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Nature vs. Nurture: Technology Edition

By Craig Roth | October 25, 2021 | 1 Comment

Tech Buying Behavioral InsightsInformation work

I am  diving deeper into the results of our first user influence survey and continue to find fascinating tidbits inside. For example, this morning I was looking at the cuts of our questions about users’ experiences, attitudes, and ability to find information. And uncovered an age-old debate in a new light.

We performed cluster analysis across 16 factors and found five “clusters” or types of users. Two of them are polar opposites. On one side is the cluster we call “drivers”.  Drivers are positive and technology-embracing employees. Across all of these questions the drivers have had positive experiences with new software and attitudes about the impact of technology on their jobs. Drivers have little trouble noticing or finding information when they need to make decisions. 

On the other side of the coin, the “doubters” report negative experiences. Doubters are much more likely to get in the way of adoption efforts by not properly using or bad-mouthing new software to peers. And, sure enough, when you asked about their experiences, attitudes, and attention the doubters are negative on all the questions.

That gets me to my thought for today: “Nature vs. Nurture: Technology Edition”. In psychology there is a continuing debate about whether behavior is driven by inherited influences or those acquired over a lifetime. Are bad people bad because they were wired that way from birth or because they were twisted by the ravages of their experiences?

When I look at my survey data, at the base of all the cluster analysis, I see the same issue raising its head with technology adoption.

Techno-Nativism

If you believe in nature – let’s call it “Techno-nativism” – you would argue that these doubters are born pessimists who are not good at using technology.  That is why they report that their systems are always crashing, new technology often hurts their productivity, and they make poor decisions because they can’t find information in their systems.

Techno-Empiricism

If you believe in nurture – “Techno-empiricism” – you would assert that all workers enter the workforce with neutral attitudes but wind up on different paths during their lives. The drivers wound up at companies where technology rollouts and integration with new work processes were a pleasant experience. Their systems were not crashing, they received the right training, and systems were designed so that information was easy to find. And, therefore, they developed high opinions and positive expectations for technology to improve their jobs. How wonderful for them!

The poor doubters got stuck at companies that threw ill-fitting, bug-laden technology on them with no training, rolled out and retired systems willy-nilly, and configured them poorly so they were difficult to use. Like an abused animal, they hunker down and growl at IT folks offering them a tasty new application.

The Value and Agency of Individuals

There is no way to perfectly determine whether someone’s attitudes toward adopting new ways of working are due to previous position or experience. As humans I don’t think we can introspect to that degree. 

Absent a psycho-analysis of each worker, you just have to act as if both are possibilities. If techno-nativism is true then you want to aggressively test for native skills and aptitude to place people into jobs that are the best fit for them. 

If techno-empiricism is true then you want to generate good experiences by making sure that technology is rolled out working well on first release, with proper training, and with clear productivity benefits to the worker. And assume that upskilling workers that currently display low digital aptitude will be worth the effort.

Just as nature vs. nurture discussions in public policy seem to be about the value and agency of individuals, techno-nativism vs techno-empiricism reduces to a discussion of the digital potential of individuals, regardless of their current skill levels. Every worker deserves the benefit of the doubt and the right to be upskilled as needed. Hire for the best skills you can get, but if you still notice large clusters of workers with negative views of new technology it may not be the workers: it’s worth looking at the way tech has been introduced to them in the past and how it can be done better in the future. I cannot fully buy into techno-nativism as I continue to believe that workers have the ability to change and improve.

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  • thank you for your awesome post