For nigh unto 15 years now I have been working with new technologies and approaches for workplace learning endeavors. (Show of hands if you remember Authorware.) Back in, oh, 1998, my attempts to encourage online learning approaches—with logic and selling points such as, “It’s cheaper, it will extend your reach, it allows for consistent messaging, and it helps to accommodate learners who for some reason can’t get to traditional training”—were met with plaintive cries:

  • “I don’t have time to learn about this stuff.”
  • “I don’t have time to figure out how to adapt what I’m already doing to this stuff.”
  • “We don’t have money for computers.”
  • “Our people don’t know how to use computers.”
  • “We don’t have the bandwidth.”

Sound familiar? Recently I have focused my energy on social learning, communities of practice, and supporting those endeavors with social media. In most conversations I’m met with plaintive cries:

  • “I don’t have time to learn about this stuff.”
  • “I don’t have time to figure out how to adapt what I’m already doing to this stuff.”
  • “We don’t have money to support personal devices.”
  • “Our people don’t know how to use Facebook.”
  • “We don’t have the bandwidth.”

Barriers: first or second order?

This time I wasn’t so surprised. Back in 1999, my experience with introducing eLearning happened to coincide with my entry into grad school. I ran across work from Purdue’s Peg Ertmer, who, building on a foundation laid by earlier researchers (including Cuban, Fullan, and others—see some suggested resources below), described these plaintive cries as the common and predictable laundry list of first-order barriers to change, particular to technology integration by educators.

More importantly—and how many times have you seen this for yourself?—she explained the predictable way in which, as each item is addressed and answered, the person resisting will always find one more. (Give them money? They say they need training. Give them training? They say they don’t have time to implement. Give them time? They say users don’t have equipment … and on … and on.) And since the prospective recipients usually describe the barriers as resources missing or inadequately provided, there’s an unspoken tendency to assume the change process itself can’t begin until after complete resolution of each concern.

Worse, the first-order barriers often become self-fulfilling prophecies. For instance, the time needed to learn about a new technology is greatly extended by an individual’s sporadic use of it. Lots of time is spent just logging in or setting up or getting back in the groove with the basics, making people feel like they are starting over—again and again.

What’s the trick, then?

So the trick: Get past the extrinsic first-order barriers and try to find the real, intrinsic root of resistance. In our field there aren’t usually many surprises here: Often the changes we’re after challenge basic notions about workplace learning and what constitutes “good” instruction (and, often, whether instruction is ever even indicated).

Sometimes the very benefits we tout, such as learners crafting their own experiences, are exactly what resisters fear. In organizations still struggling with implementing even basic eLearning, those who propose change will recognize the response of staff who are stuck in the status quo, those who relish the thought that they are imparting wisdom, and those who fear the weakening of their professional status and position as experts.

Those struggling to integrate the use of social tools and support online communities might want to address the fact that the classroom trainer, responsible for everything from setting up tables and chairs to deciding what time class will break for lunch, may have a hard time envisioning himself as a partner joining in more collaborative endeavors with learners. Addressing these concerns will be more difficult, but they’ll have more payoff than answering endless calls for one more external resource.

Get past the laundry list

In working to implement new tools and approaches, recognize when you are facing a simple first-order barrier, and fix it if you can. But be careful of overinvesting in the “one-more-resource needed” trap. Recognize when logic is no match for emotion-based responses. Get past the laundry list.

Want more?

Argyris, C. Reasoning, Learning, and Action: Individual and Organizational. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1982.

Bandura, A. “Self-efficacy: Toward a Unifying Theory of Behavior Change.” Psychological Review, 84 (2). 1977.

Cuban, L. How Teachers Taught: Constancy and Change in American Classrooms 1890-1990. New York: Longman, 1984.

Ertmer, P. “Addressing First- and Second-order Barriers to Change: Strategies for Technology Integration.” Educational Technology Research and Development, 47 (4). 1999.

Fullan, M. and S. Stiegelbauer. The New Meaning of Educational Change. New York: Teachers College Press, 1991.

Lewin, K. Field Theory in Social Science. New York: Harper, 1951.

Watzlawick, P., J. Weakland, and R. Fisch. Change: Principles of Problem Formation and Problem Resolution. New York: W.W. Norton, 1974.