Learning from luddites: engaging with the intranet sceptics

“I’m no good with technology…”

At some stage every intranet manager has to deal with what we might term as the grumpy luddites. These are the sceptics who see no reason why they or anybody else should need to use the new intranet, social network, collaboration platform, application, whatever because

  • a) they can ask a colleague
  • b) they can pick up a phone
  • c) they can use email
  • d) they can use a spreadsheet
  • e) the old intranet was much better
  • f) I’m too busy
  • g) it’s a waste of money
  • h) why should I? etc. etc.

They tend to be naturally contrarian about technology and change, and are usually quite grumpy about it, or what we might call “comedy grumpy” but with a slight edge. These are the guys who read every cliché coming out of yet another survey about millenials, and then model their image on the exact opposite.

A grumpy luddite, digital dinosaur, techno-laggard, or whatever you choose to call them can be a threat when they are influential, well-respected or in a management position. Most likely they are a barrier to adoption in a team, unit or even division.  They may be a dissenting voice in a presentation who asks ‘how much exactly did the company spend on the intranet launch day promotional cookies when my colleagues are possibly facing redundancy”?

In extreme cases they can help to organise or be a vocal point for other dissenters, particularly if there is a mandatory change to a process involving the new intranet. (“Employee self-service…the outrage!”)  If you’re really unlucky they’re one of the stakeholders.  But perhaps most frequently they are an annoyance – a thorn in your side. You already work your socks off, and they’re being critical of what you slug your guts out to do every day. Grrrr!

Ignore or engage?

OK, at first glance this sounds fairly black and white. Just ignore these people, don’t worry about it, it comes with the territory. There are not enough hours in the day to engage with these people as a priority, and it is simply not worth the drain on time, resources and energy. I’ll go and organise an easy meeting with some early adopters instead!

Personally I think there’s a lot of sense in ignoring the grumpy luddites, particularly if you are in full launch mode, and are chasing some early success stories.  It’s also worth not responding to that critical email if you are in a precarious place time and effort-wise and are dissatisfied with your job. If a setback is going to spark resentment in you, then (as the great Scott Walker once sang) make it easy on yourself. Ignore.

However ignoring is not necessarily the most satisfying or tactical path. You could pass them on to your boss to respond, and in some cases if the intranet-sceptic is at a particular senior level, you may need to do this. But if you instead choose to engage with them, and hear their concerns you may find there are some associated benefits:

  • Everyone will respect you more for it, including the grumpy sceptic and your boss
  • You may have prevented some further dissent
  • You may learn a lot about your user population
  • You may even gain a powerful new advocate or even change agent

The value of engaging

If you have the time there are obvious benefits from engaging with the sceptics. Sometimes these people are simply trying to provoke a reaction. It may be a contrarian streak or something more personal against your department , or against somebody at a high level who has functional responsibility for your area.

If you go and see these people, armed with some good arguments, stories and metrics, and have your most reasonable / unflappable hat on then the outcome is likely to be positive. Even if they are unconvinced you may have achieved an “agree to disagree” uneasy truce, the threat from the dissenting voice will be deflected, at least for now. Perhaps you gave them a concession so they felt like they had scored something, for example that you’ll cancel the promotional launch-day cookies for when Phase 2 goes operational.  You will have earned their respect. Your boss will be pleased, you’ll be pleased.

Learning from the laggards

However the most value will come from listening to their concerns. So far this post has portrayed the sceptics as clearly wrong, but in real life it is hardly ever like that. In fact what happens if they are right? And even if you disagree with their views, do others users feel like they do? If so, then their concerns are legitimate.

A vocal sceptic tends to big-up the type of concerns which linger in the backs of the minds of other users and may already be a significant barrier to adoption. Perhaps you didn’t realise it or it wasn’t reflected in the personas you created for this project. If you spend all your time with early adopters and enthusiasts you’re unlikely to crack the tough nut of widespread adoption.

So a session with a critic might throw up some valuable questions such as:

  • Are we promoting the new intranet in the right way which deals with concerns?
  • Are we using the right vocabulary to avoid misunderstandings?
  • Is more specific training needed?
  • Do we need to do some targeted change management or communication?

It may even throw up some more uncomfortable or searching questions such as:

  • Is it really worth doing this process on the new intranet as the old way was actually better?
  • Have we actually got the design wrong?
  • Do I really understand the users as much as I like to think I do?

The last three points are potentially tricky or uncomfortable because they may point to a more significant issue which is more about the potential conflict between you as the promoter and advocate of all things intranet, and you as the guardian of all things intranet. Are you promoting something which deep down is really not very good? Have you become slightly detached from reality?

If this is the case you may need to undertake a minimum valuable repair strategy which is more honest about the intranet capability, although this may be impossible if you’re promoting something new.

Turning sceptics into advocates

If you are able to turn a sceptic and it proves that much of their concern was based on misunderstanding, then you may have gained a powerful advocate. The experience of ‘conversion’ is a powerful one and sticks in the mind. They may now even be a change agent, an enthusiastic supporter.

If your intranet sceptic is a stakeholder then this is what you really have to aim for, and it may take several battles to win the war. Dealing with a grumpy luddite who is also a stakeholder is a tricky one, and if you’re unfortunate to be in that situation and it means everything you do is an effort then you may have to take the battle to a higher level. Ask another stakeholder to intervene on your behalf and hope for the best.

If the luddism is fuelled by office politics or a poor relationship between individuals at a higher level then to be honest there may not be much you can do apart from get on with things and think about your own position.

Walking with dinosaurs

If you have the time try and engage with the luddites and the sceptics. In the long term it will give you a better perspective on users and that means you will do a better job. Acquire a thick skin if you need to and always question whether the sceptics are actually right. This can drive your intranet platform forward, achieve a better design, help you to continuously improve, and then the sceptics might be silenced.

 Steve Bynghall, January 2014

Chris says:

“Laggards are way over there on the other side of the bell curve of adoption. It’s pretty unlikely that you are going to turn them in my opinion, some people just like to whinge. But they also are likely to say the stuff that your early- and late-majority adopters are just going to think. So consider the luddites as amplifiers to a weak signal. Stay connected to reality, your colleagues aren’t robots who are going to adopt something new just because you think it is cool. Detach your hopes and dreams for your intranet from fantasy with proper user and stakeholder research and regular user testing. You may have got it wrong. Be professional and honest enough to admit to yourself.”