The introduction of new AI technology is not always without problems. AI is a tool for producing knowledge and can threaten how employees develop and use knowledge in a specific work domain. In such cases, employees can resist its implementation. In the case described in this research article Make Way for the Algorithms: Symbolic Actions and Change in a Regime of Knowing by Stella Pachidi, Hans Berends, Samer Faraj, Marleen Huysman, the authors describe another form of resistance, which led unintendedly to the full implementation of the suggested technological change. Let's take a look at what was happening under the surface to explain these unexpected consequences.
The TelCo case:
TelCo is a large organization offering telecommunication services to a broad range of customers. On the one hand, the actors in this research are the business-to-business sales department that targeted medium-sized enterprises and the Customer Intelligence department (technologist) on the other hand. The introduced technology is a data analytics sales tool developed to identify sales opportunities based on predictive modeling and optimization algorithms.
The authors state that technological change is associated with deeper changes in developing and using knowledge and evaluating people, actions, performance, etc. Therefore, introducing a new technology like AI will have substantial consequences. It is not just a matter of increasing efficiency or cutting down costs. There will be deeper transformations.
Looking under the surface
This data analytics sales tool meant a shift in how the account managers worked and a threat to their sales practice as it deemed their expertise redundant. However, instead of avoiding the system or resisting it, the authors describe that the employees symbolically conformed to the new technology and pretended to use it without actually doing so. The more the account managers pretended to use the analytics tool, the more the data scientists could claim the tool's use as a success. In turn, this increased the pressure on account managers to increase their symbolic conformity. Ironically, this symbolic conformity unintentionally led to the full implementation of the suggested technological change and the redundancy of the account managers.
How can you use this knowledge when implementing new technology?
So what takeaways do the authors have for you as a business leader implementing new technology in your organization? In many cases, one thing that is a pitfall is that you should not be blinded by the promise of the introduction of new technology.
4 takeaways for business leaders
- Best of both worlds: Consider how to incorporate the advantages of the analytics/AI tool together with the practical knowledge of employees (in this case, the account managers).
- Engage the users early: Engage the users of the technology quite early on in the design and implementation stages. This will help ensure that their expertise and knowledge are incorporated into the tool. Have the developers collaborate with the users to better understand how they produce knowledge.
- Understand what is happening: You cannot manage the technology implementation process from your ivory tower. You need to engage with the workers and understand how they interact with the new tool in practice rather than rely on a set of metrics to assess the tool's success. When you manage by metrics, you have to expect that people will engage in symbolic actions and other evasive maneuvers.
- For employees: You cannot simply ignore and pretend that you are okay with the changes implemented in your organization. At some point, your symbolic conformity will come back to bite you. Instead, raise your concerns and collaborate with management (and the technologists) to implement a change that will benefit all.
Suggestions for future reading
If you want to learn more about the intended and unintended consequences of AI in organizations, read this article: https://cacm.acm.org/news/246457-the-impact-of-ai-on-organizations/fulltext.
The full research article: Stella Pachidi, Hans Berends, Samer Faraj, Marleen Huysman (2020) Make Way for the Algorithms: Symbolic Actions and Change in a Regime of Knowing, Organization Science, https://pubsonline.informs.org/doi/abs/10.1287/orsc.2020.1377