How the CIO Drives Culture

March 12, 2018 Glenn Weinstein

Systems ARE culture.

It really is that simple. When you think about what it feels like to be part of your organization — whether it's your company, your government agency, or your nonprofit — your mind naturally gravitates to how you get work done day-by-day. Since your work is likely done online today, the "how" means the devices and software that help you accomplish things.

In previous generations, the "how" of work was provided largely by the physical surroundings. The biggest companies had the best offices, in prime locations, with modern furniture and gigantic copiers and slick interoffice mail envelopes. When you got promoted, it was to the "corner office." The look and feel of the corporate campus was synonymous with the culture of the company.

That's no longer true, culture is more about the collaboration systems you use — how you share a document, how you find information about your customers, how you give a team member a promotion.

For organizations with great IT systems, those systems have become synonymous with their organizational culture. You'd no sooner take away your team's Slack or their Google Drive today, than you would have moved General Motors out of Detroit a generation ago.

Consultants like to talk about how organizational transformation requires change across three dimensions: people, process, and technology. It's true that changing just the technology isn't sufficient, unless your people and processes change with it. But the technology definitely matters.  Few CIOs today, charged with overseeing a cultural transformation, would start with a fresh install of traditional on-premise Oracle or SAP. Those with enough battle scars know that rigid, overly-complex systems are culture killers, no matter how great your people and processes are.

IT systems have evolved at a breakneck pace over the past decade. But perhaps the biggest change over that period in corporate IT has been the shift from "the department of NO" to "the department of YES." CIOs have learned that their job isn't so much to shut down unauthorized "shadow IT", as it is to find ways to serve their constituents — indeed, their customers — however and wherever they want to be served.

CIOs that aspire to say "YES" more often than "NO" need great systems. When someone comes up with a great idea and a plan to make it real, hearing "YES" from IT is incredibly empowering. That shift in emphasis can be the tipping point towards a great corporate culture.

Can you imagine reforming your corporate culture, but trying to do so using the same old legacy systems that create an instant negative reaction in their users? No amount of re-engineering a last-generation system is enough to spark a true customer experience "moment," that smile on the face of a user that's realizing how fun and easy it can be to get work done.

By all means, improving culture means changing processes and policies. But these cannot be cleanly disconnected from the systems that support them. Great systems make for inherently more flexible, adaptable policies and processes, administered more fairly, more open to testing, and analysis and feedback.

Your organization's culture is inexorably tied to your IT systems. Make sure your systems lead to more "YES" than "NO" from the CIO. Make your systems great, because systems ARE culture!

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