The Personality Dimensions that Explain the Adoption and Use of Technology
The Technology Investment Decision
As this blog has developed, the human side of technology adoption has started to capture my interest more and more. In this article, I wanted to delve a little deeper into what I deem to be a fascinating function of adoption – personality. It is widely accepted that we are in the information age and with it, a promise of cultural changes so fundamental, it almost threatens our current definition of what it means to be human. New technologies are becoming ever more complex and ever more ingrained in how we work and how we live. It won’t be long before augmented reality begins to comingle our current human reality with a virtual reality. As such, the exploration of the relationship between these two realities is only just beginning. In my previous article I looked at how the adoption of technologies causes a range of different reactions in different individuals; some see the potential opportunities and others a threat to their existence. This paradox has a huge impact on the decision-making process. A person must decide: Am I better off adopting the technology or am I better off without it? Now I want to go a step further and look at the most human feature about us, our personalities.
In essence, the decision of whether to adopt a technology or not is an investment decision. What does the individual have to invest? - Energy, effort and time has to go into learning the new technology before its use can be maximised. What’s the Return on Investment? – Time efficiencies, productivity, accessibility.
Like any investment, we have to weigh up the returns relative to the initial investment. Let’s take a simple example, a 15-year-old has to invest a lot less time, energy and effort into learning how to use an iPhone than a 75-year-old does. They also gain a lot more value from having an iPhone than a 75-year-old does; a 15-year-old uses social media, streams music, watches films etc., a 75-year-old is only likely to use it to make phone calls and send messages. If we look at the balance, the initial investment is much higher and the return on that investment is much lower, why should a 75-year-old move away from their standard phone that they already understand?
We all have that slightly technology inept relative, so we can all relate. But, what interests me the most is that it is far more complex than that. It’s personal. We have certain personality traits which make some of us more inclined to adopt technology than others.
Personality is defined as thoughts, feelings and behaviours that are characteristic of one person relative to another. It is shaped both by nature and by nurture, some of our personality traits are fixed from birth and others are shaped by external environments as we go through life. What I mean by that is, two 75-year olds who were born in the same generation have been exposed to the same technologies, but one is better at understanding technology than the other. This is nature. A 75-year-old might have a worse understanding of the newest technology than a 15-year-old. They have grown up in a different generation and have had different levels of exposure to technology of that nature, this is nurture.
Further still, environment and personality are completely intertwined. I think it’s fair to say that personality both influences the environments that a person finds themselves in, but also influences how the individual perceives the environment in which they live. My Grandpa has exposed himself to a lot more technology in his life than my Grandma, this is because he has more of an interest in it, therefore, he has a better understanding of modern technology than my Grandma. Consequently, we can clearly see that personality has influenced a person’s behaviour when it comes to the acceptance and usage of technology.
It is generally agreed among psychologists that there are five basic dimensions of personality. As a little sidebar, it has to be stated here that I believe this to be a gross simplification, but this is not the time to go into that. These 5 traits are understood to be: Openness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness and Neuroticism. For those who are as confused as I was by those 5 terms, here are a few qualities indicative of a person exhibiting a given trait:
Openness: Imagination and Insight.
Extraversion: Very energetic and sociable.
Agreeableness: Trust and Kindness.
Neuroticism: Moodiness and Emotional Instability.
Every one of us has an element of every one of these characteristics built into us. We are never 100% of one and 0% the rest, we are a blend of all five. What makes personality fascinating is that every one of us is completely unique, no two people have the exact same blend of these five traits (and the millions of others that must exist). This means that no two people are going to perceive technology in the same way or use technology in the same way. I have found the following model simplifies this quite nicely.
Technology Acceptance Model
Luckily, I am not the first person to take an interest in this and there is already plenty of research out there to match technology to personality. The Technology Acceptance Model created by Davis in 1989 has been the most influential model of technology acceptance. It identifies perceived ease of use and perceived usefulness as the pervasive factors dictating technology acceptance. In simple terms, technology needs to be usable and useful for people to accept it. This is relevant in both personal and professional settings but, for now, I’m going to focus on the workplace because this is where I believe we have the most to learn.
As seen above, the model shows how perceived usefulness and perceived ease of use of technology influence the attitude towards using and behavioural intention to use.
Davis concluded that: ‘users are often willing to cope with some difficulty of use in a system that provides critically needed functionality’. In other words, even if it is really hard to use, if it is useful enough, people will inevitably succumb to adopting it. Taking it back to our investment decision, even though the initial investment is so high, the return on investment is high enough to make it worth it. For example, my Grandma barely knew how to use a computer 10 years ago, today she has an iPad – it was worth the investment.
Rather than discuss Davis’ results in a cumbersome amount of detail, again, I thought I would just summarise with a few bullet points:
Agreeableness positively influences perceived usefulness.
Neuroticism negatively influences perceived usefulness.
Openness positively influences perceived ease of use.
Perceived ease of use positively influences Perceived usefulness.
Regardless of how open an individual is to adopting new technology, if their perceived usefulness AND perceived ease of use is too low then they aren’t going to use the technology.
From this I think there is a lot of scope for how we can maximise cultural adoption of technology in an organisation. In fact, imagine if we could get to a place where we have a reliable and repeatable model for predicting whether employees will use the technology you would like to invest in, and, better yet, could measure the precise value to the business as a result of adoption. As more recent studies have found, it is simply too complex to create a universal, one size fits all model. However, as we start to learn more and more about human behaviour and the influences of behaviour, it’s not out of question for the future.
Despite this all-encompassing solution not being available today, these five bullet points hint at some of the basic changes that we can make today. From the conversations I’ve been having recently, even they have the potential to make a tangible difference to the likes of productivity, employee satisfaction, quality of work etc.
The first point I want to call out is point five. Nice and simple, but, unfortunately, often forgotten: if it’s hard to use and not very useful, don’t even bother. Surprisingly, this is often an oversight, so for many organisations this is a good place to start to improve adoption. If we can’t justify at least one of these two criteria, let’s see if there’s an alternative that does.
The next key point I want to bring to your attention is what is fast becoming my most used word: culture. Culture goes a long way in influencing employee perceptions. If we foster an innovative change culture, then naturally individuals are more likely to embrace new technologies that feed directly into this philosophy. I strongly believe that this is best achieved by creating a personality-expressive environment. The more we can express both our individual and company identity, the more we will attract likeminded individuals to the company, reinforcing that culture and identity even more.
As I think about this idea of culture, I realise that this is more of an end goal for many organisations than the reality as things stand. What can we do in the meantime to take a step in the right direction? The results of Davis’ study reveal a potential answer to this question. Can we be clever with how we structure our teams to ensure that we have the right personalities in the right places? If we take the ultimate goal to be getting everyone to the Behavioural Intention to Use section of the model above, would it be possible to facilitate our open and agreeable individuals to give those who are a little neurotic about technology a helping hand through the acceptance process? In fact, you could argue that these people are the ‘change agents’ that a lot of the articles out there like to call out – they foster the change we need by helping to adopt the technology that creates that change.
In summary, I conclude with what I hope is a fairly simple call to action. To me, it’s clear that the basics have the power to make such a huge difference, it’s just a case of setting the right priorities – easier said than done. So far, the biggest roadblock to technology adoption has been people, my point is, I think people have the power to be the biggest advocates of technology. It comes down to environment. Can we take the fears and anxieties causing these roadblocks away? And can we foster the support and excitement that maximises the opportunity?