Digital Drivers: Upgrading employee software adoption

By Martin Vilaboy

As Tatyana Mamut, senior vice president at software optimization company Pendo, recently wrote, “Software is no longer just a part of the workplace; it is the workplace.” Such a sentiment is particularly true for remote workers, who regularly collaborate, gain insight and set and achieve objectives within the digital, cloud-based workspace.

Indeed, during the past few years, companies have invested in and deployed all manner of SaaS and cloud-base software solutions to enable and adapt to the remote work revolution and the not-so-subtle push toward digital transformations. But it’s hard to reap rewards such as anywhere access or increased efficiencies – or in more pointed terms, effectively reach an ROI – if employees simply don’t adopt new software or embrace new functionalities to their fullest effect.

That’s why a full 89 percent of executives recently surveyed by Harvard Business Review Analytic

Services consider it “a priority” to encourage employees to use new software. And almost three-quarters of respondents agree that adopting new technologies rapidly and embedding them in employees’ everyday work is a key competitive differentiator. Executives also recognize the link between happy employees and happy customers. A vast majority – 86 percent – agree that it’s impossible to provide a great customer experience without also providing a great employee experience.

At the same time, however, only 30 percent of these respondents said their organization was highly effective at driving the adoption of employee-facing software. About one in five rated their organization as “not very effective.”

“A top priority for every CEO is achieving greater impact with the bets they’re placing on digital transformation,” said Rich Nanda, a principal at Deloitte Consulting who specializes in strategy-led transformation, speaking to HBR Analytic Services. “But these business advantages won’t emerge if employees fail to adopt new technology.”

It’s a problem that is only exacerbated by the geographic realities of remote working. When motivating employees to make changes, it helps if they are sitting in close proximity to each other and able to ask questions such as, “Is this next step right?” argued Alan Brown, professor in digital economy at the University of Exeter, Exeter Business School, in the United Kingdom. Employees at a distance often are left to figure things out on their own, he continued.

Also at issue, argued Nanda, is that the designs of enterprise solutions don’t generally prioritize the end user experience. “That’s when you encounter frictions and lack of adoption,” he continued.

Even so, research from Harvard Business Review Analytic Services and the HBR Advisory Council uncover several strategies businesses can consider to drive adoption of digital solutions and achieve the intended business outcomes and benefits of a software deployment.

“Transformation isn’t only about adopting new technology for the enterprise. To achieve the quickest and biggest impact, it requires that the people throughout the enterprise are adopters, too,” said Alex Clemente, managing director for Harvard Business Review Analytic Services.

“Employees have their own ways of doing work, and those ways aren’t always what managers assume,” added Mamut. “It is imperative that IT departments and the cross-functional teams they work with design their digital adoption strategy with the employee at the center.”

In many cases, the first mistake made by companies in their adoption plans is not having a well-defined and articulated adoption plan in the first place. According to digital adoption leaders surveyed by the HBR Advisory Council, 50 percent cited “not having a well-defined digital adoption strategy” as among the top three obstacles to successful digital adoption – more than legacy systems (38 percent), insufficient expertise (30 percent) and poor leadership (26 percent).

Digital adoption can involve learning curves, changing firmly established habits and psychological hurdles, said HBR Analytic researchers. Organizations must establish and communicate clear and concise purposes for encouraging employees to embrace a new technology so they are assured it will be worth their effort.

“Companies can get stuck when leaders don’t make a compelling case for why the change of technology was needed in the first place,” said Tim Creasey, chief innovation officer at change management firm Prosci.

Organizations need to demonstrate both the value to employees of embracing new technologies, as well as the business outcomes they wish to achieve from a digital adoption strategy, said HBR researchers. Currently, leaders are particularly focused on a workforce’s output, suggest the findings, especially given the pace of change and the pandemic’s acceleration of digital transformation. According to the study, increased employee productivity ranks among top favorable outcomes, according to 67 percent of leaders in the survey. Other much sought-after objectives among leaders include enhanced organizational agility (55 percent), greater cross-functional collaboration (45 percent), improved employee experience (44 percent) and improved innovation (25 percent).

“Successfully improving the performance of the organization is a really huge part of setting the right mindset for driving change,” added Creasey.

In some cases, driving change may require more drastic measures, advised John Coles, a senior manager at Varian, a Siemens Healthineers company in San Antonio, Texas. “Companies often have legacy infrastructure that employees prefer, which can cause adoption of new tools to drag on and on,” he told HBR Analytic. In such circumstances, the best plan of attack, he continued, could be to simply “kill some of your old applications” by phasing them out.

Make it Easy or Train Them

Making sure employee-facing tools are easy to use is another way organizations can encourage adoption, said HBR Analytic. According to the survey, the increasing complexity of technology solutions is one of the technology factors most likely to negatively impact employee experience. Thirty-nine percent of executives, for example, said their employees find enterprise resource planning systems difficult to use, while 29 percent of respondents believe employees struggle to use human capital management systems, and a full quarter of executives believe employees consider customer relationship management systems a source of difficulty.

“However, when organizations take the time to analyze how employees interact with these tools in their day-to-day activities, they can better configure those tools,” said the research report.

Scott Span, a senior advisor of change management and technology adoption at consultancy Tolero Solutions, recommended that organizations solicit information from employees on their processes and workflows prior to beginning to build the technology. This places employees and their needs at the center of the experience.

