An experimental governance necessary to make digital technology beneficial in the workplace

When introducing technology to the workplace, it pays to be realistic. Often, for example, the introduction of new digital technologies into an organization does not radically improve a company’s operations. Despite high-level planning, a more common result is the messy process by front-line employees to figure out how they can get technology tools to help them to some extent.

This task can easily fall on overworked workers who struggle to get things done, but don’t always have a lot of voice in an organization. So isn’t there a way to systematically think about the implementation of digital technology in the workplace?

MIT professor Kate Kellogg thinks it does and calls it ‘experimental governance of digital technology’: let different parts of an organization experiment with the technology, then centrally remove the barriers to adopt the best ones. emerging practices at the company level.

If you want to promote new digital technologies, you must allow local teams to adapt the technology to their environment. You also need to form a core group that follows all of these local experiences and reviews processes in response to problems and opportunities. If you let everyone do it locally, you’re going to see resistance to the technology, especially among the front-line workers. “

Kate Kellogg, David J. McGrath Jr. Professor, Management and Innovation, MIT Sloan School of Management

Kellogg’s perspective comes after she conducted an in-depth 18-month ethnographic study of a teaching hospital, examining many facets of its day-to-day operations, including the integration of technology into daily medical practices.

Some of the insights from this organizational research now appear in an article Kellogg wrote, “Local Adaptation Without Work Intensification: Experimental Governance of Digital Technology for Reconfiguring the Mutually Beneficial Role in Organizations,” recently published online in the journal Organizational Sciences.

To the hospital

Kellogg’s daily ethnographic field research took place in the primary care unit of a teaching hospital in the northeastern United States, where there were six medical teams, each consisting of seven to nine physicians, and three or four nurses and medical assistants. , as well as four or five receptionists.

The primary care group was transitioning to using the new digital technology available in the electronic health system to provide clinical decision support, indicating when patients needed vaccinations, diabetes tests and Pap tests. Previously, some actions might not have been requested until after visits to primary care physicians. The software incorporated these elements into the patient’s preclinical routine as needed.

In practice, however, the implementation of digital technology resulted in a much greater workload for medical assistants, who were responsible for using alerts, communicating with patients – and often given even more work. background by doctors. When the recommendation provided by the technology was not aligned with a physician’s individual judgment as to when a particular action was needed, medical assistants would be tasked with learning more about a patient’s medical history.

“I was surprised to find that it didn’t work well,” Kellogg says.

She adds, “The promise of these technologies is that they’ll automate a lot of practices and processes, but they don’t do it perfectly. Often it takes people who bridge the gap between what technology can do and what is really needed, and often less skilled workers are invited to do it. “

As such, Kellogg observed, the challenges of using the software were not just technological or logistical, but organizational. The primary care unit was willing to let its various groups experiment with the software, but those most affected by it were the least well placed to demand changes in hospital routines.

“It sounds great that all the local teams are experimenting, but in practice… a lot of people ask frontline workers to do a lot of things, and they [the workers] have no way of pushing this off without being seen as complainers, ”Kellogg notes.

Three types of problems

In total, Kellogg has identified three types of issues regarding the implementation of digital technology. The first, which she calls “participation issues,” arise when lower-ranking employees feel uncomfortable talking about workplace issues. The second, “threshold problems”, involves getting enough people to agree to use the solutions discovered through local experiences for the solutions to become beneficial.

The third are “free rider issues”, when, say, doctors benefit from physician assistants performing a wider range of work duties, but fail to follow proposed guidelines necessary to free up physician assistant time.

Thus, if digital offered advantages, the hospital still had to take a new step to use it effectively: setting up a centralized working group to take advantage of the solutions identified in the local experiments, while reconciling the needs of physicians with realistic expectations of medical assistants.

“What I found was that this local adaptation of digital technology needed to be complemented by a central governing body,” Kellogg explains. “The core group could do things like introduce technical training and a new performance appraisal system for medical assistants, and quickly disseminate locally developed technological solutions, such as reprogrammed code with rules to help with the practice. revised decision. “

Placing a representative of the hospital’s medical assistants in this type of governing body, for example, means that “the lower-level medical assistant can speak on behalf of his or her counterparts, rather than [being perceived as] a resistant now [they’re] being asked for a valued opinion on what all of their colleagues are struggling with, ”notes Kellogg.

Another tactic: rather than requiring all physicians to follow the recommendations of the core group, the group obtained “interim commitments” from physicians – the willingness to try best practices – and found it to be. a more effective way to involve everyone.

“What experimental governance is, you allow all the local experimentation, you come up with solutions, but then you have a central body made up of people from different levels, and you solve the participation issues and take advantage of the opportunities that arise. present during local adaptation, “Kellogg said.

A bigger picture

Much of his research has long been carried out by Kellogg through extensive ethnographic work in medical settings. His 2011 book “Challenging Operations,” for example, used field research to investigate the controversy over hours required of medical residents. This new article, for its part, is a product of more than 400 sessions that Kellogg spent following medical workers inside the primary care unit.

“The holy grail of ethnography is finding a surprise,” Kellogg says. It also requires, she observes, “an unconditional focus on the empirical. Let’s go beyond abstractions and dig into a few concrete examples to really understand the most generalizable challenges and the best practices to overcome them. I was able to learn from them. things you would like not to be able to learn by doing a survey. ”

For all of the public discussion of technology and jobs, then, there is no substitute for a granular understanding of how technology actually affects workers.

Kellogg says she hopes the concept of experimental governance could be widely used to help harness the adoption of promising but flawed digital technology. This could also apply, she suggests, to banks, law firms and all kinds of businesses using various forms of enterprise software to streamline processes like human resource management, support customer and email marketing.

“Overall, when we engage in digital transformation, we want to encourage experimentation, but we also need some kind of central governance,” Kellogg said.

“It’s a way of solving problems that are experienced locally and making sure that successful experiences can be disseminated. … A lot of people talk about digital as either good or bad. But neither is the technology itself. neither the type of work being done dictates its impact.What I am showing is that organizations need an experimental governance process in place to make digital technology beneficial to both managers and workers.


Journal reference:

Kellogg, KC, (2021) Local adaptation without labor intensification: Experimental governance of digital technology for a reconfiguration of mutually beneficial roles in organizations. Organizational Sciences.

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