Is fear of change harming UK productivity?

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One of the biggest challenges facing UK businesses when it comes to realising value from technology investments is people

With the rise of artificial intelligence, cloud computing and the Internet of Things, technology is altering every aspect of business and society, fundamentally changing the way we communicate and disrupting established ways of working. As a result companies across the world are digitising their processes, and reskilling their workforces to embrace innovative new business practices.

These advances in technology are in many ways making us faster, smarter and more efficient, but data from the OECD has revealed that UK productivity remains 20% to 25% behind that of the US, France and Germany. What’s more, organisations like The Productivity Leadership Group, a business-led organisation backed by companies such as BAE Systems, GlaxoSmithKline and the John Lewis Partnership, has found that the UK is missing out on £130 billion output every year, which firms could unlock if they did more to address poor productivity.

An independent review has now been tasked by the government with looking at how digital technology can pull British industry into the modern age and boost UK growth. The plans are set to support business to understand, deploy and create the latest digital technologies, helping to secure homegrown R&D and the creation of new industries and highly-skilled, well-paid jobs.

In recent research we conducted in partnership with Goldsmiths University we found that one of the biggest challenges facing UK businesses when it comes to realising value from technology investments is people. Moves by business to improve how people work by introducing things like virtual offices and collaborative technology can create anxiety among some employees, while automation is causing people to fear for their jobs.

These fears are not only hindering progress within individual organisations, but also UK business’ ability to remain competitive relative to other countries. Fewer than a quarter of UK businesses are investing in addressing this human and cultural challenge when introducing new technology, according to the research, meaning the promise of increased productivity is often never realised.

Companies must have the right culture and change programme in place to unlock its true value. There are five key challenges that must be overcome:

  • Collaboration not competition. The concept of working with ‘machines’ and technology can be confusing and unsettling. That’s why we need to help people understand the collaborative potential of new digital technologies, and how they can make life easier.
  • Embracing fear. Organisational change brings with it a feeling of fear and stress, so we must acknowledge the anxiety change can cause and proactively support our workforces through it.
  • Demonstrating value. Employees don’t always buy into the 'digital transformation' strategy. Organisations should offer the resources and framework for people to contribute ideas themselves as part of the design process. It’s also important to showcase success from within to reinforce why these changes are so important.
  • Respecting your ecosystem. Every industry is being disrupted at pace, so it’s vital to understand what’s happening externally and what will make the difference for your customers, and often their customers.
  • Living agile. Resource constraints inhibit the creation of an agile digital culture.

Help people move to a flexible, forward-thinking culture of continuous improvement and innovation.

Creating a culture where technology blends with human potential is where the magic happens, but this requires belief and commitment. Changing human behaviour is not always easy and there’s a level of discomfort that comes with stepping into the unknown. Some people thrive on it, some people can learn it, and some people feel paralysed by it, so this must be handled sensitively. However, there are practical steps that every company can take to help both business leaders and employees on their way.

This includes giving employees the time and resources to test, develop and report back on new ways of working in real scenarios. This creates a deeper sense of involvement among staff. If they feel valued and included they are more likely to adopt the right mindset when it comes to trying something new.

It’s up to UK businesses to give their employees the support they need to embrace digital change, boost productivity and ensure the UK remains a competitive player on the world stage.

Clare Barclay is COO at Microsoft UK

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