From the November 1998 issue of Entrepreneur

Have you ever invested in an expensive new database program, productivity suite or document management system, only to have your employees completely ignore it? In small companies, new technology sometimes goes underutilized when workers lack the knowledge or interest to make it work--draining the productivity gains and competitive edge you expected from your investment. What you may not realize is that the lack of interest and participation may be your fault.

All too often, employees are presented with unfamiliar technology and left to figure it out for themselves. Then, faced with a high-pressure situation, they revert back to the old method of doing things just to get the job done--never to return to the new system. Of course, this scenario doesn't have to become a reality in your business. But here's the catch: You must be willing to follow a few basic rules during the implementation, training and support phases of a new technology rollout.

Start 'Em Early

The time to ease your employees through a technology transition begins long before the new system lands on their desks. Start by notifying everyone about the upcoming change and soliciting their input. Ask key managers and other employees how they perform tasks now and how they think the current system can be improved. Not only does this make everyone feel included, but it also makes for more informed technology decisions.

Build excitement for the new technology by explaining to employees how it will help them accomplish tasks more quickly and easily. Illustrate the flaws in the existing system, and outline how the new hardware or software will improve the situation. That way, your staff is less likely to resist the impending change.

David Elles, 39, co-owner with his brother Karl, 45, of Caster Technology Corp., a small manufacturer and distributor of casters, wheels and materials-handling equipment in Garden Grove, California, is expanding the company's intranet to standardize policies and training procedures in the firm's four locations. He knows that to get his 30 employees to use the intranet, he's got to sell them on it. "I'm trying to find something practical and real that [employees] are going to believe in," says David Elles. "I've got to find their biggest problems and show them how to solve them by using the intranet."

When deciding on new technology, don't overreach. There's no use buying the latest feature-laden program if it's going to be too much for your employees to handle. Instead, go with technology you're relatively familiar with. That's what Justin Bonds and Joe Hurley, both 22, did when they were looking for a new accounting system for their Clinton, Arkansas, Web design firm, Hyper Tech Inc. One reason they decided on Peachtree Office Accounting from Peachtree Software is that it had features they already knew how to use. Peachtree Office Accounting integrates with Microsoft Office productivity applications, so the interface and many of its features are very intuitive. "Since I've already used Microsoft Office," says Bonds, "it was really easy to get up and running."

School's In

Classroom-based technology training is one way to teach employees computer skills, particularly when implementing new or updated software. Hundreds of computer training companies offer courses for one or several days on topics such as how to build databases, use word-processing programs and surf the Internet. Check your local Yellow Pages for computer training companies near you.

Keep in mind, however, that classroom-based instruction can be expensive and time-consuming. Difficulty applying the newly learned computer skills to an existing job situation is a common complaint as well.

In some instances, computer-based training (CBT) can be cheaper and more effective than classroom instruction. CBT, which includes online tutorials, CD-ROMs on how to use software products, and courses offered through the Internet by universities and computer training companies, allows employees to solicit feedback, develop projects that are relevant to their jobs and work at their own pace.

Bonds, for instance, spent just a few hours with the manual and online tutorial that comes with Peachtree Office Accounting. From the main window of the product, he was able to access a screen-by-screen explanation of Peachtree Office Accounting's main features and capabilities. The Quick & Easy Start-Up wizard also contained audio instructions to make setting up less of a hassle.

Many experts say the best way to learn new technology is through hands-on experience in real situations. "We've tried outside seminars, videotapes and books to teach our employees how to use software, and those really didn't help," David Elles admits. "They weren't a total solution because they didn't address our company's environment and how we wanted to use [the software]."

Begin with an onsite introduction of the new equipment or software for all employees who will need to use it. As Caster Technology found out, one-on-one training can be too expensive and time-consuming, so find a way to bring everyone together at one time. At the meeting, clearly demonstrate how to use the technology, outline company procedures and policies, and be open to employee questions and comments.

And don't exclude remote employees from the training. Elles, for instance, uses a combination of desktop audio, video and data conferencing tools to introduce his remote employees to new technologies.

Limit the gap between the initial training and on-the-job availability of the new equipment to one week so the training will remain fresh in everyone's minds. And provide your employees with some computer practice time on projects that aren't time-sensitive. The idea is to reduce the pressure involved in learning new software and equipment while providing practical, hands-on experience. Elles, for instance, had all his managers contribute to and edit the areas of the company's intranet that related to their departments.

Through the experience, he hopes they'll become familiar with the technology and, in turn, instruct and encourage their employees to use it.

Establish reasonable expectations and goals about the time and effort involved in learning new technology. Devise methods to track employee progress, and provide incentives for workers who use the new software and equipment.

If at all possible, don't make any radical changes to technology programs you've just implemented. "You can confuse or frustrate your employees by changing your software or policies too often," notes Elles. "You need to have stability in your system so everyone has a chance to learn it."

Thank You For Your Support

Employee training isn't a one-day event. The key to implementing any new technology is to provide employees with the support and resources they need on an ongoing basis. Nothing can kill employee enthusiasm faster than unanswered questions, frequent glitches in the system or support personnel who turn a deaf ear. It's important to provide someone for them to approach with problems, questions or concerns.

Caster Technology has the luxury of having a full-time MIS employee on staff. The co-owners are also readily available to train employees, answer questions and troubleshoot. "Employees feel comfortable knowing there's always someone to turn to in times of need," he says.

Unfortunately, few small-business owners have the resources to hire full-time tech support or the time to help employees themselves. If that's the case, consider part-time help. Occasional IT support is better than none, and many consultants are willing to help out on a part-time basis. Although it can be expensive, value-added resellers (VARs) can also provide various kinds of tech support. For a fee, VARs can be a local resource for fixing nagging PC problems, providing software training or answering employee questions.

Another possible solution: Assign a computer-literate employee in every department to function as a part-time computer guru who keeps up on the latest programs and lends expert assistance to colleagues. Some portion of their responsibilities should be reduced so they have time to provide this assistance. Also, make sure their role becomes part of their job description so they know their efforts are recognized and valued by the company.

No matter how much employee input you solicit, and regardless of the training and support you provide, your job as technology cheerleader never ends. In fact, Elles notes that he recently had to remind one of his key managers to go to the company's intranet to find a document. Says Elles, "You have to reinforce [this with] employees all the time."

Contact Sources

Caster Technology Corp., (800) 627-2008, http://www.castertech.com

Hyper Tech Inc., (501) 745-2882, http://www.hypertech.net