Wash your hands of behaviour change

First published in Business Daily and The Huffington Post on 2 June 2016

Never has ‘to wash your hands’ of the problem been so apt. The clues to organisational behaviour can be found in the humble paper towel.

We know context drives behaviour. Zimbardo’s infamous Stamford Prison experiments and Millgram’s obedience to authority research established this. Today we control people’s behaviour in business by the way we measure their performance and through organisational culture. Generally speaking, it has been the role of The Board supported by organisational design and HR that sets the behavioural tone for how people behave in business. I think this is about to change.

Technologies are converging in ways that I feel will deliver surprising opportunities for how organisations encourage people to do what’s required. Things like Nike’s link with Apple to create a community of physically active people has shown how by making the process into a game and by building a community, people can be encouraged to do more sport. The key seems to be ease of use, personalisation, a sense of community and the creation of exciting and challenging goals.

Providers of paper towels, lifts and cleaning products have realised that by the introduction of sensors in things like paper towel dispensers, they can optimise facilities management targeting resources when and where needed. The ubiquitous choice of three buttons with happy face, neutral face and sad face to denote your satisfaction with the state of the facilities is providing an understanding of when is something ‘clean enough’. Sensors that can detect spillages are enabling better flows of people around buildings, reducing risk of mishap. Software in lifts can respond to demand and channel people into the right lift to optimise the sequence to move people as effectively as possible. Smartphones can track where you are, what you are looking at, for how long, what you can hear, and, if linked to other devices can provide biometric feedback on the state of your health.

When you put this together, you can imagine a work environment where an employee can be rewarded for getting enough sleep, doing enough exercise (choosing to take the stairs rather than the lift), personal hygiene at work, their ability to manage their stress – not by some big brother monitoring, but because the whole process is made into a game. Teams work together to achieve a high score based on whatever an organisation chooses to value. For example, in a food preparation factory where hand hygiene is critical to minimise the risk of contamination, washing hands could be tracked at a personal level with high scores for the cleanest teams. Organisations with very highly paid employees such as fund managers, where in a very real sense personal performance is critical to business success, could reward the way such people look after their well being. In short, the way in which they maintain themselves as ‘fit for work’. We know that ‘presenteeism’ where people come to work unable to do their job properly due to ill health or other factors costs business more than ‘absenteeism’. Helping monitor the factors that contribute to ‘presenteeism’ is a prime role for such use of technology.

Working out how to reward the right behaviours is something for HR to think through. Ultimately, people need to be engaged because they see it as a personal benefit to them, as well as the business. It needs to be ‘app’ropriate, i.e. the appropriate ‘app’ for the circumstance and where employees have been properly engaged in the process.

Managing organisational behaviour will become the realm of whoever controls the software that runs the system. Such is the power of facilities management software when, through ‘the internet of things’ it can track usage and user experience on a site by site, washroom, by washroom basis that it has de-commodified products such as hand towels. If the software is powerful enough and delivers enough value, the cost of the towels is very much a secondary issue. Finance departments will be able to be far more active in driving business strategy as they will be able take this rich feed of data and input on what to change to deliver the required return.

The challenge is to take the way in which people behave and design applications that integrate these different sources of data to drive the behaviours essential for organisational success. Technology in and of itself won’t make a blind bit of difference. It’s the convergence of thinking of technologists, neurologists, psychologists and sociologists, economists and finance experts that will afford the next step change in business performance.

So next time you are washing your hands, think on. You are at the cutting edge of behaviour change.

Dominic Irvine © 2016 All rights asserted

leading practice is about being at the forefront of development …”

“Behaviour change works best through experiencing the effectiveness of different behaviours.”

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