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Applying Change Management Techniques Online

Update June 2010:
This post was part of a research project into social media and online communication that I undertook in 2008 and was originally published on my own personal blog Ffynnonweb which continues to undertake a journey across the changing online landscape, observing and chronicling developments in social technology and noting how they impact upon online communities – with a particular focus on opportunities in education known as ‘technology enhanced learning’ (TEL).
Julia Ault

A full list of all the posts in the social media research project can now be found on this page Social Media Research: JA

This is an article that was featured as a guest post on SheGeeks as part of the She Geeks in Tech Week in June 2008.

A recent case study that I undertook as part of my social media research project, provided evidence to back up the suggestion that resistance to change is by no means confined to employees within business organisations. Although much of the literature related to change and the successful management thereof, is primarily focused upon organisational change, many of the lessons and implications can be equally well applied to changes in all aspects of life including that of online communication.

The case study examined in detail the issues faced by members of an online community when attempting to move from Web 1.0 forums where they were comfortable and were used to posting in one single forum thread, to a Web 2.0 online social network offering a much wider range of facilities, but also what appeared to many members to be a bewildering array of choices that they found confusing and threatening.

Because change can be rewarding for some people and an unpleasant experience for others, perceptions can differ greatly, depending on your standpoint. Those who propose change not unnaturally tend to view it in positive terms, but in most cases these are people leading a group, community or organisation who are likely to either remain relatively untouched by the change or to actually benefit from it. Those lower down often see matters in a different light, particularly if they think that those who advocate the change will not be affected. For these reasons there is a widespread assumption that resistance to change is inevitable, and this has led to a strong interest in studying this phenomenon in the change process.

In the case study, the proposer of the change thought that the extra features available in online networks would considerably enhance the community and therefore viewed the change as a predominantly positive and exciting experience. Unfortunately, the members who had not been sufficiently prepared for the degree of change that they were about to undertake did not share this sense of excitement and were more inclined to dwell upon the negative aspects.

The Management Theorists, Kotter and Schlesinger (1979), quantified four generic reasons why individuals resist change:

Parochial self-interest: People have often invested a great deal of time, energy and commitment into a project and this is a ’sunk cost’ that cannot be recovered unless things stay the same. This creates a force for maintaining the status quo and engenders a degree of resistance. Members of the group in the study had already registered with two online forums, had become conversant with the software and were stuck in a fairly comfortable rut.

Misunderstandings and Lack of Trust: The less a person knows about the reasons for change and how it will impact upon them, the more likely it is that they will resist the change and if there is an inherent suspicion about the proposer of change and their motivation, this will result in selective perceptions about the proposal. Some members were wholeheartedly behind the move away from the old forum and were more likely to try to get to grips with the new platform but others who saw less need to move found the new surroundings irritatingly complicated.

Contradictory Assessments of The Change: People differ in their personal assessments of the costs and benefits of a change. The proposer tends to see only the positive outcomes and often forgets that what they perceive to be a benefit, others may see as a threat. If this happens, evidence suggests that there will continue to be resistance to changes long after their initial implementation.

Low Tolerance to Change: There are often wide variations in the capacity of people to absorb change. To some extent this depends on their ability to tolerate ambiguity and to those persons with a low tolerance, changes with unknown consequences can be highly threatening.

It is so widely assumed that resistance is inevitable that successfully overcoming resistance to change is taken as being an outcome in itself. However, because resistance can occur for such a wide range of reasons, it is doubtful if there is a single method that can deal with them all. Thus, a contingency approach, in which the method used is centred on the reason for resistance, is likely to be more appropriate.

This is addressed by Kotter et al. (1986) who set out seven ways of overcoming resistance. These can be used singly or in combination and Kotter et al. stress the need to choose a tactic that is most appropriate to the circumstances. Their advice on this matter, together with the strengths and weaknesses of the tactics, is summarised in the graphic below:

The most immediately obvious method to employ in an online situation would appear to be that of education and communication. It is of crucial importance to educate members of the original community about the positive benefits that will ensue from the change.

People generally fear what they do not understand and this is nowhere more apparent than in resistance to new technology. During the 1990s, many older employees strenuously resisted the introduction of computers into the workplace because they were not familiar with them, did not understand them and did not consider themselves to be sufficiently technically knowledgeable to be able to operate them. Gradually, over time and with sufficient employee training sessions, they came to be accepted as the norm and it is now extremely rare, if not impossible, to find a workplace that doesn’t use computers in some form or another.

As has been discussed in previous articles on this blog, people became quite comfortable using the web for shopping and socialising in places such as MSN Communities, Yahoo Groups and various online forums. MSN and Yahoo allowed a degree of autonomy to the community owner to create custom pages, change some colours and so on, but very little freedom was afforded to the ordinary member/user.

