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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.

By Minda Zetlin
March 10, 2014 06:30 AM ET

Computerworld - 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
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
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
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



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