Shocked workers as they realise things backfired.

Wrenching changes

20 November 2020

The article at a glance

Workers often only ‘pretend’ to comply with the introduction of new technology. This can backfire on them badly, says a new study led at Cambridge Judge Business School.

Workers often only ‘pretend’ to comply with the introduction of new technology. This can backfire on them badly, says a new study led at Cambridge Judge Business School.

The introduction of new technology often sparks tensions at the workplace. Rather than rebel openly, traditionalists often pretend to comply while avoiding real change, hoping the new-fangled fad will quietly fade away. A new study in the journal Organization Science finds this can backfire badly on such employees, and explains why.

Stella Pachidi.
Stella Pachidi

The study led by Dr Stella Pachidi of Cambridge Judge Business School finds that such “symbolic conformity” can go wrong by leading unintendedly to the full application of the new technology, thus threatening the pretenders’ jobs. This is because technologists leading the change engage in symbolic advocacy of their own, convincing management that the new practice is succeeding even in the absence of real evidence.

In other words, workers’ fake application of the technology misleadingly makes the changes appear effective – which management seizes upon to implement the technology permanently.

“Whereas symbolic conformity is generally viewed as a safety valve to maintain actors’ idiosyncratic ways of working, in our study we saw that symbolic conformity had detrimental consequences for the very actors who performed it,” says the study.

Study lead author Stella Pachidi, University Lecturer in Information Systems at Cambridge Judge Business School, adds:

“Such symbolic conformity happens quite often in the workplace, but we rarely realise it: a new system, a new KPI, or a new way of doing things gets introduced; and while we may in fact disagree with it, we often unreflectively prefer to just ‘play along’ because we don’t have the time to question it or don’t want to appear as ‘bad’ colleagues. However, such almost ignorant symbolic actions can legitimise a practice and eventually make it seen as common routine.”

The two-year field study focused on the introduction of algorithmic technology in the sales department of a large telecoms company. Account managers accustomed to a more personalised customer approach professed to use the technology to identify sales opportunities. But the data scientists who introduced the algorithms in turn reacted by “hiding the account managers’ limited use of the data-enabled ways and proclaiming the new approach as a great success”.

Thus, the account managers’ symbolic conformity “significantly contributed to making the technology appear effective in the eyes of management. This led to a full implementation of the technology, which eventually led to rendering the account managers redundant,” the study said.

The study described its findings as an “empirical surprise”, reflecting a radical change in what the authors describe as a “regime of knowing” in the workplace – the specific ways offices develop practices through knowledge and the authority arrangements that govern a particular organisation.

“The study finds that the workers harmed themselves and eventually lost their jobs by pretending to use the new technology while actually resisting it,” says Stella Pachidi. “That’s because the people who introduced the new algorithms claimed the technology was in fact being implemented successfully, and their view prevailed with management.

“So the study holds important lessons for managers in assessing the claims of people on opposing sides of big technological changes now sweeping the global workplace. As artificial intelligence and other algorithmic technologies become handy in automating work tasks but also in providing new forms of control, authority arrangements will alter as well.”

The study focused on the telecoms company’s introduction of new algorithms to identify customer needs. The firm’s 100 business-to-business account managers had for years “enjoyed multifaceted interactions with their contacts, through frequent lunches, taking them to sporting events, and even keeping track of their family and personal lives”. But the algorithms aimed to replace these traditional sales techniques with an algorithmic model for managing sales based on large historical data sets compiled by “data scientists who were unfamiliar with the process of sales.”

The study’s implications include a stark warning about “luring management to perform radical changes without any real evidence that the new knowing practices are more effective than the old ones,” the paper says.

The findings also hold broader implications for managers at a time when machine learning and artificial intelligence are permeating workplaces around the world. These technologies “challenge what counts as valuable information and how it is produced”, and this can “pose an existential threat to the knowledge workforce” – so understanding its findings about the “regime of knowing” will become increasingly important.

The study in Organization Science – entitled “Make way for the algorithms: symbolic actions and change in a regime of knowing” – is co-authored by Dr Stella Pachidi of Cambridge Judge Business School, University of Cambridge; Professor Hans Berends and Professor Marleen Huysman of the School of Business and Economics, KIN Center for Digital Innovation, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam; and Samer Faraj of Desautels Faculty of Management, McGill University, Montreal.