Large public forums (such as those provided on the Digital Spy website in the UK for example), were constrained by high hosting and bandwidth costs, so users were not allowed any personalising at all and simply joined and posted messages. Some people branched out and hosted their own private forums which enabled them to be more creative by installing themes and allowing users to display avatars and perhaps upload images. Again, hosting and bandwidth costs were always a factor for the webmaster to consider and the ordinary member was still quite restrained in what they could do on these forums and websites.

Therefore, the vast majority of forum and community users in the Web 1.0 era were not given many opportunities to express themselves creatively, but equally, not much was expected of them either. Once one had mastered the rudiments of joining and posting in a forum or community there was nothing more to learn and no major changes took place for some time allowing these users to settle into a comfortable, if fairly boring routine. At the same time, webmasters became used to managing their own websites with no user input and enjoyed total autonomy over their small patch of the web.

Suddenly, along came Web 2.0 with all this talk of ‘user generated content’, ‘taking back control of the web’ and ‘online social networking’.

Kanter et al. identified three different roles in the change process – change strategists or initiators who initiate and set the direction of change, change implementers who are responsible for the co-ordination and implementation of the change and change recipients who are strongly affected by the change and its implementation.

The Web 2.0 evangelists and creators of the social software are change strategists who are striding forth enthusiastically, embracing the new media and getting involved in all aspects – blogs, wikis, social bookmarking, social networks, Twitter, Friendfeed and so on. These are the early adopters who are always in the vanguard of anything new, because such people embrace change, seeing it as a challenge and an opportunity.

Change implementers are people rather like myself perhaps, who, whilst not totally at the forefront of change and could not be classified as pioneers in that sense, are always on the lookout for something new and stimulating to try out and are keen to encourage others to come along and experiment with them. This usually involves some form of evangelism and persuasion and a degree of organisation during the implementation phase.

The majority of web users however, fall into the third category of change recipients and the measure of how successful change is for them is highly dependant on the skills and abilities of the change implementers.

Returning to Kotter et al’s tactics for dealing with change; participation is another measure that may be used successfully to facilitate the change to Web 2.0. If change implementers can involve the recipients in the change process – in effect getting them to take ‘ownership of the changes’, this will considerably reduce dissatisfaction and resentment at having to make the changes at all and allow for more enthusiasm and excitement to surface. Facilitation and support tend to go hand in hand with this approach because the change implementers are also guiding and helping the users along the way.

The social web is not an employer and thus more stringent tactics are not really appropriate because if all other efforts fail, such persons must simply be left behind on the Web 1.0 platforms.

One other area that doesn’t necessarily always apply in an organisational setting, but most certainly does in the context of the social web, is that of freedom and choice.
As explained above, most of the Web 1.0 platforms offered little of either which although restrictive, can also afford security and a type of ‘comfort zone’. The Web 2.0 social media abounds with freedom and choice for the user and this can initially be somewhat bewildering and even disconcerting.

Users don’t always know what to do with such a choice of rich media and will either run towards it and begin filling their pages with every last bit of media content imaginable because no one is stopping them, or run away in fear back to the security of the plain old forums that they know and understand. It is at this point that facilitators and enablers are needed to give some guidance on the new media and how to use it sensibly and get the best out of it.

Perhaps unfortunately in terms of style and good taste, because the social networks are still so very new in real terms, many users are still in the ‘child in a sweetshop’ phase and have discovered the large networks like myspace which afford them the opportunity to express their creativity in a very loud and discordant way with large graphics, flashing images, music, videos and much else besides all jostling for space on one very crowded page. Nonetheless, at least such users have successfully made the change from Web 1.0 to Web 2.0 and no doubt good taste will eventually return, once the novelty has worn off.

Kurt Lewin developed both a method of analysis of whether change is appropriate and a method of handling change if it is decided that it is.

Force field analysis is a simple tool for measuring driving forces for change and restraining forces against change with equilibrium being the stable state in the middle. Equilibrium may be destabilised:
• by increasing the strength of the forces pushing for change;
• by reducing the strength of the restraining forces;
• by changing the direction of a force so that a restraint becomes a push factor.

If it is felt that change is desirable, then a three step process would be initiated.

Unfreeze: The aim here is to establish a motive for change which is done by destabilising the status quo and freeing up attitudes to change. The advantages of the new system (social networks) are extolled at the same time as the disadvantages of the current system (forums) are emphasised.

Move: The change from the old ways (Web 1.0) to the new (Web 2.0) takes place.

