How technology will disrupt behaviour change interventions | HMA

How technology will disrupt behaviour change interventions

I spend a lot of my time thinking about the best way to help with behaviour change. Don’t get me wrong, I am one of those people trained in face-to-face group work which involves sitting with a collection of people to make sense of behaviour that is problematic to both them and others. Over the years however I’ve had to think deeply about what intervention is going to look like in the future. Recently I ran a three hour workshop at the Ending Men’s Violence to Women Conference in Sydney where I talked about the place of technology in both interventions for behaviour change and also as a adjunct to up-skilling staff.

Consider for a moment how the world has changed for us all. Let me ask you a question, “How long between waking in the morning do you take to check your mobile phone. If you are like most people it is either straight away or within 30 minutes of waking. In other words, we are very connected to the wider world much more quickly than in times past. We used to get to work and see what is happening. Now the overnight emails, texts, and tweets have us often working in the car or bus on the way to work.

I don’t know about you but I often find myself time poor, trying to balance the needs of others, being on call with work thanks to smartphones, and generally more accessible to others. In other words, there seems not enough time to sit back, reflect and make sense of things.

Our current methodologies may  be limiting behaviour change. The impact of sitting in a group over many weeks or months may create additional stress on an already stress situation. If the effort of having to spend significant amounts of time getting somewhere as well is getting home or back to work, possibly distracts hugely from making the most of the time given. The other challenge of course for community-based programming is that we tend to meet with people at the end of the work day (for those who are employed) when they are tired and blood glucose levels are at the lowest.

If we take the issue of responsivity seriously, then this is a situation worthy of further exploration. In criminal justice, we tend to think out of responsivity as consisting of two components: general and specific responsivity. General responsivity states that effective interventions tend to be based on cognitive, behavioural, and social learning theories (Smith, Gendreau, & Swartz, 2009), while the specific responsivity principle suggests that the treatment offered is to be matched not only to criminogenic need but also to those attributes and circumstances of cases that render them likely to profit from that treatment (Andrews, et al., 1990).

It is the latter point that I think gives us the clues for reconsidering how technology might well disrupt our practice in a positive manner. Below I will outline a few ideas that I think we will find developing into our practice fields over the next couple of years.

  1. More thoughtful matching of needs to interventions. What I mean by this is the need to screen and assess carefully and match interventions accordingly. So often in practice participants in behaviour change programs are given a set program rather than having the program meet them.
  2. Dosage is critical for matching individual needs with behaviour change. I’ve talked in other places about how often short programs are not sufficient to do the depth of work, particularly with those who have complex histories and issues to resolve. The challenge is to increase dosage without increasing facetime.
  3. I see future disruption to current practice likely to be in the space of blended interventions which will be a combination of some facetime in groups, interactive apps to support intervention, follow-up through Skype, WhatsApp, and other platforms, along with follow-up maintenance through emails and reminders.

The reality is that we could be doing so much more. Given we are going to increasingly find burgeoning numbers of people requiring behaviour change interventions while at the same time seeing little increase in numbers of clinicians to do the work, we have to work smarter by utilising the array of useful intervention tools that we have at our disposal.


Andrews, D., Bonta, J., & Hoge, R. (1990). Classification for effective rehabilitation. Criminal Justice and Behavior, 17, 19–52.

Smith, P., Gendreau, P., & Swartz, K. (2009). Validating the principles of effective intervention: A systematic review of the contributions of meta-analysis in the field of corrections. Victims and Offenders, 4, 148–169.

Published on Wednesday, March 29th, 2017, under Learning & development, What Ken thinks

2 Responses to “How technology will disrupt behaviour change interventions”

  1. PJF says:

    Hi Ken
    I have been thinking about this for some time relative to my world. Wondering if my practice was falling behind in technology use because I was not knowledgeable (or am I a luddite?) as to what was out there or was it because I think there might be a bit of ‘I have a hammer therefore everything is a nail’ in the rush to be seen as current in the use of new technology.
    Around about this time – mid-think as it were – I attended an MI Group work two day session in Auckland. I thought it was fabulous. It provided sound practical and relevant advice. Around lunchtime on the first day the facilitator announced that until the end of the two days we would be placed in groups, role playing and giving each other feedback based on the MI philosophy.
    The collective sigh in the room just about blew the walls apart. In the room there was a PowerPoint going, two facilitators making sure each group was on task, clear written instructions on what to do, clear processes to follow. At the end I walked out having experienced using group MI skills as a group facilitator and as a group member – 1.5 days of it in fact. Plus all the other peripheral things I picked up working in a group. Of course there could have been a few technological bells and whistles etc in use but there weren’t.
    I am currently studying online and it works well. I interact with my peers when required and there is a face-to-face requirement when I will demonstrate my skill. Great use of technology.
    However, I often think of that Group MI workshop and the large sigh – to which I contributed – when we realised we had to take an active part for the rest of the time. I don’t think I would have received anywhere near the benefit I got from the two days if it hadn’t had that face-to-face component plus being required (and yes I could say ‘pass’) to 1. demonstrate what we were learning 2. receive feedback on my performance, 3. observe others demonstrating what we were learning and 4. give them specific feedback underpinned by the MI philosophy.

    • Ken McMaster says:

      Thanks Pam for your thoughts. I am not suggesting it is an either/or. I am of the view that knowledge is well placed in an online environment, whereas skills practice is best carried out in a face-to-face manner. However the world of virtual reality is also starting to become part of the learning and development realm. Imagine being able to sit with your virtual group and over practicing until you acquire the skills. This could in fact unhinge the two days of in-room learning and you could virtually practice the group over a number of sessions at your leisure.

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