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Minda's CW article on corporate culture

This is my article in a recent Computerworld about Company Culture, about 2,700 words.

 

Minda Zetlin's insight:

Do you understand your company’s personality?

 

Corporate culture may matter even more to your project’s success than ROI does. Here’s to work with it rather than against it.

 

 

 

By Minda Zetlin

 

IT executives at Splunk faced a challenge. They needed to provide training materials for employees using a new security program. The $268 millionSan Franciscocompany makes an application that collects machine data on everything from servers to elevators and heating systems. “A lot of our employees have PhDs and are IT geniuses,” explains CIO Doug Harr. Rather than lay down the law with these folks about what they can and can’t load on their desktop computers, IT gives them administrative powers and a few security guidelines. So when it came time to train users, Harr knew a run-of-the-mill how-to would be a bad idea. “We looked long and hard for training materials that would be acceptable to them,” he says.

 

Eventually, Harr and his team found some animated videos, mostly black and white and wry in tone, similar to some of Virgin America’s safety videos. Those worked, and as a further step, IT is now creating training videos of its own, featuring some of Splunk’s own employees.

 

If this sounds like too much trouble for a simple training video employees will only spend a couple of minutes watching, then you’re missing an important point about IT in today’s workplace. To be effective, you must deeply understand and fully engage with the culture of your organization.

 

“I’ve been with Gartner 25 years and had thousands of conversations and it’s very clear that technology is not the number one challenge our clients face,” says Ken McGee, vice president and Gartner fellow. “They get technology. The biggest issues are not technology but culture.”

 

It’s an issue that gets much too little attention, he says. For instance, when a new CIO arrives to reorganize IT, or a merger requires that two formerly separate operations combine, conditions are ripe for conflict. But many IT executives simply ignore the danger. CIOS who would never put a networking novice onto an important infrastructure project assign people with limited human dynamics know-how to projects where culture clash is likely. “Then we’re surprised there are so many problems,” he says.

 

Dave Kelble, director of IT for theAbramsonCenterfor Jewish Life, which provides both residential and non-residential services to seniors at its 72-acre campus in North Wales,Pennsylvania, considers the topic so important that after getting an MBA in Information Systems, he went back for an MS in Organizational Dynamics. “It gives you a perspective you don’t get in business school or technical school either,” he says. “I’ve found in the past the ROI calculations don’t necessarily get a project accepted. You have to work with people to implement new technology.”

 

‘That’s how we do it.’

 

Whenever you hear phrases like, “That’s how we do it around here,” or “That’s the way it’s always been,” you’re dealing with corporate culture. Tread carefully: Cultural impulses aren’t always logical, and there’s always more to them than meets the eye.

 

“I’ve been burned by culture occasionally,” says Stephen Balzac is president of consulting firm 7 Steps Ahead and professor of Industrial/Organizational Psychology at Wentworth Institute of Technology inBoston. Before his current roles, he spent 20 years as a software engineer, and that’s when he learned the hard way about corporate culture.

 

In one memorable case, he was brought in to help a bioengineering firm revamp its operations. Begun in a garage, the company had grown rapidly and now had large corporate clients. Its habit of releasing software rapidly and then fixing bugs as they cropped up was now a liability. “We had to turn into a professional software company,” Balzac recalls.

 

The company’s leadership told him they disliked their all-day meetings that seemed like a time suck. So Balzac set about replacing the meetings with other forms of communication. He was asked, “Why are you getting rid of the meetings?”

 

“Because you hate them,” Balzac replied.

 

“But they work!”

 

The company’s culture was so entrenched, Balzac realized, that even traditions that were unnecessary and unpopular could not be removed without trauma. “I learned to back off a little,” he says. He instituted changes more gradually. And he gave management ample opportunity to try doing things the old way and confirm that it wasn’t working before introducing a new one.

 

Balzac sees culture as something akin to the body’s immune system: It accepts what it recognizes and rejects the unfamiliar, useful or not. “Think of Apple with John Sculley,” he says. “The whole company acted like it had a bad case of the flu.”

 

What are your values?

 

At most companies, examining the culture will reveal the true values of the organization. “The culture at kCura is team-oriented and personal, and we don’t have a lot of politics,” says CIO Doug Caddell. kCura is a Chicago-based e-discovery software provider with about 360 employees. It’s been growing rapidly, and Caddell says the culture is helping. “It’s a competitive advantage and we see that when we’re recruiting. kCura is really desired place to come to work.”

 

Before kCura, Caddell was CIO at a large law firm, and the difference is stark he says. “The partners in the law firm are all owners of the business, and everyone thinks they’re in charge,” he says. Before the law firm, he worked in state government which had yet another culture.

 

In each workplace, different values mean communicating about IT in different ways. At kCura, Caddell says, “We’re in a growth stage post start-up, and we have improved technology platforms to allow us to grow forward. As we go from a company of 40 people a few years ago to 360 now and probably 700 two years from now, our infrastructure needs to keep pace so it doesn’t sag under the weight.”

