Technology and Culture

According the Gartner’s 2018 CIO Survey, 46% of CIOs believe culture is their number one barrier to achieving successful digital transformations. While technology changes virtually every second, human nature, maybe not quite so fast.

Looking up the definition of “culture,” they all mention shared values. These values are the foundation for a way of life—with integrity, trust, and empathy for each other—and it’s passed on. But what strikes me is that, in addition to shared values, truly great cultures are centered around a common goal—or vision—that all members strive for.  

A bad corporate culture is built on shaky ground— one that is often stubborn and difficult to uproot even as it infects everyone involved. Even if it is senior executives who perpetuated a detrimental, toxic culture, once established, it’s no longer a top-down paradigm—it is planted in all who participate.

Changing the culture is not often as simple as merely removing the head. The hydra will eventually sprout more. There must be a consensus among the organization that the culture is undesirable, which can then lead to a conscious effort to replace it, sometimes from the ground-up.

A simple example of a great team culture has been illustrated by Peter Skillman's Marshmallow Design Challenge, where the goal is to build the tallest structure in eighteen minutes with twenty pieces of uncooked spaghetti, one yard of transparent tape, one yard of string, and one marshmallow placed on top. Engineers, architects, CEOs, and business students from leading business schools all over the world attempted this in teams of four. Unfortunately, this wasn’t a fair fight as they were pitted against their fiercest opponent: kindergartners. The CEOs were bested by kindergartners and, in every instance, the business students lost, and lost badly.

The kindergartners had many advantages from the start. They were operating from a safe place with no unwritten rules. This is a huge advantage over adults who are reluctant to step over boundaries, even when they don’t exist. Who can blame them? I’m sure I might not want to touch someone else’s uncooked spaghetti. But the kids, feeling secure they wouldn’t miss recess, got right to work “prototyping,” or what we might call “failing fast” in a highly collaborative fashion. Unlike their more educated colleagues, the kids didn’t concern themselves with status. Choosing a leader of the marshmallow challenge is something only adults would contemplate. Almost all the adults considered optimal designs at the outset, which is something kindergartners didn’t waste time on. They simply dove in and began trying stuff, working in parallel, unselfishly helping and iterating after each failure until they formed structures many inches higher than their older competitors.

But what does the act of constructing a tower with a marshmallow on top have to do with technology and culture?

Let’s take culture first. I submit that the kindergartners exhibited great teamwork—a combined effort where every member contributed unselfishly, working together in a parallel fashion with trust. The resulting sum of their efforts far exceeded their individual skill or level of education.

You can define values and beliefs, set expectations, hire the best, and still create a very stifling culture.  But, if people buy into the vision (challenge), feel safe, empowered, aren’t restricted from working closely and unselfishly with each other, and can openly communicate what works and what doesn’t, a trust will build. With that, a set of behaviors can form the basis for a great culture that not only amplifies the team’s capability, but also helps it to evolve and become self-reinforcing.  

Now let’s take a look at how this applies to the world of technology.

The role of the CIO, which used to be an IT delivery function, has evolved into a business transformation role. It often appears that their principal concern is how to achieve this aspirational goal—the ability to continuously reinvent processes and innovate faster with organizations that are set up much like the business students in the Marshmallow Design Challenge. They are challenged with how to transform organizations divided by formal organizational barriers and rigid processes which can stifle creativity and slow change.

To be more specific, organization’s face more than just cultural challenges. It’s largely about enterprise change—the ability to organizationally transform the business and its operating models as well as the way people work. This is where technology should help. I think the real issue with digitally transforming an organization is putting together a coherent strategy to transform the way product data is managed across the multidisciplinary domains, end-to-end across the lifecycle, and throughout a dynamically changing supply chain.

Digital disruption is the new norm—changing the way we live and work. The confluence of new technologies and the ability to collaborate creates new expectations, new market opportunities, and new competitors. The pace of this will only continue to accelerate.

Innovations today are all about technology, which is dependent on an agile, adaptive culture that is able to implement, maintain, and adjust with it. This is where culture and technology co-mingle.

Aras as an example, is modern industrial platform with applications and underlying platform services that span the lifecycle. This allows people to collaborate across domains instantly versus users on older technologies where they and the data are segmented by architecture.  With a platform architecture, it enables users to work in a parallel fashion and in a more connected manner, which should help their culture. 

However, because technology changes faster than even the most adaptable corporate cultures, it is incumbent on leadership to make sure they are investing in the right technologies— specifically around openness, flexibility, and the ability to upgrade. Technologies can become entrenched in an organization, along with the people to support them, so replacement of both existing systems and people is often a costly and harrowing endeavor. Newer technology, is not in and of itself a guarantee of  more/better functionality or longevity. To compete in this new digital landscape, you must be nimble and provide exceptional experiences, not just for your customers, but also for your suppliers and employees.

As we design and produce more complex, multidisciplinary, smart, and connected products, I believe the technology we use to design and manufacture these products impacts corporate culture just as technology impacts each of us in our everyday lives. If employees are given a platform that allows them to work in parallel, to work collaboratively across domains, up and down the lifecycle and across a dynamic supply chain, I believe any leader with empathy and vision can set the bar high.

You may not be designing marshmallow structures, but if you want to unleash the creativity and efficiency the way kindergartners do, begin by using open digital industrial end-to-end platforms that can help you connect, augment, replace older technologies, and connect people to help you do that.  Check out www.aras.com for more.

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