If anything strings together my career it is observing how people, including myself, respond to change. As a IT professional I came to appreciate the value of change management.
Back in 1971, while in high school, I enrolled in an advanced placement class called “Contemporary Issues.” It was a great class where we talked about numerous topics, sharpening our debate skills and practicing what was then a time-honored tradition in America – disagreeing without being disagreeable. There was only a small amount of required reading material because we had to do our own research on the various issues we discussed. The one book that has required reading was Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock. It was a rather thick book, the kind that you begin to learn the art of speed reading. It stuck, however, because Toffler was quite accurate when it came to the challenges that would face the generations to come. For Toffler, it was not just about technology, but how people would respond to it. If change came too quickly, a well-intended innovation could turn into a social disaster.
The subject of change would next emerge in one of my political science classes as I was introduced to Edmond Burke. Burke is considered the father of conservatism. While most people I knew back then would immediately assume that conservatives were reactionary right wingers, they would be surprised to discover that Burke actually favored the cause of the colonists when they rebelled against the Crown. Burke would stress that the core element of conservatism was not necessarily a specific position in politics, but a world view that saw change as something that needed to be carefully managed. Change was inevitable. Change too quickly, you can destabilize a society. This was the main problem with how the Crown managed colonial America.
My first encounter with change management as a professional was as a grain trader for a regional farmers cooperative. They had a rather sizable grain operation of which I entered into the picture only a couple years after it was initiated. Before our division was formed, MFA, Inc was a hodge-podge of 100 outlets, mostly focused on farm supplies. Most had a modest grain elevator. And decisions on what to buy and sell were made by the local managers. Then we came along, this army of young and naive Turks who had been endowed with a mission to buy up all the grain possible, consolidate it, and sell it in large volume contracts. On the drawing board, it made sense. It was economically rational. Over the next three years, it was a money-maker.
Relationally, it was a disaster. I could see it when I went out into the field and met the local managers. Their world view was different. Their concept of risk much different. Most had no idea what futures trading was. As would eventually be evident, getting buy-in on the grain trading venture was strangely overlooked. It lowered morale in both the grain division and amongst local managers. It generated animosity between MFA’s management and the farmers. As a person fresh out of graduate school, it was rather disappointing. We had done everything right, yet it failed because of change management.
Change management was not a big thing in the early 80’s. I would not encounter the term until I was teaching IT management in the 2000’s. But I observed the consequences of change mismanagement over and over again. I saw businesses devote considerable resources on IT and completely fail to inform their staff and provide basic preparation and training. I can’t tell you how many times I introduced new technology to an office staff composed of 50 and 60 year-olds who had not the foggiest notion of what I was doing.
My next big gig would be working in a medical center. Since I was the primary implementer of change, I took particular care in introducing changes and improved the techniques in preparing the staff for changes and providing adequate training and documentation. I navigated users from DOS to Windows 3.1 to Windows 98 and Windows 2000. E-mail changed from Groupwise to cc:Mail to Outlook. The staff was integrated into the world of Active Directory. We had to work together through countless changes to hardware. Testing and introducing changes in groups was the key to getting through these challenges. While I did not read a book on change management, I was living it.
Years later I would join the US Forest Service which had formalized change management into their IT organization. We used various platforms to map out changes, from development to production. What impressed me was how well integrated change management was at all levels of the US Forest Service. At the medical center I worked with 110 users. At the USFS, 45,000. Obviously, not everything went smoothly. But for the size of the organization, change went remarkably well.
The big difference with the USFS was that the average worker was culturally more in tune with change. Change had now become a part of the work experience, if not life in general. The staff at the USFS were generally my age. Most had children the same age as mine. We had all guided them, as well as ourselves, through changes in technology from the iPod to the iPhone.
Yet today I see glaring examples of failure in change management. No where is this more apparent than in our electoral system. COVID fast-tracked many innovations. Mail-in ballots were basically dumped onto the electoral system. For someone who worked in technology and change management for nearly three decades, I could foresee the chain-reaction events that unfolded. Mail-in ballots challenge two key elements of election integrity: voter verification and chain-of-custody. A series of issues emerged such as ballot harvesting, remote drop boxes, drop box stuffing, voter ID issues, allegations of fraudulently printed ballots, outdated voter registration rolls, changes in the duties assigned to staff, and a seriously challenged postal service. The results were not surprising – a significant drop in voter confidence and the emergence of election integrity as one of the top issues of 2020. It was a change management disaster. It even affected the location of the Major League Baseball All-Star game!
As anyone who works in IT can attest, change occurs at multiple locations. IT project directors are managing changes on more than one thing at a time. Hopefully they are unique. But sometimes they are not. In the year 2000, I was managing projects in office automation, the network evolution from token ring to Ethernet, the introduction of the Internet and the subsequent explosion of security issues. All at the same time. Election integrity had a similar problem. In addition to mastering a new form of voting in the mail-in ballot, many jurisdictions were attempting to utilize computer-based voting. So when considering that most election officials understand little about IT management and security, you can see how these two significant developments in election technology could prove quite challenging to manage.
Today, I am “retired.” Yet it is obvious I still write. So I have changed jobs, so-to-speak. Yet I considered change management when I moved my website from an automated platform, that provided a limited range of rather easy-to-use features, to WordPress. It was like swatting flies and there were times when I asked myself, “Can I do this?” Yet when I pulled back and broke down the process into incremental steps, things settled into place. Instead of being overwhelmed with new technology, I was absorbing it one step at a time. The pattern I saw was rather familiar. As soon as the new website was activated, a series of issues emerged. I simply charted them out and prioritized. Each problem required some research and new knowledge. I set up a test site where I could try out new ideas. Security was improved. Tools were introduced to improve quality control. I am seeing at my website the same pattern of development I saw utilized while working for a vastly larger enterprise at the USFS.
If you have never studied change management, I encourage you to do so. It is part of the system development model (which I will discuss later). It is an excellent tool for problem solving, mission development and project management. And if you happen to be a county clerk in charge of elections, it is a good tool for sorting out the challenges ahead.
© Copyright 2023 to Eric Niewoehner