As an information technology and business professional, I have a strong belief that the pursuit of excellence is necessary for success, both at the individual and corporate level. But while defining and measuring excellence is important, finding ways to achieve it is obviously of key importance. Having worked in and with organizations of different sizes, I’ve seen all sorts of strategies and programs geared toward achieving success. I’ve also seen failure repeatedly achieved through poor management and short-sighted thinking. Reflecting on why some technology projects and initiatives succeed and others fail I’ve come to the conclusion that corporate culture is often the key factor involved in determining the outcome. Having come to this conclusion, however, I decided it might be worthwhile if I asked someone more knowledgeable than myself regarding the impact of corporate culture on technology excellence, so I reached out to my colleague Andrew S. Baker to see what he thought about this. Andrew is the president and founder of BrainWave Consulting, where he provides cybersecurity and technology consulting services for small and medium-sized businesses, and below is a digest of a discussion I recently had with him on this matter.
Seeking lasting results
MITCH: Andrew, I’ve led a number of businesses and IT initiatives where I’ve had to recruit a team, but it’s been difficult because sometimes the person I thought was “just right” for my team ended up leaving and taking on something more challenging. Am I focusing my efforts in the right direction or am I missing some important keys to project success?
ANDREW: Every person in an organization brings some contribution to the table. Either they are working in a way that helps to move the organization forward, or their actions are in some way at odds with the objectives of the organization. Given how much is at stake in business today, no business leader should leave this situation to chance — but many do.
Many organizations spend a fair amount of time trying to hire the right people to lead and staff their firms. And many firms spend a lot of time grooming new leaders to operate effectively in their organizations, and to advance within their ranks. Unfortunately, the focus on “the right people” often ends once those candidates have accepted a job offer or gotten accepted into some management fast-track program. Other companies work diligently to obtain and implement the latest technology solutions, seeking to gain an advantage in the marketplace. They implement strict governance and operational best practices to be sure that they can maximize every dollar, build repeatable processes, and statistically reduce defects by solid processes. Yet, doing all this, they still fail to see lasting success.
Neither of these objectives is inherently a bad one, but they are both missing an important part of the puzzle. What will bring the best and longest lasting results, is having the right corporate culture. Why? Because an organization’s corporate culture is the (mostly) unspoken set of rules, activities, and interactions that govern how people in that organization operate. In other words, the WHATs, HOWs, and WHYs of how things really get done.
MITCH: So having the right corporate culture is the key?
ANDREW: I believe so, yes. Ultimately, what gives a great organization its agility, resilience, and a framework for effective teamwork is the corporate culture.
MITCH: And since technology is at the heart of so many businesses today, I guess that culture is important in the IT area as well, right?
ANDREW: Of course.
MITCH: It’s probably hard for some IT pros to think of IT departments having a unique corporate culture. Viewed from the outside, of course, I would guess that most other business areas would view the culture of corporate IT as being “nerdy” and there’s certainly a grain of truth in that. But underlying the nerdiness of corporate IT is perhaps a sense of pride in having control over technologies that few others in the organization can understand, and it seems to me that pride (or let’s call it ego) probably makes it difficult to change the culture of an IT department even when it’s obvious it needs to be improved.
ANDREW: Well, a corporate culture will happen whether you try to shape it or not, so it stands to reason that creating or shaping a good culture is essential for good results. With technology being such a key component of many businesses today, and with there being so many ways to do technology wrong, it is incumbent on senior managers and business owners to create a culture of technology excellence so that they can cost-effectively meet the business challenges of today and tomorrow.
Creating a culture of technology excellence
MITCH: So what can an organization do to try and change IT corporate culture when it’s obvious that it needs to be changed? In other words, how can we move corporate IT toward excellence?
ANDREW: To successfully create a culture of excellence, we need to have an idea of what it looks like, or how it behaves. That is our first step: outlining the characteristics. The following is a list (a partial one) of characteristics to be found in organizations that have a culture of technology excellence: These organizations often…
- have the ability to quickly evaluate and embrace useful technology trends.
- provide best practices that can be used within their industry.
- devote ample time in projects for planning and for lessons learned.
- manage their resources well.
- embed security into everything they do.
- understand how to augment their staff effectively.
- look at both technology and business holistically.
- fail fast, and fail inexpensively.
- reward reasonable, well-considered risk-taking by their technology teams.
- maintain a balance between cutting-edge technologies and mature ones.
- know the difference between maintaining accountability and assigning blame.
- maintain a balance between building and buying solutions.
- know that return on investment is not always in a unit of currency.
- embrace hybrid teams of business and technology staff.
- are masters of reuse and repurposing.
- understand that true value is often linked to a worthwhile purpose.
MITCH: That’s quite a list! Does excellence in technology need to display alignment with every one of these characteristics you’ve listed?
ANDREW: While not every successful organization is going to be found doing every single one of these activities, or manifesting every one of these traits, they definitely are in a position to do so! I can assure you, however, that the leaders of most organizations believe that they are doing these things, and that their businesses are focused on these things.
MITCH: I guess developing a vision statement and list of corporate values might be one approach for moving corporate IT toward greater excellence in the areas you’ve identified.
ANDREW: Unfortunately, one does not create an ethnic or sociological culture by simply telling everyone, “Here’s what we stand for” Yes, there needs to be some communication about who we are, and what we are trying to achieve, but much of the communication will be less direct, and more nuanced.
MITCH: Can you describe an example of how an organization might communicate a desirable value to IT but then undermine what it has communicated?
ANDREW: How an organization rewards its employees will have a great deal of influence on what type of employees it ends up with, and how they behave. Recent articles in the banking arena, for example, show the folly of rewarding people based primarily on metrics like “accounts per customer.” If you make sales volume your primary method for how people can make a lot of money at your firm, then don’t be surprised when ethics takes a back seat to income.
