One of the greatest minds, Stephen Hawking, before he passed away, warned us anew on the dangers of artificial intelligence (AI). In several interviews, he said that it could be the “worst event in the history of our civilization” and warned us that it could end mankind.
He drove home the point. In a recent survey of Pew research, more than 70% of Americans expressed wariness or concern about a world where machines perform many of the tasks done by humans. In this age of the 4th Industrial Revolution, there is a resurgence of technophobia, or the fear or dislike of advanced technology or complex devices. The term first surfaced in 1960 to 1965, when psychologists noticed a growing fear for computers and how it may replace human jobs.
Now, in the workplace and in society in general, technophobia is becoming more pronounced as technology progresses in a breakneck speed. In fact, a 2017 Microsoft research in the UK which surveyed more than 1,000 business leaders revealed that three-quarters (74%) of them view that alterations in tasks due to technology create anxiety among employees, and almost half (49%) also find employees express fear of change when digital transformation initiatives are introduced. Locally, business leaders of five shared services firms I spoke with in the last two months expressed serious concern over the “fear” of their employees, mostly millennials, of the potential threat of AI to their jobs.
But technophobia doesn’t manifest itself in a shivering fear of technology. Early work in the 1990s from psychologist Dr. Larry Rosen of the University of California identified three dominant types of technophobes: “uncomfortable users,” “cognitive computerphobes” and “anxious computerphobes,” While he used “computer” as the anchor technology, the types apply to current and advanced technologies.
Uncomfortable technophobes are “slightly anxious because they do not have enough information about the effective use of computers” [or other technologies for that matter]. Cognitive technophobes, on the other hand, “may appear cool, calm, controlled externally but are bombarding themselves with negative cognitions internally.” Lastly, anxious technophobes are “persona exhibiting the classic signs of anxiety when they use a computer (sweaty palms, heart palpitations, etc.),” or any technology for that matter.
In Dr. Rosen’s experiments, he “noted that these three types are differentiated by the reactions of computerophobe people while using the computer, not in its absence. This demonstrates an important point: the technophobes not completely avoid the source of their anxiety.”
This is more evident in this age where technology is part of everyday life — at play, at work, and in society in general. However, we witness the different forms of technophobia in organizations, especially those that go through transformative journeys — adopting cloud or deploying AI to modernize operations.
Differences among generations complicate the matter where organizations still employ as much as 20% baby-boomers while the rest are Millennials and Gen-X and Ys. In our work and observations, baby-boomer employees generally exhibit cognitive and anxious technophobia when it comes to using new work software applications, like collaboration and productivity tools. This results in slow adoption of new technologies and work practices.
On the other hand, Millennial and Gen X and Y employees, especially those in business process outsourcing (BPO) and shared services firms, display uncomfortable user and cognitive technophobia due to their uncertainties with and fear of AI, which is disrupting this industry. They can easily learn and adapt to new technologies but display resistance due to uncertainties with job continuity or security.
In these cases, it is important to employ behavioral interventions to ensure that these employee groups transition smoothly to the new technology to maximize the benefit of the investment. A combination of user training, coaching and feedback, corporate communications to reinforce messages, sustaining activities like gamification of the technology, and reward and recognition are necessarily part of an adoption program to address organizational technophobia and ultimately change behavior of employees.
However, for uncomfortable user technophobia evident in BPOs and shared services, management inspirational communications, and training and education should be given focus to remove uncertainties and quell all fears. For cognitive and anxious technophobia evident among older generations, apart from the other interventions, sustaining activities like coaching and feedback should be the focus to ensure greater success in behavior change.
But technophobia is also the reason why many organizations are technologically lagging, as business leaders exhibit cognitive technophobia.
While start-ups and established e-commerce firms disrupt industries in banking, retail, insurance, and so on, still a lot of organizations relegate technology and innovation to technology professionals. Many business leaders openly say that they understand and embrace technology but quietly resist or downplay its impact.
They should be self-aware of this technophobia and instead learn and embrace technology through education, open dialog with and counseling from those employees who are well-versed with technology, or even employ external consultants that provide guidance, and ultimately make technology part of their strategic action and agenda.
The article reflects the personal opinion of the author and does not reflect the official stand of the Management Association of the Philippines or the MAP
Reynaldo C. Lugtu, Jr. is the Co-Vice Chair of the MAP ICT Committee. He is the President of Hungry Workhorse Consultancy, a digital and culture transformation consultancy firm; and Co-Founder and Counsellor of Caucus Inc, a data privacy consulting firm. He teaches strategic management in the MBA Program of De La Salle University. He is also an Adjunct Faculty of the Asian Institute of Management.