Removing Fear From the Path of Progress

At a technology seminar for architects in the early days of the World Wide Web, I heard a speaker excitedly proclaim, “Change is changing!” He advocated “throwing out the rulebook” and embracing what was still very much The Wild Wild West online. For every architect in the room busily poking his Blackberry to send approving comments to the speaker in real time, there was another one who shuddered in dread and didn’t really get what was happening.

The speaker was describing change in terms of personal growth and embracing new values. But many in the room thought he was proposing radical changes to business practice. Turns out it is common in times of great change to cause confusion about the difference between personal values and business practice. Confusing practice for values in an organization, notes business philosopher Greg Satell, “is why success so often breeds failure.” He cites Xerox, when its culture of pride in technical excellence and great service was blindsided by the rise of cheap, simple copiers from new competitors Canon and Ricoh. If Xerox had been more nimble, they could have maintained their values, but changed their practice to meet the competition.

To take advantage of this lesson for your organization, when change is called for, take a careful look at the values you want to maintain, and the practices you need to change. By teasing these two things apart, you may be able to make smarter, more competitive decisions in your design-driven organization. To stay competitive, hang on to the positive values that have helped you succeed thus far. And unlike Xerox, be willing to change your practices.

Deploying a product data management (PDM) or product lifecycle management (PLM) system is an excellent example of a major change in an organization. When it is first proposed, it often reveals fearfulness about change. As an executive at one document management firm told me in a moment of candor, “Our greatest rival is not one of the other vendors, but NDI—No Decision, Inc.” Companies find it easier to allow paralysis to replace progress.

But change is a necessary part of any organization; without it there would be no improvements, no new projects, and no new revenue opportunities. Instead of looking at everything that can go wrong by introducing a new system, consider ways to reduce the group fear, by realigning attention away from the disruption of change and toward the excitement.

There are plenty of examples of how changes in technology have been painlessly adopted. Meetings that include remote colleagues go much easier than they did only a few years ago, thanks to several new Web-based tools and increased Internet bandwidth. All those great features we take for granted on smartphones were there for us to adopt at our leisure, but now we use them daily. Your company’s IT department may have adopted virtual machines on your network without you even knowing it. The key is smooth transition and keeping the path to familiarity simple. The neat thing about technology change in consumer electronics is that it’s fun, sexy, entertaining.

There is also lots of progress in computer technology in the workplace. This might not be nearly as much fun, but it’s every bit as dramatic and important to the achievement of our tasks. It’s time to focus more attention on these important changes. Instead of taking them for granted, take a closer, more appreciative look at the way computers are revolutionizing the way work gets done. Take for example, data management.

There was a time when drawings were kept in flat files, in huge storage cabinets designed specifically for the task. With the rise of CAD, those drawings moved to hard drives; in most companies it happened gradually. For a long time after there was no standardization in “data” storage (we had to get used to thinking of drawings as “data”). And there was no simple way to match the CAD files with the related documents stored as word processing, spreadsheets, or images. Each creator had files on his/her own hard drive. It wasn’t until a network was installed that it got easier to share files. Eventually either team agreed on rules for storing and using data, or it was enforced by a CAD or IT manager (often the same person).

What all of us have learned from the rise of mobile devices is that change doesn’t have to be disruptive to be empowering. The same is true of selecting a data management solution. The Synergis Adept approach is to leave existing documents alone, not to strip out data elements to be redistributed in some complicated proprietary data base. Adept provides an environment where the documents and the crucial information inside them is organized, accessible, and centralized. It does this without demanding radical process change. Workflow culture is respected, even as new efficiency is realized. Team members soon realize they are spending less time looking for information and more time using it. Further changes that enhance the feeling of empowerment become more welcome.  It is a gradual approach that removes fear as a factor.


Randall S. Newton is the principal analyst and managing director at Consilia Vektor, a consulting firm serving the engineering software industry. He has been directly involved in engineering software in a number of roles since 1985. More information is available at https://www.linkedin.com/in/randallnewton

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