pocket change
Vendors are releasing updates at an unprecedented rate, leaving their customers scrambling to deal with change management PHOTO: Mike Schmid

For decades, the enterprise IT landscape moved at a slow and steady pace, in no rush to produce new features. 

Those days are gone. Vendors are now delivering huge leaps forward in capabilities, at a faster and faster pace. But just because you turn on new features doesn’t mean staff will know how to use them. They still need training, support and change management. 

Who’s responsible for this? Here's a clue: it’s not the vendor.

The Software Release Juggling Act

Microsoft is a stand out example of the increased pace of enterprise solutions. In the last few years alone it's launched dozens of apps and features for Office365, including collaboration solutions such as Office365 Groups and Teams, productivity-focused Delve, To-Do and Planner, potential PowerPoint replacement Sway, StaffHub an intranet-like experience for shift workers — and the list keeps going. 

On top of those big product releases, the company has continued to roll out hundreds of other smaller changes as frequently as every fortnight.

Other vendors are aiming to catch up and perhaps surpass this pace of change, including Facebook, Salesforce, Oracle and Google. 

Now look at it from the organization's perspective: most organizations have multiple vendors, leaving many struggling to digest the flurry of changes.

Changing Faster or Falling Further Behind?

How can businesses handle this increased pace? 

A UN agency was a case in point. They had managed a hugely successful rollout of Office 365, moving everyone onto the same network and consolidating into a single source of authentication — no mean feat when you’re working in over a hundred countries.

But when we travelled around the globe speaking to staff, the general sense was either confusion or a sense of obliviousness. “Yammer? I’ve heard of it, but no, I don’t use it. I understand I can store my files in the cloud, but I’m not sure how.”  Everyone had coped with the shift in email storage, but most had yet to use any of the added functionality, in any sort of sustained way.

The UN Agency was well aware of these issues, but didn't know how to address them. With a widely-dispersed workforce of over 10,000 people, all with hugely varying needs and behaviors, it required change management at a daunting scale.

And the longer they waited, the more new features were added to Office365, all automatically turned on for staff. Relegated to the ‘waffle’ of icons, many will go ignored or unused.

Should the vendor come to the rescue here? No. 

While Microsoft provides training and support materials, and is increasing its focus on user adoption, what is needed is boots on the ground change management, with sustained and substantial support. And that's not the role of the software vendor, regardless of how large they are.

The Change Debt Adds Up

These challenges are best articulated in terms of a 'change debt,’ defined as the gap between what staff currently do, the functionality that's been provided and the effort required to close that gap.

In some instances, the change debt is quite small. For example Facebook benefits here from the similarities between its enterprise solution and its consumer platform. (Although as it adds new and different functionality to its enterprise solution, change debt will rear its head again.)

Other changes generate significant change debt. Many modern enterprise platforms claim they are aiming to “change how work is done.” By definition, this is a big change, and one that will be unfamiliar for most in the workforce.

Historically, change management and adoption initiatives struggle to procure sufficient resources. That didn't matter as much when the pace of change was slow.

But the change debt has increased in step with the pace of change. With many cloud vendors launching features directly to end users, the vendors are in effect imposing a change debt on their customers.

Ultimately something will have to give. Customers will eventually push back on paying for features their staff ignores. Until that happens though, businesses face an uphill battle.

Avoiding or Mitigating Change Debt

Let's be clear: the vendor-driven changes are often for the better, and in many cases are long overdue. Enterprise solutions are delivering experiences that are an order of magnitude better than previous offerings. In the long term, organizations will benefit by rethinking daily practices.

That therefore makes the task how to avoid or mitigate change debt — not to avoid any change.

There are a number of practical ways to do this:

  1. Make your expectations clear to vendors. From the outset, even before purchase, help the vendor understand your workforce and what change management is required. Ensure they understand your challenges, and how they can help.
  2. Wherever possible, retain control over releases. It’s your business and your staff. You should be able to choose what’s launched, when and to whom. This allows you to proceed at a pace that suits you, not just the vendor.
  3. Make adoption set the pace of projects. The limiting factor for releasing new capabilities is speed of adoption. Even when projects run in parallel, be wary of the total change debt being accrued.
  4. Focus on the outcome, not the activity. The goal isn’t to 'increase collaboration,' it’s to achieve a business outcome (e.g. better customer service, reduced costs, improved knowledge management). An outcomes-focus helps define what change management is required, and which staff are key.
  5. Target adoption. Not everyone will need to do document co-creation, nor will they be managing projects. Identify the needs of individual groups, and target adoption accordingly. 
  6. Simplify the user experience, even as functionality grows. One of the overall goals of the modern digital workplace is to improve the employee experience. Careful design and in-depth integration should allow businesses to deliver simpler experiences, even as new features are launched.

I’m excited by the features vendors are releasing and their potential to change the workplace. But I'm equally scared by the mountain of change debt that many organizations are accruing.

So before the next feature launch, take stock of current levels of adoption and determine a plan to manage your change debt. Better still, focus on creating a great employee experience, that reduces complexity even as functionality increases.

Editor's Note: James will share more of his thoughts on the digital workplace at the upcoming Digital Workplace Experience, taking place June 19 through 21 in Chicago.