I’m sitting in a coffee shop when I see him. I peer over the top of my nearly 5-year-old Macbook, trying not to salivate while this well-dressed young man slides his Macbook onto the table beside me. As soon as he pops it open, my suspicions are confirmed: yes, that’s one of the new, top-of-the-line models. I’m worried that my fellow café patrons can read the jealousy on my face.
But then his Macbook switches on, and my jealousy turns to horror: there, in the dock at the bottom of the screen, is the icon for Numbers—the spreadsheet app that comes pre-loaded on a Mac, but is typically neglected in favor of Excel or Google spreadsheets. Even more telling, Numbers is nestled between the icons for Pages and Keynote, just like you’d see on a demo model at the Apple store. Mr. Fancy Pants has a new model, high-end Mac—and he hasn’t even customized it! I want to undertake the tech equivalent of a citizen’s arrest, and seize his Mac from him. He’s clearly unworthy of it.
That’s the snobbery of an early adopter speaking, I know. But being an early adopter isn’t just about racing out to buy the latest and greatest technology—as the tech gulf between me and Mr. Fancy Pants attests. Being an early adopter is not about what you buy, but rather, about how you assimilate your tech purchases into your life: either taking devices as they are handed to you (like Mr. F.P.) or taking ownership of your new technology so that you are actually in control of it.
When we define early adopters as who ever races out to get the latest smartphone, we reduce adoption to a compulsion, personality quirk or a form of conspicuous consumption. But “early adopting” is better understood as a skill: the skill of not just adopting but also adapting new technology. We can all be early adopters in the more meaningful sense of tech mastery.
But what makes that kind of mastery possible?
We can find clues in the research on technology change management, which looks at what makes new technology successful or unsuccessful when it’s introduced into an organization. While tech usage is often chalked up to innate preference or tech aptitude, change management research reveals that social and emotional factors play a major role.
Take Brancheau and Wetherbe’s study of whether and when people adopt spreadsheet software—software that was shockingly absent from Mr. Fancy Pants’ dock, I might add. Brancheau and Wetherbe found that in addition to being younger and more educated, early adopters pay more attention to both business and tech-related media: “earlier adopters used one or two more mass media sources per month than later adopters. When accumulated over a long period of time, this represents a major difference in exposure to new ideas.” They’re also a lot more social: “in a typical month, earlier adopters talked to nearly 50% more people than later adopters…earlier adopters not only give more advice but also seek more advice.”
The role of social connectedness in supporting effective tech use also comes up in an article by Sykes at al., who identify two distinct kinds of sociability that affects the way people bond with their machines. Network density is a matter of how many ties you have within your organization; network centrality is about how often people come to you for help. It turns out that both are important: people who are more centrally and densely networked are more likely to successfully embrace a new workplace technology. Yet it’s not clear whether media consumption and social connectedness make people more effective tech users, or simply encourage them to adopt and use the technologies that get introduced in the workplace.
That’s why it’s interesting to look at research that actually maps out the process of adapting to new technology, so that we can think about the support or skills Mr. Fancy Pants needs in order to tackle that nasty dock of his.
Seeing New Tech as an Opportunity (Not a Threat)
Anne Beaudry and Alain Pinsonneault provide exactly that kind of insight in their fascinating article, Understanding User Responses to Information Technology: A Coping Model of User Adaptation, which takes a close look on the emotional impact new technology has on users, and how that affects they way they use it.
Beaudry and Pinsonneault describe four different paths through the process of adapting to an “IT event”—where that event consists of some new technology being introduced into the workplace. (For Mr. F.P., the “IT event” is “acquisition of a new Macbook”—and may the universe bless me with a similr I.T. event, soon.) Which path someone takes depends on whether they see that new technology as an opportunity or a threat, and how much control they feel they have over the adaptation process.
People who see technology as an opportunity may be “benefit maximizing” or “benefit satisficing.” If they feel they have a lot of control over how the IT event unfolds, they’ll be benefit maximizing: “since most adaptation efforts are oriented toward reaping the benefits associated with the IT event, they are likely to result in performance improvements such as reducing errors, doing the work faster, and increasing revenues.” If they don’t have a sense of control, they will be benefit satisficing: “adaptation efforts are likely to be minimal….because users do not feel the need to reduce tensions emanating from the IT event (Lazarus and Folkman 1984) and problem-focused efforts will be limited because users feel they cannot do much to further exploit the IT and reap its benefits.”
Let’s give Mr. Fancy Pants the benefit of the doubt here, and assume that his Macbook was traumatically foisted on him by some cruel office administrator who declared that All Employees Must Have Really Nice Computers. Since he didn’t have a chance to pick out his own computer, or even decide whether he wanted a computer, his lack of control has led him to minimize any effort to make that Mac his own. He’s kicked into what Beaudry and Pinsonneault describe as a “self-preservation strategy” in which…
adaptation efforts will be mainly emotion-focused and aimed at restoring emotional stability and reducing the tensions emanating from the IT event….Users will try to change their perception of the IT event by minimizing the perceived negative consequences (e.g., maintaining hope that the expected negative consequences will not materialize), positive comparison (e.g., comparing themselves to other users who are worse off), self-deception and avoidance, selective attention, and distancing (e.g., reducing their involvement in their work).
By sauntering into the nearest wifi café — a relatively modest one, where denizens are likely to be using somewhat dated equipment — Fancy Pants can enjoy the emotional reassurance of comparing his shiny if alien Mac with our well-worn beaters. One matcha latte later, his strategy may “restore emotional stability but will have little or no impact on users’ performance at work,” according to Beaudry and Pinsonneault.
But this research also points towards a better option: for Mr. Fancy Pants, and for everyone who struggles to make peace with each new tech acquisition. As Beaudry and Pinsonneault put it “adaptation efforts associated with positive appraisals can lead to actions aimed at improving operational and functional efficiency and effectiveness, which are likely to positively affect user performance.”
Mr. Fancy Pants doesn’t look like the kind of guy who reads a lot of Management Information Systems literature, so let me translate that into a practical prescription: When you’re facing a new technology, don’t focus on all the things it’s going to threaten. When we obsess over how a new technology reduces face-to-face interaction, or cuts us off from our local community, or takes away control of our organization’s message—well, that’s all threat-focused thinking. Focus instead on the opportunity: the opportunity to set aside our quick judgements based on someone’s appearance, or to form global connections, or to partner with the public in crafting a shared vision for our organization. In technology, as in drinking, it pays to be a half-full kind of person.
Just as important, focus on your opportunities to exert control over the technologies that come into your life. It’s that sense of agency, more than the tech itself, that will determine whether the process of adapting to this new tech leaves you more effective, or more alienated. Read the websites and articles that recommend tools for people in your field, or ask your friends what they use, so you can figure out what will make this new computer or phone or website work better for you. Add new apps to your phone, change your browser’s default page, and choose the email program that works for you—instead of just using whatever your I.T. team installed on it.
And please, please, customize your computer’s dock. Or I really will make that citizen’s arrest.