Organisational Culture and Tools

WSJ did an interview with Ben Fried, Google’s CIO, recently on how internal IT tools impact organisational culture. Several pertinent points were covered, and here are some that struck me, along with my 2 cents.

CIOs need to understand the cultural thing—they define the culture of their company by the technology they give to their employees. So much of the culture stems from how we work.

The statement of fact that culture is an outcome of how we work is not recognised enough. On one end management often wishes their teams were more nimble in their execution but do not provide the support structure and the tools necessary to accomplish it. In balancing between predictability and speed, traditional organisations often choose predictability. Of course, few modern enterprises like Netflix, Amazon and Google seem to have mastered being predictably nimble and it shows in the kind of tools they have built and even open-sourced. 

The right thing to do is to help people be as productive as possible, and the way to do that is…to understand the toolset that people who come to work every day know how to use…and want to use. To the best of your ability, you need to give them that toolset. When you do that, it creates a completely different organizational culture.

 When people feel like they aren’t part of the decision-making process, they feel treated like children, they feel resentful and you find examples of belligerent compliance. When people feel like they have had a say, like they have been empowered, you get collaboration and cooperation.

Could not agree with this more than I do now. Winning organisations aim to reduce friction, and tool choice is such a critical part of enabling people to executing on business goals. Just remembering SharePoint intranet portal gives me shudders! Or how many hoops we had to go through to get a space on the corporate data centre, as compared to situation in a start-up where virtual instances are made live on-demand on AWS in a couple of minutes. 

So how do these organisations support the technology diversity that emerges? 

We can’t afford to have technology support where there are cookbooks and rules and every possible change is documented in advance. The people we hire to do support are more like systems administrators in another company. The first responder closes the ticket over 90% of the time in my organization.

That completely nails it. Instead of hiring the resource you can get and having them follow documented processes, they hire people skilled enough to be systems administrators and have them address complexities that arise. There is minimal documentation but the skills make up for this deficiency! Am sure this approach would be shot down in a traditional setup. Of course it would cost more to hire such a person but the agility that results more than makes up for the cost. 

On a side note, in taking our CollabLayer product to market I have noticed this culture aspect cropping up. Traditional organisations, with investments in tools like SharePoint Portal, find it a culture shock to have our system bubble up semantic connections implicit within their content. Their first question often is whether we are secure! Our system obeys security rules in highlighting semantic connections in content but still older cultures take a little time adjusting to increased transparency.

As a contrast, smaller teams who need to accomplish more with less people love our approach to managing content & conversations around them and insight discovery. Guess it boils down to what Ben mentions, culture does stem from how we work, and tool choice is a factor in this equation. 

Check the whole interview with Ben Fried, worth mulling over whether your organisation can benefit from such an approach.