Refreeze: The new behaviour is consolidated or refrozen as the new norm, thus discouraging regression to the old methods. Peer pressure can be a very powerful method of reinforcement, so that if most of the members of the old group have settled into the new surroundings quite happily, the more recalcitrant members will then do the same, albeit more slowly and reluctantly. The tricky part is trying to prevent the group leaders from regressing (going back to the old forums) because the others are very likely to follow out of a sense of loyalty or solidarity.

I will be discussing the case study in future articles and will endeavour to pinpoint those areas where the work of the afore-mentioned theorists could have been more effectively applied and that if changes are managed well, the outcomes in terms of user participation and retention are likely to be more successful.

Update 2010: A full list of all the posts in the social media research project can now be found on this page Social Media Research: JA

Evolution to the Web

Update June 2010:
This post was part of a research project into social media and online communication that I undertook in 2008 and was originally published on my own personal blog Ffynnonweb which continues to undertake a journey across the changing online landscape, observing and chronicling developments in social technology and noting how they impact upon online communities – with a particular focus on opportunities in education known as ‘technology enhanced learning’ (TEL).
Julia Ault

A full list of all the posts in the social media research project can now be found on this page Social Media Research: JA

Our online journey moves on to the Web…

Microsoft launched its own Microsoft Network (MSN) in 1995 offering ISP and online services to complement the Windows 95 Operating System. The service was included with the operating system and was originally conceived as a dial-up online content provider similar to AOL offering product support, basic email, MSNBC news, chat rooms and newsgroups. The Internet Explorer Web browser offering open access to the Internet was available initially as a download and was later included in the Windows 95 Plus! Package. In 1996, the MSN 2.0 package was released, providing Internet access plus web-based proprietary content which used interactive multi-media applications such as Visual Basic Scripting, embryonic Macromedia Shockwave Flash for animations and MSN Shows which were presented in a TV- like format and it could be argued that they were the forerunner of YouTube videos.

This highly innovative multi-media content proved to be very much ahead of its time however, purely because it was not easily accessible to users on slower dial-up connections (which constituted the majority of subscribers at that time) and therefore slow speeds and unreliable software generated a large volume of complaints and general user dissatisfaction with MSN and Microsoft. By 1998, all these rich features had been abandoned and the now-familiar Internet Explorer interface was being used instead.

In 1998-99, MSN began to develop online services for other users of the Internet (previously it had confined online content and services to subscribers to the MSN Internet Access Service – in other words – those people who used MSN as their ISP). Hotmail and MSN Messenger provided webmail and instant messenging services to all. MSN.com became a web portal offering proprietary Search, News, Webmail, Messenging and the new ‘People and Chat’ section all under one easily accessible roof. In fact, new installations of Windows Operating Systems have the home page of the integrated Internet Explorer browser set to MSN.com by default, ensuring that the user’s first experience of the Internet is provide by Microsoft itself.
Whilst one could argue that this does not offer the user much choice initially, it did have the advantage from a social perspective that MSN Communities and MSN Chat were not difficult for the novice web surfer to find, thus enabling them to quickly meet and interact with other Internet users, perhaps for the very first time.

MSN Communities offered message boards, chat rooms, document storage, photo albums and customisable html pages to anyone who obtained a free Hotmail or MSN email address and signed up. All this was available in your web browser (typically Internet Explorer that was integrated into your operating system) without the need to install or configure any other software. This very simplicity was its USP (unique selling point) and millions of users around the globe created and joined communities and began talking to and learning from one another.

Indeed my own first experience of the social web was through MSN Communities and a great deal of informal learning took place within a specific Community of Practice over a six month period, during which seasoned computer users patiently took the time to impart the basics of the web and computing to an eager but unskilled novice. This proved to be so successful that it initiated a keen interest in web development, graphics and the internet and thus began the ongoing quest for knowledge of the web and all its facets that has led to this research study.

I therefore owe a debt of gratitude to the members and owners of this specific community. Communities have now been renamed MSN Groups but this particular Community of Practice continues to teach and guide Internet and computer ‘newbies’ at the time of writing, nine years after its initial creation and is still visited by me from time to time to catch up with old friends.

In fact, one could almost argue that this community is now a victim of its own success; members become so comfortable in the knowledgeable, but friendly atmosphere that they do not wish to leave and are most reluctant to move on to newer technologies. The technical facilities offered by these communities are now somewhat out-dated and limited in their scope.
When some of the more adventurous members do begin to feel it is time to move on and sample some of the other delights that the web has to offer – in the early days it was individual web sites and forums, obtaining web hosting and domain names which afforded the putative webmasters considerably more freedom than MSN was able or willing to provide – there is a feeling of fear and loneliness mixed in with the excitement of the new challenge, because such pioneers know that they will be striking out on their own and leaving behind their friends and their comfort zone.

