Familiarity as an Obstacle May 2011
The appeal of the familiar is nearly ubiquitous in most societies. Organizations, for example, often create norms and routines that are part of a larger effort to create predictable organizational cultures that reduce uncertainty and, presumably, increase efficiency and productivity across various levels of the organization. Individuals may make decisions about consumption options by judging how familiar those options are. Companies may pursue activities that feel familiar, including prospecting around familiar networks of individuals and organizations, hiring people with familiar backgrounds and skills, and rejecting novel—unfamiliar—approaches and initiatives.
Familiarity can serve important functions for organizations—mostly as a way to increase predictability. In the extreme, however, flights to familiarity as a way to deal with the pressures of business reduce competitiveness.
Recent research and various examples from the business and cultural environment suggest that making decisions on the basis of the familiarity of options alone can have significant downsides. Specifically, recent research by Abninder Litt and Baba Shiv of the Stanford Graduate School of Business in California demonstrates several instances of individuals' "fleeing" to familiar options when under pressure, even though the familiar options sought under pressure actually have less value than unfamiliar options have. For example, under performance pressure, participants preferred a familiar puzzle that earned them fewer reward points than did an unfamiliar puzzle. Given the various pressures on people and organizations, the pressure-familiarity link can significantly interfere with goals that require novel behaviors or stimuli.
Consider, for example, the important area of energy conservation. A study by Shahzeen Attari of Columbia University (New York, New York) asked participants to estimate the best ways for them to save energy. The ways that participants listed neglected use of various high-energy-consuming appliances such as heaters and dryers in the home. The authors explain that people often use familiar frames of reference to make judgments under uncertainty—a phenomenon known as anchoring. The effect happens when people adopt a familiar unit as a mental benchmark and then create predictions on the basis of that unit. Apparently in the above study, people used the energy consumption of an incandescent bulb to arrive at their predictions—a familiar but range-restricted measure. Thus, one aspect of achieving significant behavior change in the domain of energy conservation appears to involve education about ways people use energy. Such educational efforts may apply across many instances of people's attempting to change their behavior, including dieting, exercise, and medical checkups.
As mentioned above, familiarity can serve important functions for organizations—mostly as a way to increase predictability. In the extreme, however, flights to familiarity as a way to deal with the pressures of business reduce competitiveness. In India, for example, companies often optimize their operations to local market conditions—environments they are familiar with. By ignoring international business and manufacturing standards, however, many Indian companies are reducing their ability to compete in international markets. Similarly, many family-owned businesses in India will hire only male relatives into executive positions, thereby restricting the growth potential of those companies in favor of employing known—and literally familiar—individuals.
Yet another familiarity-related challenge many companies face involves the adoption of new technology within organizations and employee behavior surrounding technology. Many of today's biggest firms are attempting to leverage technological advances in social-media communication, virtual reality, and interface technology, assuming employees will readily embrace and work with those innovations. In reality, however, employees are likely to fall back on familiar routines, including the use of email and regular phone communication—particularly when under pressure. The successful adoption of sophisticated technology, such as the prototype for a novel 3D telepresence system that uses a pair of Microsoft (Redmond, Washington) Kinect depth cameras to allow users to interact with one another within a virtual office space—currently developed by Oliver Kreylos of the Institute for Data Analysis and Visualization at the University of California, Davis—would require significant up-front design and ethnographic research to study how best to present the technology against familiar ways to communicate.
Similarly, even within the use of a familiar technology such as email, companies face significant operational threats. Email-management company Mimecast (London, England) surveyed over 2400 corporate email users and found that 85% of employees ages 25 and younger have used personal email for work. Even though a primary reason for the use of personal email is the ability to send larger attachments than company servers allow, the familiarity of the personal email interface and the frequency of its use among younger employees likely factor into the habit as well. Needless to say, the practice puts many companies at risk of security breaches.
Companies wishing to become aware of familiarity-based downsides to their business practices could begin by examining ways to create fresh input from employees across the levels of the organization—an effort that requires a culture of seeking novelty.