Skip to main content

Management for engineers: Implementing change, not a tug of war

By its nature, the broadcast and content production industries are constantly changing. Just when you’ve got the technology mastered, things change and it’s time to regroup. For many, change is exciting — something to be embraced. However, for others change is frightening and to be avoided whenever possible. This difference in personalities (neither is inherently good or bad) is sometimes visible in how people embrace everyday technology.

There is one person in this office who always has the latest gadget. He had the first iPod, the first iPhone. He had HDTV when they were huge, expensive and frankly not very good. He loves technology. He also loves change. He would rather do something different than whatever he’s already mastered.

There are others who still use the same television set they bought 15 years ago. It’s connected to cable or satellite, and that’s good enough for them. It’s not 16x9. It’s not HD and doesn’t have surround sound. These people are satisfied with their technological environment and see little reason to change it. They find comfort in the familiar.

Such behaviors may not be problematic. It is when it becomes necessary to adopt new technology at work that conflict may appear. Everyone adapts differently to new job requirements. That may especially be the case when those changes involve new technology. Let’s examine some of these issues with the goal of maximizing the benefits of a new workflow for both employee and employer.

Here comes change

One day your news director announces that the station has decided to implement a file-based workflow. There will be no more punch and crunch editing. All the tape decks are going out the window. Newsroom automation is being implemented. This staff must become more productive.

Clearly, any news director pitching a new workflow in such terms should expect immediate fear and panic from the staff.

Changes in any work environment are never just about the equipment. People and their personalities are involved, and this boundary is where the conflicts usually develop. For example, moving a news editor out of an enclosed editing booth, where she’s been for three years, to an open-office desk PC edit station may sound trivial. But consider you’ve just destroyed this person’s familiar and comfortable work space. If that person is an introvert, it’s akin to asking them to work in their underwear. They will feel exposed and perhaps see the change as a demotion. Even an extrovert might perceive the loss of an enclosed “office” space as a demotion. Never mind that’s not what you intended.

Such changes affect not only what employees do, but how they do them. This can affect how they view their jobs, perhaps even their own perception of worthiness and skill level. Pit a tween against a boomer at desktop editing, and see who catches on faster. Which person will immediately understand the required steps, and who will need extra training and time?

That said, there is nothing inherent in a tween being a “better” editor than a boomer. The difference may just be in how quickly a person adapted to the new method of doing a task. A boomer may be slower on new technology uptake, but she is also likely to bring more experience to the task than a tween. Which skill is more important is an entirely different question.

Management cannot force change

The importance of getting employees to accept change makes the problem of introducing new technology different from simply providing them with a new tool. For example, the quality of the solution — in this case automated newsroom technology — and its acceptability are different characteristics and do not necessarily go together. A second complication stems from the fact that although management can control solution quality by handling the decision-making, employee acceptance is inherently voluntary. Acceptance of the change is not subject to the will of management. This factor is often overlooked. In most cases, it is impossible to implement even the best technology without cooperation from the workers. This rule applies even in today’s tight economy. Recall the adage, "you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink."

Unfortunately, it is not uncommon for some managers to try to force change upon employees — usually with predictable consequences. Failure to obtain employee acceptance (buy-in) of the changes merely aggravates the problem. Employee resistance may be expressed directly in the form of grievances, work stoppages or an open hostility toward management. In technical areas, resistance can be expressed in the form of reduced output, missed deadlines, waste, low-quality work and even sabotage.

I once worked with a director who was upset at some station changes. During an evening newscast one of the anchors began coughing on camera. Rather than switch to another anchor, the director kept the camera and microphone on that anchor throughout the coughing spell. While there was hell to pay for his action, it does illustrate that employees can express their feelings in a variety of negative ways.

Selling the solution

An effective manager recognizes the potential for these types of problems long before announcing plans for significant workplace change. The avenue typically used by management to present its new “solution and change” is education. Facts and arguments are presented to the staff with the expectation that, given the same information, the employees will take a similar favorable view toward the desired changes.

To the extent that staff resistance is based on incorrect or insufficient information, this tactic may help. However, resistance to change is usually rooted in feelings of insecurity, distrust of management’s motives and anxiety about the future. In these instances, piling on information will do little to reduce the employees’ anxiety. “Heck, they’re just going to fire me anyway,” might be a typical thought.

Getting employee buy-in

Lack of success with the “selling” approach has led to other attempts to get employees to cooperate. One common tactic involves the “Y” management approach. The supervisor meets with employees to discuss the current problems and proposed changes. On the surface, the process appears to be an exchange of information or a consultation. To the employee, this process is said to be a dialog. However, incorrectly handled, the perception may be far different.

While the method used to develop this exchange of information varies greatly, it is essential that an attempt be made to identify the employees’ feelings and ideas. The bottom line is that management always reserves the right to accept or reject the employee contributions as it sees fit. However, if management’s position is overemphasized during the discussions, it can greatly damage the communication process. “They don’t really care what we think,” could be the employees’ perception.

Cooperative acceptance required

The two methods of obtaining acceptance of the proposed changes are quite different. The selling approach emphasizes the presentation of management’s viewpoint, while the consultative approach is designed to solicit an expression of employee opinions. In this sense, the latter method may be seen as a step toward consideration for the welfare of employees. The two methods are alike in that both reserve the decision-making function to management with the intent to protect the quality of the decision.

The implementation of newsroom automation example is typical of the changes being faced by stations and their employees today. As economic pressures require staffs to perform more tasks and in less time, technology will increasingly force people to change the way they do their jobs. The real issue is not the loss of jobs, although that may happen in some cases. The greater issue is how to help the workers adapt to new way of completing the task.

Next time we’ll continue to examine how technology can be effectively implemented in today’s fast-paced environments.