 

At the law firm, the biggest value was rapid delivery. “That was definitely a culture of ‘We need it done now!’” Caddell says. “A lot of that is client-driven, so there’s nothing wrong with that.” In state government, the value was lowering costs he added. “A big part of the conversation was the reduction of full-time employees and how to keep that number down. So you had to understand that culture of cost consciousness and how that factored into IT conversations.”

 

Culture also determines which projects get done, and how quickly. Kelble’s previous employer was a venture capital-backed mid-sized firm. “It was grow-grow-grow,” he says. “It was short-term. ‘We’ve got to get this up and running, we’re going to be growing 50 percent in the next quarter.’”

 

As is common with venture capital funding, the firm was acquired, IT departments were merged, and Kelble needed a new job. “I went looking for a way to get out of the VC rat race,” he says. The Abramson center was not only a completely different environment, it had different values as well. It’s “a different, caring culture, not only for patients, but also employees,” he says.

 

Kelble was hired with the mandate to upgrade theAbramsonCenter’s architecture, something the center’s leadership knew was needed. “So far, even though it’s a nonprofit and budgets are tight, they’ve listened to what I have to say,” Kelble says. In fact, he notes, “I’ve been here just over two years, and I’ve made more infrastructure changes that will be capitalized over 3 to 4 years than I did in the 5 years I was at the other company.”

 

That’s changed Kelble’s approach to his own industry as well. “I take a longer view,” he says. “Although the other company was also in the healthcare field, I look at what’s happening in healthcare much more than I did before, as well as what’s going to happen five and ten years from now. I ask how I can build for the future.”

 

IT faces a cultural challenge

 

IT employees haven’t always been skilled at integrating with the culture of their organizations, experts agree. For one thing, at many companies, there are diverse cultures in different business units, locations, or functional departments, and IT may well have a culture of its own. “IT professionals and business professionals look at things differently which from time to time will result in a clash,” McGee says.

 

“Good salespeople can be amazing at how they handle people and get stuff done,” says Joe McLaughlin, who worked in sales before becoming vice president of IT at AAA Western andCentral New York. “IT people are not that way.”

 

In part, that’s because of the skills that brought them to technology in the first place. “IT deals with things that have no feelings,” Balzac says. “Because of that it sometimes pulls people who are more comfortable with things than they are with people.” Working in IT can magnify this effect. “You’re spending all your time with electrons and not emotions,” Balzac says. “Switching to dealing with people can require effort.”

 

Another problem is that learning about a company’s culture takes time. Many IT people, already overloaded, may feel they have few spare hours for the “soft” activity of exploring a company’s culture. But that’s a mistake, experts say. “Invest that time, certainly in the beginning, to get immersed in how the organization works,” Kelble advises. “Find the people who get things done, and find out how they do it. If the company has a picnic, don’t show up, grab your burger, and head back to your desk. Become part of it, and learn everything you can about how everyone else does their job.”

 

McLaughlin says, for both yourself and your staff, one great way to absorb the company’s culture is to observe others doing their jobs. At AAA Western andCentral New York, he and the other top executives make a point of spending time in the call center and with the fleet. “You have to become a colleague with your peers. Go hang out in the retail store if yours is a retail operation,” he says. “As an IT person, you always can make the excuse that, ‘I’m here to see how the technology is working for you.’ All of a sudden, you learn things you never would have otherwise--just because you’re there.”

 

Those things are well worth learning, he adds. “Culture is a difficult thing to grasp. There are cultures, and cultures within cultures. Call it whatever you want, but there’s a personality in an organization. If you try to go against it too hard, you do so at your peril.”

 

 

 

 

Sidebar: How IT can help convey culture

 

At Splunk, corporate culture is, “something we’ve taken a lot steps to protect,” says Doug Harr, CIO. What the heck is a CIO doing protecting his employer’s culture? It turns out IT departments are well positioned to do just that.

 

Situated in San Francisco’s South of Market district, also home to Wired and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Splunk’s culture is rooted in the idea of disruptive, open source technologies. Like some CIOs, Harr oversees facilities, so he’s helped express that culture with brick and beam architecture, open style seating, and furniture that can be configured for work either sitting or standing. The company further supports its free-flow culture by serving employees lunch on Mondays and breakfast on Fridays.

 

Harr also supports Splunk’s culture by embracing a workplace where IT is not expected to—and doesn’t—exert much control over how employees use technology. “You have to check your ego at the door,” Harr says. “I realized I couldn’t just bring in hardware or software the way you do at a typical company, slap them down and say, ‘Here’s how we do things.’”

 

Instead, Harr and his team have embraced a growing use of cloud-based software that offers Splunk employees autonomy. “We’re giving more and more control of Salesforce.com to our sales operations folks,” he says. “I could hire eight business analysts for sales operations and still not understand it as well as they do.”

 

His department took a similar approach when the marketing team sought a new application to capture customer references. “My development guy knew he could build it, but he said, ‘Go ahead and see what you find,’” Harr says. “It was fun for them to get involved.”