Very few other members are willing to join the pioneer in the new venture because, as will be discussed in more depth in forthcoming articles, change can be exciting but it can also be rather daunting and frightening. People tend to prefer the tried and trusted methods of ‘doing things’ and will only accept change if there is no viable alternative or if they can be persuaded that they will be ‘better off’ in some appreciable and measurable way after the change has taken place.

Microsoft themselves know this only too well, because there is always a great deal of resistance to accepting a new operating system for example and it is sometimes only when technical support for the old product is finally withdrawn that the remaining recalcitrant users are forced to upgrade, however unwillingly.

MSN have been rolling out their new Windows Live suite of applications for the Web 2.0 era, which currently comprise Windows Mail, Messenger, Hotmail, Photo Gallery and Windows Live Spaces.
These Spaces provide users with a blog and a photo gallery and were intended to replace the old Communities and provide competition for newer rivals such as Myspace, Blogger and others – which will be discussed in Part 3.

However, Windows Live Spaces have not been without their critics and the further integration within the Windows Live family is designed to offer a more modern complete experience for the user, with planned future developments of Events, Calendar and Windows Live Groups – which will be an add-on to Windows Live Spaces rather than a separate entity like the current MSN Groups.
It is expected that this will then allow MSN to close Groups completely and move their users across to the Windows Live Suite. Groups are already being allowed to ‘wither on the vine’ so to speak, with the closure of MSN and Groups Chat and the lack of advertising of groups on the main MSN pages. They are now quite difficult to locate by chance and users need to know where to look or have the pages bookmarked to obtain entry to the groups section of MSN. By contrast, Windows Live products are prominently advertised on MSN portals.

Yahoo! began life at the same time as MSN in 1995, originally as an internet search engine and has diversified into many areas of internet service provision over the years through a policy of acquisition of smaller companies and incorporating their products into their portfolio. These included web portals, webmail, messenger and egroups which evolved into Yahoo Groups. Yahoo Groups differed from MSN Groups in that they were more of an email mailing list with a limited web interface.

As with all of the larger Web 1.0 content providers, Yahoo! is currently attempting to provide Web 2.0 content for its users and has already added Flickr (image sharing and storage) MyBlogLog (blog tracking and analytics) and Del.icio.us (social bookmarking) to its list of acquisitions.

Yahoo! has also recently announced plans to open up the social network that is
Yahoo! (their terminology). They call it the Yahoo! Open Strategy: Y!OS. The intention is not to create a new Online Social Network but to turn the massive Yahoo! network into a social one. All this comes at a time when Microsoft have recently withdrawn their takeover bid for Yahoo and the company is looking for new directions. At one point, a merger with Google was mentioned but anti-trust regulations make this perhaps unlikely. The Yahoo blog is a good source of information on the company’s latest thoughts.

Speaking of Google, this is a company which has been going from strength to strength since its own early beginnings (also as a search engine) in 1998. The concept of ‘Page Ranking’ however, differentiated Google from all the other search engines that were around at the time and has allowed it to grow into the most used search engine on the web. In fact, the verb to ‘google’ – meaning to conduct an Internet search – officially entered the Oxford English dictionary in 2006.

Although Google Search is the most successful service, Google also provides Gmail ( a web and pop based email service with virtually unlimited storage), and Google Groups (which incidentally now houses a large Usenet posting archive going back to 1981) among many other services.
Google Groups are more like Yahoo Groups than MSN Communities in nature, bearing more of a resemblance to email newsgroups than web-based forums.

Google’s philosophy has always been that its services are freely available to the general public and these are funded through business users paying for advertising within search listings or paid placements in the rankings. The majority of its revenue stream is through advertising – $10 billion in total advertising revenues reported for 2006.

Yahoo, Google and Myspace have recently announced the creation of a new non-profit OpenSocial Foundation which will allow third party applications to be created that may be integrated into the emerging social networks that characterise Web 2.0 and will be discussed later in the series.
The press release announcing the OpenSocial Foundation described it in this way:

“OpenSocial addresses an emerging problem for developers who are eagerly building applications people can enjoy with their friends: before OpenSocial, if a developer built a “favourite photos” application to work on one social network, it would have to be built all over again to work on another site. OpenSocial tackles this problem at its technology roots, providing common “plumbing” that lets social applications run on many different websites without requiring duplicate work from either developers or the websites. The result is a vast distribution platform for social applications, whether they are for sharing photos or playing games or arranging real-world meetings or any number of other activities – everything is more fun, interesting, and useful when users can involve their friends and contacts”

Read the next article in the series:
Web 2.0 Inception

Update June 2010: A full list of all the posts in the social media research project can now be found on this page Social Media Research: JA