Do you understand your company's personality?

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

IT executives at Splunk faced a challenge. They needed to provide training materials for employees who would be using a new security program. The $268 million San Francisco company makes an application that collects machine data on everything from servers to elevators and heating systems.

"A lot of our employees have Ph.D.s and are IT geniuses," says 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 was 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.

Doug Harr

Eventually, Harr and his team found some animated videos, mostly black-and-white and wry in tone, similar to Virgin America's 2008 safety video. They worked, and as a further step, IT is now creating training videos of its own, featuring some of Splunk's own employees.

If that sounds like too much trouble for a simple training video that employees will spend only 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 No. 1 challenge our clients face," says Ken McGee, a research fellow at Gartner. "They get technology. The biggest issues are not technology but culture."

It's an issue that doesn't get enough 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 leaders 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," McGee says.

Dave Kelble, director of IT for the Abramson Center for Jewish Life, which provides residential and nonresidential services to seniors at its 72-acre campus in North Wales, Pa., considers organizational culture to be such an important topic that after getting an MBA in information systems, he went back for a master's in organizational dynamics. "It gives you a perspective you don't get in business school or technical school," 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."

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When 'Just Do It' Doesn't Cut It

Fostering Cultural Change Through Communication

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 is to 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 ask, "Why don't we just do it?"

Stephen Balzac

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

"People push back," the CIOs admit.

Then he explains that "it's not how fast you go, it's how smoothly you accelerate."

From Four to One

Dale Danilewitz, CIO at AmerisourceBergen, an $88 billion pharmaceutical wholesaler headquartered in Valley Forge, Pa., 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 of IT services that are charged back to business units. To complicate matters further, the company has divisions across the U.S. and is expanding globally. Many IT operations and staffers are still embedded within business units.

To help far-flung IT people come together as a team, Danilewitz does a lot of communicating, by email, 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.

Dale Danilewitz

It was at one of the town hall meetings that he encountered a common cultural trap: What the speaker means isn't always what the listener hears. Danilewitz was discussing the need for the unified IT department to come together behind common technologies rather than clinging to whichever apps they had been using 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 people feared that 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."

- Minda Zetlin

'That's How We've Always Done It'

Whenever you hear phrases like "That's the way it is around here" or "That's how we've always done it," 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, president of consulting firm 7 Steps Ahead and an adjunct professor of industrial organizational psychology at Wentworth Institute of Technology in Boston. 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 quickly and now had large corporate clients. Its habit of releasing software rapidly and then fixing bugs as they cropped up had become a liability. "We had to turn into a professional software company," Balzac recalls.

Think of Apple with John Sculley. The whole company acted like it had a bad case of the flu. Stephen Balzac, president, 7 Steps Ahead

The company's leaders told him they felt their all-day meetings were a time suck. So Balzac set about replacing the meetings with other forms of communication. He was then asked, "Why are you getting rid of the meetings?"

"Because you hate them," Balzac replied.

"But they work!" came the response.

The company's culture was so entrenched, Balzac realized, that even traditions that were unnecessary and unpopular couldn't 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 change.

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?

In many cases, examining the culture will reveal the true values of the organization. At kCura, for example, the culture is "team-oriented and personal, and we don't have a lot of politics," says CIO Doug Caddell. A provider of e-discovery software, Chicago-based kCura has about 360 employees. It's been growing rapidly, and Caddell says the company's culture helps foster growth. "It's a competitive advantage," he says, "and we see that when we're recruiting: kCura is really a desired place to come to work."

Before joining kCura, Caddell was CIO at a big law firm, and he says there's a stark difference between the two employers' cultures. "The partners in the law firm are all owners of the business, and everyone thinks they're in charge," he explains.

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Check Your Ego at the Door

How IT Can Help Convey Culture

At Splunk, corporate culture is "something we've taken a lot of steps to protect," says CIO Doug Harr. 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 isn't 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 [approached marketing and] said, 'Go ahead and see what you find,'" Harr says. "It was fun for them to get involved."

The product selected by the marketing team wouldn't have been IT's choice, but key elements, such as multifactor 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," Harr says. "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."

- Minda Zetlin

Before he worked at the law firm, Caddell had a job in state government, which had another culture entirely.

Each employer has different values, and that means they have different ways of communicating about IT. At kCura, "we're in a growth stage, post-startup, and we have improved technology platforms to allow us to grow forward," Caddell says. "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!'" he says. "A lot of that is client-driven, so there's nothing wrong with that." In state government, the value was lowering costs, he adds. "A big part of the conversation was the reduction of full-time employees. 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. Before he took his current job at the Abramson Center, Kelble's employer was a venture capital-backed, midsize 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% in the next quarter.'"

I look at what's happening in healthcare ... as well as what's going to happen five and 10 years from now. I ask how I can build for the future. Dave Kelble, director of IT, Abramson Center for Jewish Life

As is common with VC-backed operations, 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 a mandate to upgrade the Abramson Center's IT 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 three to four years than I did in the five years I was at the other company."

That has changed Kelble's approach to the healthcare industry as a whole. "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 10 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's a different culture in each business unit, location or functional department, 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.

Joe McLaughlin

"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 and Central 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 personality. 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."

There's a personality in an organization. If you try to goagainst it, you do so at your peril. Joe McLaughlin, vice president of IT, AAA Western and Central New York

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, 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 worth learning. "Culture is a difficult thing to grasp," McLaughlin says. "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, you do so at your peril."

Zetlin is a technology writer and co-author of The Geek Gap: Why Business And Technology Professionals Don't Understand Each Other And Why They Need Each Other to Survive. Contact her at minda@geekgap.com.

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