 

The product they selected wouldn’t have been IT’s choice, but key elements, such as multi-factor authentication, were in place. “It’s secure and made them happy,” Harr says. “When I get my guys thinking that way, stuff goes a lot better, given the way the world is going.”

 

And that’s the right role for IT, he adds. “There’s tremendous potential we have as CIOs to embrace and even influence the culture of the company. If you include facilities, we’re responsible for where they sit and what they touch all day. Even if you’re not buying the chairs or building the walls, you supply the endpoint system everyone is touching. Doing that in a way that matches the culture is important. When you have a good culture it’s also fun.”

 

 

Sidebar: Creating cultural change

 

Some of the biggest challenges for IT leaders arise when they’re charged with making profound changes to the culture of their IT organizations. It’s a process that always rests on communication. “The fastest way to make any real change it spend a lot of time talking to people, and that always seems to take too long,” says Stephen Balzac, president of  7 Steps Ahead. When he coaches CIOs he says, they often say, “Why don’t we just do it?”

 

“How has that worked for you in the past?” Balzac asks.

 

“People push back,” the CIOs admit.

 

“It’s not how fast you go, it’s how smoothly you accelerate,” Balzac says.

 

From bureaucratic to nimble

 

For CIOs making culture changes, that smooth acceleration is essential to success. Ravi Naik, vice president and CIO at SanDisk, took on the CIO role at SanDisk, a $6.2 billion flash memory maker, to shift the company onto a unified ERP system and eliminate about 40 diverse applications. At the same time, he says, “We went from being a large, bureaucratic, process-oriented organization to a small, nimble organization.”

 

That new organizational flavor for IT matches the company at large. “From my perspective, it’s a culture of innovation,” Naik says. “We believe in rapid execution, bringing up ideas, and if we have to fail, failing fast. The driver is really delivery, you need to execute and live up to your commitments, and if you do that, there’s an incredible amount of support.”

 

That may be why his newly leaner IT operation has a whole new relationship with the company’s engineering department which used the IT department to replace 4,600 hard drives with solid-state devices in employees’ laptops. “IT was not typically a test environment for engineering in the past,” Naik notes.

 

Going mainstream

 

Ginna Raahauge, CIO of Riverbed Technology, an application performance infrastructure company based inSan Francisco, was hired to help Riverbed grow beyond its fast-moving start-up roots into a mainstream $1 billion company. (The company reported $885 million in revenues for 2012. Though it hadn’t reported full year 2013 earnings at this writing, it appears to be at or near that billion-dollar goal.)

 

IT had a seat at the table, Raahauge says, but top management was frustrated at how many initiatives and requests were turned down by an overloaded IT operation. “We understand there’s a lot of demand and you have limited supply, but we don’t want to hear ‘no’ all the time,” they told her.

 

With that in mind, she is transitioning IT toward a service-oriented approach. That means breaking down its structure where applications, infrastructure, and security functioned as separate silos. “We defined who owned those services, and who’s accountable versus responsible,” she says.

 

It also means changing IT’s relationship to cost. “When I had my first meeting with the CEO, he said that my predecessors had been overly cost conscious,” she says. “He said, ‘We want you to keep an eye on costs, but we want to move forward and make sure we don’t fall behind, and that often requires an investment conversation.’”

 

All of this meant changing IT employees’ outlook. “There was a lot of operational maturity in terms of keeping the lights on, but the client engagement portfolios we were going to propose had a very different look and feel,” she says. Getting there—so far Riverbed is about halfway—is largely a matter of education.

 

“It’s a lot of coaching,” she says. “It’s the old adage that someone needs to hear something seven times before it sticks.”

 

From four to one

 

Dale Danilewitz, CIO of AmerisourceBergen, an $88 billion pharmaceutical wholesaler headquartered inValley Forge,Pennsylvania, is charged with centralizing what had previously been four separate IT operations at four separate lines of business. At the same time, his mission is to increase the amount IT services that are charged back to their business units. To complicate matters further, the company is spread among divisions around theU.S.and expanding globally. Many IT operations and staff are still embedded within the business units.

 

To help these far-flung IT people come together as a team, Danilewitz does a lot of communicating, by e-mail, through the company’s internal social network, with road shows, in monthly all-hands teleconference town hall meetings, and even with posters and other materials promoting IT’s goals.

 

It was at one of the town hall meetings that he encountered a common cultural trap: What the speaker means is not always what the listener hears. Danilewitz was discussing the need for the unified IT department to come together behind common technologies rather than cling to whichever apps had been used before centralization. To underscore the point, he noted, “We are providing a service and shouldn’t think of ourselves as the only service provider available to the business. We have to hold ourselves accountable, because if we’re too complacent, the business may look elsewhere for that service.”

 

His words struck a nerve with one business unit’s IT group. That group had been through downsizing in which many of its jobs were outsourced, and now feared the same thing might be happening again. “That was not my intent,” Danilewitz says. “I had to recover and provide a better explanation.”

 

It was a great illustration of how corporate culture affects perceptions without our being aware of it. “It’s like an accent,” he says. “You don’t know you have one until you encounter a different one.”

 

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