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. 

Hinduism with Spine

Swami-Vivekananda

Hinduism is often portrayed as a religion of peace and pacifists. Its legion of world shunning monks and yogis(the genuine ones anyway), reinforce this perception. Sometimes its not even a religion but an Eternal Dharma, a rule of living rightly that goes beyond the worship of its hundred thousand gods.

But all this other-worldliness, the excessive disregard of the world and the adoration of the Eternal and all its manifestations has had an unfortunate side-effect. And that is of lacking a spine, or a true measure and understanding of its own identity.

Origin of our Weakness

I would not be an expert to categorically state whether it was the many hundred years of Muslim rule, or the many hundred years of British rule, or perhaps a weakness that predated both these aggressors that allowed these aggressions to happen. But bottom line we have turned out to be a people lacking a spine.

We spout words about our ancient culture that we have no effing clue about. When our brothers from other religions convert our folks we quote the constitution that allows conversions. When more of our brothers from other religions of peace slaughter us, we quote mantras for peace and convince ourselves to let bygones be bygones. After all an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind, as a leading light of the nation had said. When one of us decides to give others a taste of their own medicine we are the right wing!

Don’t get me wrong. If you know me or attempted to read and understand what I have written you will know am all for universal brotherhood and I mean it sincerely. But each culture has to stand up for itself, no one else will come to its aid. Or we will go the way of the Tibetans, the Mayans and all the other peoples that have perished under the onslaught of more ignorant cultures.

Do we understand our religion?

Each of us who profess to be Hindus will have to understand our heritage truly. Not the crap shown on TV serials, or the clueless nonsense spouted by the traditionalists, or the ones that give you certificates. Nor should we believe that spirituality is to be done at the last stage of life, it is such moronic thinking that has given rise to a nation without spine. That allows some so-called secular element within our founding members to interpret our subtle notion of universal brotherhood as a free for all, to come and do as they please. Enough is what I say.

What we need

From now, let each of us vow to understand our identity and our true heritage by going back to the original sources, the Vedas, Upanishads and the Puranas. Not as intellectuals, not to spout verses without understanding or realizing them. But as students and aspirants to the living truth of these scriptures, the One Divine who transcends everything.

The Method

I want us to do this not as Sanyasis or renunciates, not as intellectuals far removed from reality, not as arm-chair custodians of our heritage. I want us to uphold our values in the thick of material life. To build out the wealth of our nation again and not to see Narayana in poverty alone. To create art that once again captures the myriad infinities of the soul’s beauty. To engage our brothers in strength and pride of our identity and heritage. To churn out perfection in every thing we do and take our place once more at the forefront of civilizations.

The Impediments

It is not easy, this double mode of existence. Long has been our enslavement, impoverished our spirit and our members weak. A little wealth and little success rocks the boat of our pride too much. We are as children, who go into rapture at the smallest bauble. We are not a nation of Arjunas and Ashokas anymore. Even our villains are not fit to take the world stage, we have no strength to even do evil on a grandiose scale. Our Balis and Hiranyakashipus are just myths now.

But this need not be the case anymore. And it can start with us. Today. Let us reconnect with the Self within, in our own way. A little perfection in all that we do, a little service to elevate humanity, a little strength to stand up for our identity and a lot of humility is all it takes to offer as sacrifice to the immanent Divine.

The Guide

After all, as Sri Aurobindo states, “He who seeks the Divine is sought by the Divine”. Let us offer our works, paltry though it be, and Sri Krishna shall be with us. We have endured a lot until now, it is time for us outgrow our limited self-conception.

This post is dedicated to Swami Vivekananda.