When Corporate Culture Undermines IT Success

The challenge is to drive strategy from the abstract to the everyday so that each of us takes personal accountability for executing on the strategy. Susan Paul explores how to overcome this challenge. (04:30)

“Culture eats Strategy for Breakfast”
– Peter Drucker

I saw this quote recently and it rang true, both personally and for the IT initiatives I see in many organizations. On the personal front, for several Januaries in a row, I set a goal to lose weight and exercise regularly. The first week, I was gung ho and doing great. A few weeks later, I found myself falling back on old habits; hitting the snooze alarm rather than getting out of bed for the morning run; having that extra appetizer at happy hour. After a few years of this, I decided that my goal was right, my approach hadn’t cleared the obstacles that kept tripping me up. I was undermining myself and had to figure out a way to modify my own behavior. I did and met my goal.

Loosely, I equate the goal to a personal strategy and my old habits as culture. I had the right intentions when I set my strategy, but had to change my personal accountability and culture to succeed.

Most organizations have accountability as a core tenet of their strategy. It is often expressed in their slogans, such as Conseco’s “Step up”, or Pepsi’s “Performance with Purpose”. Implicit in those slogans are strategies that will keep the organization accountable to customers. The challenge is to drive strategy from the abstract to the everyday so that each of us takes personal accountability for executing on the strategy.

It is at this intersection that culture often gets in the way. People say “it isn’t done that way here”, “once a project is funded, it won’t die unless new management comes in and kills it” or just unspoken passive resistance. Strategies are developed by executive leadership and then cascaded through an organization with projects and processes to make them actionable. Factoring in what will work in a culture is a critical to developing strategy. Any change is slow and the more it impacts an entrenched culture the more difficult it is.

Technology projects inherently introduce change. How well that happens significantly impacts both the perceived success of technology projects and how an organization thinks of and interacts with IT.

Where does the need for change come from? At the highest level, there is a business strategy which drives the need for new business capabilities, some of which have a technology component. The technology plan is created; the code is written, tested and put into production. IT may consider their accountability completed at that point. And to a degree, they would be correct. However, until the identified business capability is a reality and producing the impact the business was looking for, there will be no success.

Without the business impact, the technology was a wasted investment and all too often the finger gets pointed back at IT.

Where was the disconnect? The strategy may have been right, the plan and the technology also right. But everyone assumed the technology would bring about a particular change in behavior and it did not. An example is CRM systems which are often implemented to get a sales team following sales best practices. In the handful I’ve seen as sales management, CRM is a stick, not a carrot, to give management visibility into sales activity. When the investment doesn’t produced the desired results, it becomes the system’s fault.

What’s missing is the plan for changing the culture – people, organization structure, processes and accountabilities. IT is not a group prone to those types of conversations. The technology itself is neutral. It can facilitate a process, but resistance comes from people using it differently than anticipated or not using it at all. The technology gets undermined when the data is bad, people use it incorrectly or not at all which undermines the strategy. Thus we’ve come full circle and the culture kept the strategy from succeeding even if the strategy was right.

Avoiding these traps requires that you review technology initiatives to assess whether you are taking steps to allow the business strategy expressed through the technology change to succeed. Do you have engaged sponsorship from business partners and IT? Does your project or program include work streams for assessing the impact of the project on how the organization operates, new roles or processes that may be needed. Are there communications plans in place for the changes?

The best practices are known. Take accountability for helping drive the overall effort and not letting culture undermine your IT success.

“As professionals, we are captivated by the quality of our work and often fool ourselves into believing this is the most important thing to our partners because it is so important to us”- Paul Glenn

*Originally published in Software Magazine

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