3 Instructional Design Strategies To Increase Employee Buy-In For A New Initiative
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The Challenge: Increasing Employee Buy-In For A New Initiative

It is commonplace for organizations to design and implement new programs or policies to address issues that contribute to their overall mission. For example, a community health organization may implement a new diabetes prevention program in response to rising obesity rates in the community, a healthcare organization may implement a new electronic medical record system to improve the coordination of care, or a financial institution may implement a new customer service procedure to improve satisfaction rates. What many of these initiatives have in common is that they require employees to modify their behaviors or add new responsibilities to their current role. Although an initiative may fail to meet its objective because it was poorly designed, failure may also occur because of poor implementation.

In many of these cases, successful implementation of an initiative (defined as implementing the initiative as designed) hinges on “targeted employees’ appropriate and committed use of an innovation” (Klein & Sorra, 1996). Research has shown that there are several factors that can affect employees’ adoption of new behaviors or responsibilities, including employee commitment to the initiative, otherwise known as “employee buy-in” [1-4].

The process by which employees do or do not “buy in” to a new initiative occurs early on in the process when they first learn about an initiative and their role within it. Given this is a learning process, what role can Instructional Design play in maximizing employee buy-in? In this article, I will present 3 strategies to consider when developing the training materials that will support the implementation of a new initiative. But before we dive into Instructional Design, it is important to consider the factors that contribute to employee buy-in.

5 Factors That Contribute To Employee Buy-In

1. A Proper Understanding Of The Initiative

This one seems obvious but can be tricky to achieve in practice if an initiative has many moving pieces and requires the involvement of employees from disparate parts of an organization. Employees require a broad, global understanding of the initiative (what are the objectives of the initiative?), as well as a more targeted understanding of their place within the initiative (how will my actions help meet the objective?).

A proper understanding of the initiative is required for employees to construct accurate beliefs about the efficacy of the initiative and how it will affect their day-to-day roles and responsibilities, as discussed below.

2. Beliefs About The Importance Of The Initiative

Identification with an organization’s mission is one of the many reasons that people work where they do. As such, if an initiative is aligned with the organization’s mission, employees may perceive it as important.

If, on the other hand, an initiative (and the objectives it is designed to achieve) is perceived as peripheral to an organization’s mission, employees may be less likely to "buy in". Furthermore, if an initiative is perceived as important, but not as important as another need that continues to be unmet, employees may also be less supportive.

3. Beliefs About The Efficacy Of The Initiative

If employees do not believe that an initiative will be successful in meeting its objectives, they will be less likely to commit to the behavioral modifications required. Consider an employee’s inner monologue: “Even if this program was rolled out exactly as planned, it’s never going to achieve its objective. So why should I change what I’m doing now if it's not going to make a difference?”

4. Beliefs About Personal Costs

Employees may perceive that there are personal costs that are associated with the implementation of an initiative. For example, they may believe that their workload will increase, or they will be assigned additional responsibilities that are not consistent with their job description. These perceived costs can severely damage an employee’s commitment to implementing the initiative.

5. Beliefs About Personal Gains

On the other hand, employees may perceive that there will be opportunities to personally gain from the initiative. Additional training or professional development opportunities in areas that are perceived to be valuable by employees may be important gains. Additionally, employees may be more committed to an initiative if it solves an issue that they experience personally on a day-to-day basis, such as an inefficient process that wastes their time.

It is clear that these five factors interact to produce an overall level of “buy-in”. For example, an employee requires a proper understanding of the initiative to construct a belief about whether it will be successful, and they may be willing to incur a few costs (e.g., a few extra responsibilities) if they believe the objective of the initiative is personally valuable or aligned with the organization's mission.

