Attention CIOs: Prepare to Lead the Way on Culture

Over the past six weeks, I have traveled many miles, visited many CIO watering holes, sat in on several CIO campfires (such as the Society for Information Management conference in San Diego and the Strategies for Electronic Commerce program at Carnegie Mellon University) and listened to many voices.

In each interaction, as the libations began to take effect and the campfire embers burned down, the conversation inevitably turned to the next major career/skill/competence mountain CIOs will be asked to climb: the "culture-carrier, culture-champion, culture-maker" mountain.

"Say what?" you might react. But I'm absolutely serious. The canon being preached on the rubber-chicken circuit posits that while CIOs may have been hired for the depth and breadth of their technical résumés, they're judged on their business ability. This is old news, similar to saying dinosaurs were big and slow. It was once true but no longer is of any actionable significance.

We're ever so closer to a day when culture will be the bait used to lure employees, seduce investors and drive stock prices. And it will become the responsibility of CIOs.

Many firms have strong cultures - L.M. Ericsson Telephone Co., Southwest Airlines and General Electric Co. come immediately to mind. Some have very cool cultures - Joie de Vivre Hospitality in San Francisco and ISpheres Corp. being prime examples. There are Mediterranean and Nordic cultures. Silicon Valley is believed to have a culture all its own. And for every culture, there is a counterculture, such as hackers and practitioners of digital security.

We know culture exists and is important. Even Luddites will acknowledge that technology has an impact on culture. The more extreme among them complain that we live in a technopoly, a global monoculture in which all forms of life are subordinate to technology.

A first-order question on culture would be: Can cultures be created, nurtured and, when necessary, modified? Do we have the managerial skills or tools to do this? Who should be doing this Dr. Frankenstein-like tinkering with culture? Search the organizational chart and try to figure out where responsibility for culture lies in large organizations today. It ain't HR. They are quislings-in-waiting poised to turn state's evidence against employers to comply with a ludicrously long and tragically misguided body of employment law.

Who's responsible for culture? Nobody. Students of CIO-ology (the science of CIOs) will be the first to point out that when a tough job lies unclaimed, it typically comes to roost at the feet of the CIO. Remember re-engineering, ERP and the first move to the Web? Ready or not - the culture job is coming your way. Thought re-engineering was rough? ERP tough sledding? Well, roll up your sleeves, because managing, nurturing and modifying culture isn't a walk in the park.

Still don't believe me? Pete Solvik, the teddy-bear-adorable CIO/quasi-pitchman for grizzly-aggressive Cisco Systems told a gathering of some 150 CIOs that culture is Job 1 in the New Economy (my phrasing, not Pete's).

The current research regarding the migration of large organizations from lipstick-on-a-pig Web trivialities to transformed Internet corporations indicates that one best practice is the establishment of a "cultural transformation program." Culture must be addressed explicitly. And the CIO is the dude/dudette who's going to "do" culture.

How many of you feel ready to tackle the Master of Culture challenge? How many of you understand that culture is something that can be measured and understood? If you were to consult a dictionary to try to tie down what this culture beastie is all about, you would find one definition being "the set of shared attitudes, values, goals and practices that characterizes a company or corporation." So, it's both a thing and a process.

My advice: Get busy doing the culture thing, and put in place a process to help you do it.

Thornton May is corporate futurist and chief awareness officer at Guardent Inc. in Waltham, Mass. Contact him at