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Organizational culture

When training for new tech, don’t ignore employee hierarchies

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Machine learning, blockchain, augmented reality, Internet of Things. An array of young technologies is transforming huge swaths of the economy. Businesses in almost every sector are striving to understand — and forecast — the implications.

So isa professor of work and organization studies at MIT Sloan. In new research, Kellogg and her co-authors find that the introduction of new technologies in the workplace often creates friction between junior digital natives and their more senior coworkers, upsetting fundamental power hierarchies. To mitigate the effect, they recommend careful attention to how this technology gets introduced and, specifically, how trainings take place.

“I’m very interested in how new technology is affecting the future of work and workers,” Kellogg said. “I’ve started to focus more carefully on the way organizations that are introducing new technology upskill their workforce to use it effectively.”

With colleagues Jenna Myers from MIT Sloan, Lindsay Gainer from Mass General Brigham Integrated Care, and Sara Singer from Stanford University, Kellogg spent nearly two years observing the day-to-day work of employees in five different clinics (managed by one company). As with many jobs, clinical health care depends on a “master-apprentice” training model in which more experienced employees provide on-the-job training to new employees.

But what happens when technologies or processes that are radically different from the norm are introduced? What happens when the standard order is overturned, and everybody, regardless of tenure or experience, needs to be taught a new set of skills?

“As a manager, the immediate inclination is to choose people to be trainers who seem like they are best able to grasp the new way of working,” Kellogg said. “Often, these are people who are on the lower rungs of the organization, people who grew up using digital technologies and are not wedded to traditional ways of doing things.”

This is what Kellogg saw when the clinics’ management introduced a new electronic medical record system. Young, digitally native employees were invited to corporate headquarters to learn to use the new technology; those same employees then returned to the clinic as deputized peer trainers. And this is when problems arose.

The results, which are published in Organization Science, present a dichotomy. At three of the five clinics, promoting more junior employees to be peer trainers created backlash. It drove a competitive wedge between coworkers. Especially among more senior employees, who saw their status undermined, the trainings created resistance to, rather than acceptance of, the new processes.

The other two clinics demonstrated a different response: the trainings were interpersonally peaceful and the new processes were both accepted and quickly diffused. The most prominent difference? At the two successful sites, the role of trainer was not fixed; rather, employees rotated in and out of the job. This process, it appears, provided a degree of deference to existing power structures and offered all employees a chance to fill the role of trainer while also ushering in a new way of doing things.

For Kellogg, the implications are far-reaching. At a moment when technology is poised to disrupt the traditional work of so many firms, managers may be looking toward digitally native employees to train others with these new technologies. But, while this strategy might seem to be most efficient from a learning perspective, it can make more senior employees feel slighted, and it can hinder learning among teams. Managers, she said, must be cognizant of the tension between novel technology and existing hierarchies.

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“The same dynamics that we saw among health care workers are likely to play out for all sorts of professions,” she said. “In digital advertising, for instance, junior people often have more technical knowledge of how to place ads than their managers do. In law firms, you see new hires who more capably use AI to get legal work done than partners.”

One way to address this challenge, as the paper suggests, is to create a peer-training program that rotates both senior and junior employees through the role of trainer. Though not the most efficient method of imparting knowledge, the alternative of putting rookies in charge is a likely recipe for failure. Another approach that holds promise is identifying and formalizing the realms in which senior managers are more expert and in which they still play the role of mentor.

Regardless of the approach, though, modern technologies are forcing managers to confront this challenge with increasing frequency.

“In our case, there was no way managers could get around putting a new learning hierarchy in place. They needed employees to challenge old processes and learn to do new kinds of work,” Kellogg said. This is often the case, "But even as managers change these systems they need to find a way for more experienced members to leave the old hierarchy and progress up the new one.”

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