It is also clear that these beliefs can be formed when employees are first introduced to the initiative through formal training (e.g., eLearning or in-person training) or informal orientation (e.g., water cooler talk). Because beliefs can be “sticky” once formed, it is critical for organizations to develop orientation and training resources that are designed to foster employee buy-in. Below are three strategies that should be kept in mind when developing training for a new initiative that will maximize employee buy-in and increase the likelihood of successful implementation:

3 Instructional Design Strategies To Follow

1. Use Multimedia To Communicate The Importance Of The Initiative

If an initiative is being implemented in multiple phases or includes multiple components that are operating concurrently, it can be incredibly challenging for employees to obtain an accurate understanding of the initiative through an in-person training that is supported by a static PowerPoint.

Alternatively, video and animation can be incredibly useful in communicating such complex processes. Consider how various forms of multimedia, including animated video, can be leveraged to more clearly communicate the design of an initiative.

Furthermore, multimedia can foster employee’s emotional beliefs about an intervention. After all, when was the last time you cried during a movie versus a PowerPoint presentation or lecture? Video can be an extremely powerful medium when trying to communicate meaning or value.

If you are designing training to accompany a new initiative in your organization, think about the reasons why it is important to your organization. Are all of the reasons purely economic (and can be communicated through statistics), or are there more philosophical or humanitarian reasons why the initiative is important? If so, these can be effectively communicated through video using a variety of strategies, including personal interviews.

2. Use Interactivity To Assess Employees' Preconceived Beliefs

Typically, during an introductory session for a new initiative, various statistics will be presented as a rationale for why the initiative is important. For example, customer satisfaction rates when dealing with customer service may be very poor, and this provides the impetus for implementing a new procedure for dealing with customers.

However, when using online learning approaches, we can add a little interactivity to this process. Why not ask employees whether they think something is a problem before presenting these statistics? For example, an interactive video could prompt an employee to use a sliding scale to estimate what customer satisfaction rates currently are. If an employee correctly recognizes that customer satisfaction is quite poor, then it is more likely they will perceive the initiative as addressing an important need within the organization.

Tailored multimedia content based on this response can acknowledge that the employee has correctly identified this problem and present reasons why this is an important problem to address. If an employee does not think that customer satisfaction is a problem (by indicating that they believe satisfaction rates are more positive), then multimedia content tailored to this response can address this incorrect perception. This may be an important awareness-raising experience for the employee that fosters increased buy-in.

3. Use Personalization To Address Employees' Concerns

If an initiative is broad and is being implemented within a large organization, it is likely that different types of employees will be involved in different aspects of the initiative. Consequently, a generic training will not be suitable for addressing different employee’s concerns. If these concerns go unaddressed (e.g., will I have an increased workload?), then they could manifest as inaccurate beliefs about the personal cost of an initiative that ultimately leads to reduced buy-in. P

ersonalizing training that is tailored to different employee types allows each employee to better understand their role within the larger initiative, the specific benefits they can expect to gain as part of the initiative, how their roles and responsibilities might change as part of the initiative, and the specific supports that are offered to them. This personalization can be facilitated through interactive multimedia, combining all 3 strategies.

For example, a video could be developed to introduce employees to a new initiative on a macro level, after which employees could be prompted to indicate their role in the organization. This response could then be used to tailor subsequent multimedia that describes an employee’s specific role within the initiative.

Can you think of other Instructional Design strategies that could improve employee buy-in? Want to continue the conversation? Tweet to me @adamgavarkovs.

References & Further Reading: 

[1] Durlak, J. A., Du Pre, E. P. (2008). Implementation matters: A review of research on the influence if implementation on program outcomes and the factors affecting implementation. American Journal of Community Psychology, 41, 327-350.

[2] Klein, K. J., Sorra, J. S. (1996). The challenge of innovation implementation. Academy of Management Review, 21(4), 1055-1080.

[3] Thompson, K., de Chernatony, L., Arganbrght, L., & Khan, S. (1999). The buy-in benchmark: How staff understanding and commitment impact brand and business performance. Journal of Marketing Management, 15(8), 819-835.

[4] Huang, J., Newell, S., Galliers, R., & Pan, S. (2001). Intellectual buy-in and emotional buy-in: A reappraisal of ERP implementation. ACMIS 2001 Proceedings, 208.

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