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Combating social exclusion during strategic change to IT

IT and business leaders risk marginalising, silencing and segregating IT employees during a strategic technology change.
Rennie Naidoo
By Rennie Naidoo, Professor in Information Systems (IS) at the Wits School of Business Sciences.
Johannesburg, 29 Mar 2022

Workplace social exclusion is prevalent in organisations. It includes silent treatment, ostracism, thwarted belongingness, organisational shunning, language exclusion, gender and racial discrimination, and interpersonal social exclusion through the use of nonverbal cues (eg, gaze aversion).

Experiences of exclusion and disadvantage are not limited to interpersonal distinctions but are also related to cultural background, age or intergroup differences. Individuals or groups in organisations can socially avoid, ignore and even reject employees or groups of employees.

Incivility and distrust can also lead to workplace social exclusion. Workplace social exclusion can also occur through informal mechanisms, such as cliques – those tightly-knit social groups that socialise heavily among themselves, thereby excluding others. In South Africa, ethnicity and gender-related social exclusion is a persisting problem.

Social exclusion during a strategic IT change can intensify employee cynicism

Workplace social exclusion can also occur through formal mechanisms, such as changes to organisational structures that constrain social interactions.

Our recent research at the University of Pretoria's School of IT at the Department of Informatics suggests that workplace social exclusion can also stem from inequitable social patterns of participation and communication during an organisational change. These processes include cultural domination, non-recognition and marginalisation in strategic practices.

These patterns result in the organisational unit or employees being 'silenced' during a strategic IT change. During this process, the status and identity of the target IT unit and its employees tend to become marginalised during the strategic change.

For example, due to information exclusion, the rhetoric of certainty and excitement generated by organisational leaders to external stakeholders can be challenged by the internal rhetoric of uncertainty by employees who feel they are being left subdued by the change.

Leaders involved in IT strategy work should embrace dialogue and promote participation.

Furthermore, due to identity exclusion and loss of status, IT leaders' rhetoric of integration and synergy can also be challenged by employees who feel segregated. This phenomenon is viewed as change-induced exclusion, defined as an act of excluding an individual or groups, brought about by changing strategic configurations during an organisational change that disadvantages these individuals or groups.

This type of social exclusion brought about during a strategic IT organisational change can threaten the needs of IT employees and ultimately undermine the success of the change.

Change-induced exclusion can marginalise employees

Change-induced exclusion stems from organisational units or employees being 'silenced' during a strategic organisational change. The status and identity of the IT unit and employees tend to become marginalised during strategic changes.

Due to information exclusion, the rhetoric of certainty and excitement generated by organisational leaders can be challenged by the feeling of uncertainty expressed by employees, who feel subdued and pacified during the change.

Due to identity exclusion and the loss of status, IT leaders' rhetoric of integration and synergy can also be challenged by employees who experience segregation.

IT leaders should pay close attention to change-induced exclusion

Strategic work in IT is multifaceted and of a contradictory nature. A significant challenge for IT leaders is to decide to what extent they should include or exclude employees from participating in strategic change practices.

While IT leaders may recognise the value of employee participation and acknowledge the importance of social inclusion in a range of strategy processes, their strategic practices can sometimes subordinate one group of employees while privileging another.

When strategising, IT leaders risk paying more attention to economics and financials, strategic alignment, resource capability, technology, integration methods and knowledge management instead of relational issues.

For example, resource redeployment during a strategic change focuses on the scarcity of resources and returns rather than group relationships.

IT leaders should be more reflexive about potentially exclusionary practices

Social exclusion can stem from excluding IT units or IT employees from technology and economic resources. The lack of resources can disadvantage IT units and their employees.

The consequences of exclusion can also involve a demotion in roles, loss of power, loss of resources, loss of technology mandates, reassignment to other units, employee retrenchments, new salaries, benefits and incentive structures.

While IT leaders may sometimes address relational issues, they do not deal explicitly with the change-induced exclusion even though they intuitively understand the value of an empowered and energised IT workforce.

IT employee morale, organisational engagement, team development and collaboration dynamics are critical success factors in strategic changes.

Consider IT post-merger integrations where negative staff reactions can have negative consequences for the success of the strategic change. Surprisingly, employees from the dominant company can suffer higher levels of change-related stress, while the acquired company employees may respond more positively.

Change-induced exclusion also has implications for general well-being, including strain, shock, stress, nervousness, frustration and even depression. IT leaders should prioritise change-induced exclusion because of IT employees' psychological and physiological costs.

IT leaders should drive the co-creation of strategic change

Our conceptualisation of change-induced exclusion can provide IT leaders with new insights into managing strategic change. Leaders involved in IT strategy work should embrace dialogue and promote participation.

Nurturing social relations through a dialogic and collaborative approach can significantly minimise change-induced exclusion.

A lack of a collective understanding of decisions taken during the IT change can result in deteriorated employee-and-firm and IT-unit-and-firm relationships.

Exerting power to carry out and sustain changes over time instead of producing a shared and mutual understanding through richer forms of participation is likely to create more anxiety and problems.

The ongoing reproduction of shared meanings requires a continuous process of negotiating the purpose of the change and stabilising the allocation of human and technical resources to IT units.

Intense communicative interactions should lead to co-creating a shared understanding that addresses information exclusion, diverging identities, and the new allocation and distribution of resources brought about by the strategic IT change.

* Based on a paper presented with co-author Portia Maluleke at the Pacific Asia Conference on Information Systems.