Monday, 2 November 2009

Culture, (Vultures), Values & Ethics

If I had a pound for every time I’ve read the word “culture” in relation to ITSM I’d probably have no need to set up Fairday Research Limited; I’d have bought myself a villa somewhere tropical and picturesque and would be having a very nice time thank you very much. OK, clearly I’m exaggerating. Organisational culture is talked about a great deal but I certainly haven’t read a million articles on the subject; probably not even ten thousand - and there are very few (i.e. zero) luxury villas on available in the ten-thousand pound price range. Right; I’ll try to keep my tangential meanderings to a minimum this time out; the point is that ITSM ‘thought leaders’ and others do bang on about ‘culture’ and ‘culture change’ quite a bit.

I often ask myself, do these people ever stop to ask themselves what it is that they mean by ‘culture’? And if they’re so keen to change it how do they measure it before and afterwards to ensure that their intervention has been successful? Edgar Schein, professor at MIT and a greater mind than many who have mused on this topic (Joanne Martin excepted), outlined in a 1990 paper the difficulties of measuring and even understanding culture. His view of organisational culture was almost Freudian in that he suggested three layers to this phenomenon: 1. the outer, observable artifacts 2. the values and 3. the underlying assumptions that formed the core of any particular culture. He warns (as do other commentators) of the risks of messing with culture because the surface outcomes may not always be what you expect.

Many therefore prefer to talk about and measure climate. I often suspect that this is what many of the ITSM commentators actually mean when they talk about ‘culture’. Climate is the observable surface-level stuff. For example the proclivity of managers in organisation X not to expound a vision to staff, rather to simply issue edicts via email. Or the cynicism of technical employees in organisation Y who are change averse and believe that customer interaction is for service desk staff only.

Schein’s and others’ warnings about messing with organisational culture make sense, but that is not to say that culture doesn’t exist – it does. However I agree wholeheartedly with the professor about the difficulties of understanding any organisational culture but this doesn’t make it any less real. Incidentally Schein's preferred approach to measuring and understanding culture involved using ‘thick’, qualitative methods, for example ethnographic studies, or detailed structured interviewing of members of an organisation.

Would you believe that the above is the preamble? If you’ve stayed with me this far you’ll now be treated to the main course. I’m actually less interested in discussing the measurement of culture. What is causing me to take fingers to keyboard is Schein’s ephemeral inner layers; those underlying values and assumptions. Organisational culture doesn’t exist in its own bubble, cut off from the rest of society. It exchanges assumptions and values with the world beyond the organisation. I’m no sociologist or anthropologist but perhaps many of you will agree with my conjecture that one of the powerful values in our contemporary society is the need to accumulate wealth.

“I mean, d'oh!” some of you may be saying, “that’s capitalism innit?”. Yes of course the aim of companies in our market economy is to maximise shareholder return (I’m no economist either so my grasp of such stuff is pretty elementary). However there have been organisations that have tempered this basic tenet of the market economy with ethical values and concerns. For example the Quaker chocolate manufacturers Rowntree and Cadburys believed in looking after their workers in the 19th century. For these companies the underlying value was not simply profit at the expense of everything else. Moreover in the contemporary era organisations such as the Cooperative bank appear to follow a similar model. I have two friends who work in service delivery positions in this organisation and by all accounts it’s quite a nice place to spend one's working day.

In my experience - and perhaps in yours too - ITSM organisations are ostensibly driven by cost concerns: i.e. outsourcing, and job simplification via increasingly directive processes. The trend appears to be to treat workers in an ever more mechanistic fashion. These human resources often appear to be regarded as an annoying and profit-sapping necessity to be jettisoned at the earliest opportunity. Even one respected commentator and IT head-honcho whose blog I admire, recently gleefully outlined a future where IT staff in countries such as the UK may cease to exist; made obsolete by a combination of “free” web/cloud services and outsourcing.

Consider this: the blind rush for profit led to the banking crisis and the near-depression that we are inching our way out of. Positive values and ethics, far from being problematic to these organisations may have saved the skin of some those who fell. Thus I would say to short-term thinkers and those driven solely by costs/profits in our industry: when our data centres have all been moved to ‘cheaper’ developing economies, what are you going to do in 15 years time when those countries start charging top dollar for their services? If the dreams of some are realised and the IT workforce in the UK has been decimated by the offshoring mania we’ll be in a similar situation to that which our energy industry finds itself. ‘Energy security’ is a recent but worrisome term – someway down the line it’s possible that a similar fate may await our technical industries if the vultures’ agenda prevails.

However that’s all economics and politics, I hold no particular expertise in either field - the above is my opinion. My main point is about organisational culture. Perhaps this is pipe-dream territory but I think that it would be nice if some ITSM organisations introduced values and ethics beyond that of the balance sheet into the workplace. George Cadbury and Seebohm Rowntree managed just that in the highly-competitive 19th century and the enterprises that they ran are still going strong today. Ricardo Semler, Gore, and Google have all demonstrated the success that can be achieved when employees are not treated as units, and are given the freedom to think, innovate and perform. But it’s not just about profit, let’s bring some positive human values back into the IT workplace.

I mean, can we please have some real cultural change.

1 comment:

  1. Peter,

    "recently gleefully outlined a future where IT staff in countries such as the UK may cease to exist; made obsolete by a combination of “free” web/cloud services and outsourcing"

    Oh, I hope I wan't "gleeful". I do really feel for those who are going to be made obsolete by the new world order.

    I think the point of my comments was that it is happening - yes largely due to money - and that IT professionals ought to realise this and start to take steps.

    They should take the step of realising they need to move up the value chain because the commodity stuff won't be very lucrative any more.

    I quite take your point that there are ways for this to happen which are more humane, and more consistent with a values driven culture. Organisations which are already good at that stuff will likely be good at it in this new context as well, I suspect.