continuous learning and improvement so that growth can be sustained?

The dialogue circles will be most effective if they are facilitated in a manner that encourages wide participation and inspires deep reflection on each question. As the thinking of the group is mined, the reflections can be documented on flipchart so that everyone can see the product of their collective wisdom. The results of each dialogue circle needs to be shared with other circles to enhance learning and identify common themes. As these themes are organized, they are integrated into the whole technology implementation strategy.

Managing the Human and Social System Impact

Many of us know from our own experiences that change can produce conflicting emotions. They may range from hopeful anticipation to fearful anxiety about the ability to cope. The emotional aspects of change have been seen in the past as “undiscussable” in the work setting. However, we are learning that when people have the opportunity to share their ideas about how to implement new technology and can talk about their feelings associated with it, they will be much more likely to adapt.

In addition to the individual response to change there is the social system which encompasses the group response and organizational culture. The group response is influenced by the collective impact of individual reactions and the culture. That is, the underlying assumptions, values, and beliefs that the group has about how they accomplish their work and how they work together. These assumptions and norms of behavior are embedded in the organization and often are unconscious; “that is just the way we do things in our organization”. The successful implementation of new technology depends on leaders being conscious of the culture and how it will be affected by change.

Here are several tips for managing the human and social system impact:

  • Describe a Clear Picture of New Technology and its Benefits
    Describe the new technology and its benefits in terms that everyone can understand. High level overviews frequently get lost in translation and people cannot relate the change to their jobs. Espousing the benefits of new technology in one-way communication does not necessarily foster understanding or appreciation. One of the biggest fears about new technology is that people will either lose their jobs, not be able to learn new techniques, or will have to make a job transition because of it. So the initial communication about the change needs to address these concerns and let people know that leaders do not have all of the answers and there are unknowns. Transparency and honesty helps people to manage uncertainty.

  • Facilitate Listening and Learning Dialogue Groups
    Train leaders on all levels, managers and supervisors, to facilitate listening and learning sessions with their direct reports. Or, if it makes sense, the dialogue groups can be across departmental and functional boundaries. It is important not to create silos but rather natural work groups that will be using the new technology. The dialogue groups are designed to create a safe space for staff to share ideas and emotional reactions to change. Be sure to…

    • Create the opportunity for people to describe their understanding of the new technology and how it will affect their work.
    • Ask people for their ideas on how to make the change successful.
    • Listen with empathy as concerns and feelings are shared.
    • Follow-up on recommendations.
    • Keep dialogues going throughout the change process and after implementation.
  • Communicate Clearly and Frequently
    In the absence of good communication, people make things up and that misinformation can fuel a negative grapevine. The best efforts to implement new technology can fail without the best information and knowledge sharing. Remember to…

    • Send consistent messages.
    • Be factual, clear, and honest.
    • Use multiple sources and media.
  • Provide Training and Education
    Adequate training and education is essential. This is a critical success factor for any new technology implementation. It is important to remember that people have different learning styles and rates of learning. The curriculum needs to take this into consideration. One shot classroom, webinars, or other online education sessions often are not enough. Be prepared to provide people needing individualized follow-up with on the job training.

  • Mentor and Coach
    More than training and education, mentoring and/or coaching can be helpful. The nuances of applications as they affect different situations frequently cannot be addressed in group learning settings. Coaching can provide additional learning approaches specific to individual needs that will enhance performance. While mentoring expands on performance improvement to help people understand how learning the new technology will support their overall development.

The Pay Off

Some leaders think that they do not have time to deal with the emotional aspects of change and the organizational culture. But the reality is that it will take much more time and money not to deal with them. The time spent upfront managing the human and social system response to technical change will pay off in the end. That payoff will likely be enhanced engagement, less resistance, greater commitment to the change process, and ultimately, a more successful implementation of the new technology.

Diane Dixon is the Managing Principal of D. Dixon & Associates, LLC. She is also a consultant, guest lecturer, and writer. Diane specializes in leadership development, change management, strategy development, and team building. She has more than 20 years of experience working with corporations and not-for-profit businesses of varying size, industry, and complexity. Diane’s articles have been published in a variety of practitioner journals on such topics as executive leadership in healthcare organizations, leadership and culture alignment in partnerships, leadership in mergers and acquisitions, and the field of human resource development. For article feedback, contact Diane at diane@ddixon.org

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