Each and every one of us has their own little technology adoption stories: about using a complicated office chair wrong for years, or about getting a device to run without actually knowing how it works.
These stories are all about personal struggles, about how technology affected one individual. Psychologists have been researching this for decades, and their insights have improved our interactions with technology tremendously. Whether it's airplane cockpits or dating apps: technology today is almost perfectly adjusted to us – its human users.
Because of these great strides in ergonomics, workplace technologies are as polished as most other technologies out there today. Warehouse scanners are as easy to use as mobile phones, enterprise software is becoming more and more self-explanatory, and communication tools proactively protect sensitive data. It all just works.
But there’s a catch: workplace technologies don’t aim to provide benefits to individuals, but to an organization as a whole. The psychology of individual ergonomics simply doesn’t tell the whole story anymore. It becomes more about how a technology changes group interaction, and less about how accessible it is.
An example from our practice: a large manufacturing plant implemented an online shift planning system to free foremen of boring administrative work. Workers could now easily book and change shifts on their own, without having to involve the boss. But both the workers and the foremen were reluctant to use the system: “talking to the boss to switch shifts” was the one personal interaction they had on a regular basis, a key occasion to check in with each other. Psychologically and technically, the shift planning system was perfect. It just failed to acknowledge social dynamics and team routines.
It seems like a no-brainer: when an individual is engaging with technology, their properties and needs are best explained by psychology, and when technologies interact with groups, it’s more about sociology. In science, this is how it has always been, and everyday practice is also slowly coming around to it.
So does this mean you need an organizational sociologist now? No. Sociology, just like psychology, has increasingly become a quantitative science: one that doesn’t only describe and explain, but also measures. And it measures different things than psychology.
For instance, most modern teams have the skills to effortlessly use workgroup chat tools, because they work just like the private social media chat tools they use every day. When they are reluctant to use workgroup chat, often it is because they don’t want to leave a written record of their thoughts, fearing they could be taken out of context.
Psychology would now measure individual properties like “confidence” in an attempt to describe what an individual should be like in order to still use workplace chat in such a situation. Sociology would, instead, measure the situation itself: group properties like “discussion environment” to see how safe it feels to openly speak one’s mind in a certain group, and then describe how to change the situation - not the individuals.
Not only is this the more relevant information, but the solutions that result from it are far more feasible. With sociology, you don’t need to individually address hundreds of colleagues in order to improve technology adoption. You just need to change the situation.