Span pointed to the case of a new health care technology client that struggled to drive the adoption of a new platform due to a built-in, rigorous approval process that required staff to wait for health care providers to sign off on patient information before being able to input additional data into the system. “Upon closer examination and discussion with staff, the company realized that it wasn’t the software itself that was stalling adoption but rather a cumbersome process that could be remedied by documenting processes and workflows and engaging in conversations with staff,” said researchers with HBR Analytic Services.

When processes can’t be reconfigured to accommodate employee needs and/or desires, tailored training, such as personalized user onboarding, peer support and training that takes place within apps can help bridge the gap between ease-of-use and friction-inducing workflows, continued HBR Analytic researchers, and ensure a more sizable return on software investments.

About half of survey respondents strongly agree that employee experience suffers in the absence of effective software training, while 70 percent of respondents say providing employees with software training has increased their digital aptitude. More than seven in 10 plan to increase investment in training during the next two years. Currently, however, only half of organizations believe they provide adequate types of training to help employees leverage the most beneficial aspects of the platforms they use.

“Training needs to be customized for what employees are actually doing, delivered as standardized off-the-shelf training,” Span advised.

Word from the Street

When business leader measure the impact of initiatives designed to drive the adoption of employee-facing-facing solutions, they tend to utilize employee feedback as a key metric. That includes six in 10 surveyed by HBR Analytic – the same percentage that cited productivity gains or losses as a key metric.

“No one knows how employees are experiencing new technologies better than employees themselves,” said the report. Yet almost 45 percent or organizations rated as “weak” their ability to collect feedback from employees on how they use their software tools. Matters are only complicated by dispersed workforces.

One common problem, suggested Greg Smith, a partner at management consulting firm Arthur D. Little and leader of the company’s digital problem-solving practice in London, England, is organizations simply waiting too long to get started. “Don’t wait until you’re rolling out a solution to engage your employees,” Smith advised. “Those people who will use a solution’s capabilities should be part of the project from the outset.”

Mistakes also are made when organizations attempt to “boil the proverbial ocean when seeking insight,” warned Craig Johnson, a partner at Mercer. Jonson recommended that, rather than launch “an organization-wide survey,” companies “pick a subset of the biggest stakeholder group that you want to adopt a certain technology and ask them why they’re not using it. What do you not understand? Is there something about the solution’s interface? Is it a lack of training? Asking these questions can provide a baseline understanding of why employees are not adopting a particular solution.”

If surveys are regularly used to collect feedback, it’s crucial to act upon the consolidated results. “Oftentimes employees have been surveyed to death and nothing ever happens or changes,” said Span. “When employees don’t see the outcome of their voices being heard in their day-to-day work, they can become hesitant to care or to give honest opinions.”

According to Andrew Lloyd, Salesforce director of employee experience, Salesforce relies on a frontline “network of champions” to collect “qualitative feedback by gathering answers to questions such as ‘What are you hearing on the ground? What are employees struggling with? What are their success stories? How can we elevate and amplify these success stories while also trying to see what can be done to address less favorable feedback?’”

Lloyd also pointed to the value of broadening the scope of a survey’s audience to gain greater insight into digital adoption success. “If you can obtain a meaningful sample from a cross section of different functions, even different geographies and levels of the organizations, you might discover they have different concerns,” he continued.

Other metrics commonly used by leaders surveyed by HBR Analytic include employee engagement scores (49 percent), speed of new technology implementation (34 percent) and speed of adoption (32 percent).

“It’s important to note that a full one-third of respondents categorized as laggards do not use any metrics to measure the impact of digital adoption efforts,” said the report.

Cross Functioning

Much more than any other group, IT departments appear to be carrying the burden when it comes to digital adoption agendas. Forty percent of survey respondents said their IT department is responsible for driving digital adoption at their organization. That’s higher than the percentage who said it was a shared responsibility. Not surprisingly, however, adoption leaders – those businesses that cite success in their adoption strategies – are almost as likely to say adoption efforts are a shared responsibility and do so at higher rates than the “followers” and “laggards” surveyed.

“When you put one department in charge, it’s easy for other people to abdicate responsibility,” argued Brown. “Companies need to make sure that responsibility transitions across the rest of the organization so that it doesn’t become siloed.”

“It’s a disadvantage to have just one department drive adoption,” Span agreed. “It often means having only one agenda or one point of view. Views and the voices of other impacted stakeholder groups are left out.”

Cases have been made for oversite starting in the C-Suite with a type of “chief adoption officer,” but Shari Chernack, a client partner and transformation leader at organizational consulting firm Korn Ferry, argued that creating this new role and position “may feel a little precarious to people.” While Chernack agreed there should be somebody from the executive level who sponsors new tools and promotes adoption, “I prefer the idea of a director or senior manager who makes sure that implementation and adoption are smooth and successful.”

Lloyd agrees, citing Salesforces “network of champions,” whose job is to “translate and apply function-specific guidance” so that employees make better use of a technology’s key features and functionality. High-level executives, he argued, “are never going to know well enough how different departments in the organization work to tell employees exactly how they should be using a particular tool.”

Whether or not there is a need for a chief adoption executive, IT departments alone can only do so much to drive and monitor employee behavior.

“Establishing a clear purpose for driving adoption, determining business outcomes, shaping employee experience and eliminating age-old applications involve making tough decisions,” said the HBR Analytic Services report. “Deciding who should be responsible for making these decisions is even tougher.”