Similarly, if you say that you want a culture of technology excellence, but you buy equipment or solutions based primarily on price, or you keep equipment around in critical roles long after its age and supportability beg for it to be retired or repurposed, then you are saying something very different to your employees — no matter how much you preach or otherwise communicate about technology excellence.
MITCH: So IT must practice what it preaches — and practice it at all times — if it wants to move toward greater excellence in how technology is implemented and controlled.
ANDREW: Exactly. The culture must be first spoken and written — in HR materials, in business policies, in marketing material, in cybersecurity and compliance policies. Then it must be followed up by actions. Employees and business partners must see that the selection of technology for the organization is driven by the following:
- Having the right tool in place for operational needs.
- Balancing effectiveness, usability and security concerns.
- Obtaining benefits that are experienced by many and not just a few.
In short, there must be some sort of strategy that is being followed — one that people feel comfortable that they can figure out. Everyone might not agree wholeheartedly with the strategy, but as long as they can predict its outcomes, they will largely be fine and cooperative.
MITCH: So I guess it’s not so much about rewarding excellence but about rewarding the right kinds of behavior if you want to grow and maintain a culture of technology excellence.
ANDREW: If you want any kind of excellence, it will involve risk. This is not any different with technology excellence. How risks and rewards are handled will say more about your organization’s culture than all the slick PowerPoint presentations given in a year. A corporate culture that desires success must reward risk-taking — intelligent risk-taking. Yes, there needs to be processes in place to try to minimize the severity of risks, but having good processes alone will only result in bureaucracy, not innovation.
MITCH: Intelligent risk-taking does seem to me to be the key, too, especially for IT projects. What’s involved in this?
ANDREW: Planning, testing, documentation, and debriefing are all important. People need to be taught how to plan well, including how to manage contingencies. Iterative testing is key to reducing the fallout from mistakes or failures and figuring out when something is no longer worth pursuing. Documentation is important because if you don’t record it, it didn’t happen, and you cannot learn from it. And you cannot repeat it (success) or avoid it (failures). And it’s important to follow-up after projects — whether successful or not — to ensure that whatever lessons there are to be learned can occur while the events are still fresh in everyone’s minds.
MITCH: It sounds almost to me like you’re planning for failure from the get-go!
ANDREW: Failure happens all the time, especially in IT. The goal is to make it happen as early as possible, in as controlled a way as possible and learn as much from it as possible. If you want people to take risks, then you have to reward them for taking intelligent risks, even if everything didn’t pan out. If your technologists take a gamble on some solution or technology or integration, and they planned well, tested well, and documented well, then reward them — even if it fails to get generate the desired results. This tells everyone that the organization not only wants success but that it values every element of thoughtful planning and execution along the way.
Obviously, people who fully succeed should get better rewards than those who don’t fully succeed, but organizations that specialize in blame-casting of failure-shaming will ultimately produce and hire employees that won’t take risks.
Perks and rewards
MITCH: Money is another form of reward that’s often used to try to move people toward excellence in corporate environments. But I’ve seen highly paid employees who a company would be better off firing!
ANDREW: Money is nice, and supposedly makes the world go round (and certainly pays the bills), but it is not the only way to reward individuals and teams. Rewards should be practical, and they should be relevant, and they should be commensurate with the risk taken and the success achieved. And if you say you value teamwork, but only reward individuals, guess what type of success you will predominantly obtain?
Rewards that positively impact an employee’s family — like a family outing — are a sure way to help that employee avoid or reduce family conflicts over the course of his or her career. Rewards, such as a corporate or team dinner, where the family can see the value that the organization places on an employee and on the employee’s team, says a lot more to the family than a corporate marketing video will.
MITCH: What about technology purchase programs for new employees? HP doesn’t call their laptops “Envy” for nothing!
ANDREW: In a successful corporate culture, everyone in the organization dedicates himself or herself to integrating new hires into the culture. In a culture of technology excellence, this can mean getting technology for the home that is better than consumer level. The result is that employees attain a higher standard for technology even outside the workplace, and this attitude will be brought into the work environment.
MITCH: As someone who formerly worked as a Microsoft Certified Trainer and has developed courseware for university-level IT programs, I think training may be another perk that management should provide for employees to help move them toward greater excellence.
ANDREW: I agree! If you want to create a culture of technology excellence, then you had better be willing to facilitate training for it. Yes, there is always a risk that you train someone who goes on to another firm, but there is a much greater risk that you will lose people who you haven’t trained and won’t train. And, worse yet for your organization, they were not as effective as they could have been while you did have them.
Looking to the future
MITCH: Many organizations I’ve seen talk a lot about the value of having a good corporate culture, but after talking a lot most of them seem to end up being quite rigid with regard to what rewards and perks they offer to try and mold employee culture.
ANDREW: It is easy to talk culture, but how business leaders hire, train, promote and reward employees is what will determine if they will be successful in creating and maintaining a culture of technology excellence. A culture of technology excellence doesn’t just happen by itself — it needs to be carefully cultivated.
MITCH: And a culture of technology excellence will be a key factor for the success of most businesses in the coming years.
ANDREW: Definitely. Technology is a moving target, and the organizations that are successful in instilling good planning, calculated risk-taking, superior cost/benefit analysis (CBA) and effective teamwork and communication, will see the most gains for their firms. They will have technology solutions that are deployed more quickly, generate more revenue, reduce more risk, and are managed more cost-effectively than those firms which do not look at technology holistically. And, if you are not looking at technology holistically in 2018, you’re not really looking at your business holistically either.
MITCH: Totally agree. Thanks, Andrew for sharing your insights with me on these matters!
ANDREW: You’re welcome!
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