From a technology perspective, today’s councilors and board members are a transitional group. Five years ago, few public sector organizations had smart devices and applications for board members to use during meetings, and five years from now, such organizations will use nothing else. This is the generation of meeting participants who bridge that divide, and such transitions can be difficult. That being said, the changes are coming — and there are ways to make them easier.
While digital technologies offer tremendous efficiencies and other benefits, such as remote access, councilors and board members are unlikely to uniformly embrace them. Some may enthusiastically jump into the deep end of the technology pool with both feet, while others staunchly resist the new approach.
How do you address these varying perspectives, steering your organization towards a technology-empowered future without leaving anyone behind? Start by understanding the reasons behind the differing viewpoints, then start breaking down the barriers that the techno-skeptics can hide behind.
The Sociology of Technology Adoption
Don’t get frustrated with individual members who seem particularly resistant to new technologies, as differing acceptance levels follow well-established sociological models. As described by researchers Joe M. Bohlen, George M. Beal and Everett M. Rogers and popularized in Rogers’ book Diffusion of Innovations, technology is adopted by individuals and organizations at varying rates.
As such, you cannot expect individuals to all have the same level (or lack) of enthusiasm for a technology, even if the organization is fully committed to it. Some will be early adopters and innovators, wanting to use the latest technology immediately (“I want this to work on the new device I just bought — now!”), while others will be laggards (“From my cold, dead hands you will take my paper and pen”). In the middle are those who are more conservative but open to new ideas. They’ll wait to see evidence that the new technology delivers its promised benefits before embracing it themselves, but their resistance is generally practical in nature and can be overcome with proof points.
It’s easy to assume that the difference is purely age-based — that older members will be more resistant to technology than younger ones. It is actually more complex than that; personality is a far bigger driver of such behaviours than age. You’ll find Baby Boomers who are early adopters, and laggard or late-majority Millennials. Just because the younger generation grew up with technology doesn’t mean they’ll instantly accept the next shiny new object; in fact, they may have been exposed to a greater number of “failed” technologies that have only deepened their skepticism of a particular new offering.
While you can’t overcome human nature, it’s important to do everything you can to narrow the gap, so the laggards don’t hold back the effectiveness of your new technologies for everyone else on the council or board. Keeping the following principles in mind will help you overcome adoption challenges while making it easier for your meeting participants to reap technology’s benefits.
- Keep it simple. While people inherently like to have choices, offering too many of them creates complexity. Confusion is the enemy. Giving a member one type of device to use at home and another to use in chambers will only lead to frustration. Forgo having a dedicated council device. Instead assign a single device to each councilor for use both in and out of session. Also remember that members are usually consumers of information rather than producers of it, so they may not need the ability to create new documents. Restricting the software functionality available to them will make it easier to both use and support.
- Make it friendly. Technology that a member can use in other aspects of their lives can improve its adoption and “stickiness”.
- Support, support, and more support. It’s common sense that participants may need lots of support for any new technology, and that their acceptance of that technology will be heavily influenced by the help they receive. Make training readily available, and ensure support is easily accessible to tackle issues before they lead to frustration. Beyond operational assistance, keep spare devices and accessories like charging cables in the meeting room in case items are forgotten by participants; the easiest way to “turn off” a board member from accepting a technology is if it’s not usable when they need it.
- Make it easy for IT. Being able to give meeting participants the backing and assistance they need starts with ensuring the technology is easy for IT to support. From a hardware perspective, this generally means forgoing the concept of “bring your own device” (BYOD); letting participants use any type of device they want introduces too many variables, from differing hardware capabilities and operating systems to improper configuration. Limit options to two or three types of devices and systems. Easing support also means choosing a software application that is intuitive and user-friendly; the simpler the software is to operate, the less operational support participants will require. And if it’s a software users are familiar with, even better. Last but certainly not least, choose technology vendors whom your IT team can count on to reliably support themselves and their users.
- Crawl, then walk, then run. Even the most enthusiastic adopters can become resistant to technology if it is forced upon them too quickly. Introduce new innovations such as electronic voting slowing, to avoid overwhelming participants. Pushing new technology too fast may also expose meeting participants to any initial “hiccups” in the deployment, which can shake their faith — or reinforce their doubts — in the new approach. Incorporating the innovations gradually will help minimize such growing pains for councilors and board members.
- Make new mimic old. Software that allows users to work in familiar ways can help them feel comfortable with a new technology more quickly. Human behaviours with respect to notes and note-taking are firmly established, and most importantly, they work well. Choose a so