IT Culture is a lie.

“It’s a cultural challenge” is quickly replacing “it depends on what you mean by cloud” as my least favorite pabulum in this industry. It’s meaningless, it’s lazy, and absolves us of responsibility for our own work.

“Culture” isn’t inherently useless as a word, it’s just misused. For the average industry panel, “culture” isn’t a bundle of norms or a set of common practices as anthropologists would have it, but a remote and vengeful god that holds in its fickle hands the fate of our projects. It’s a monolith.

For government agencies to adopt mobility… there must be a culture in place that is innovative, agile and disciplined1.

Let’s rephrase this, and you can tell me if this makes sense:

  • “In order to use an iPhone our culture must be innovative.”
  • “I would love to let you build apps for our staff, but our culture is not agile enough.”
  • “Our culture doesn’t have the discipline to use iPads.”

This is culture as scapegoat. It sounds authoritative to refer to an organization’s culture, and in an academic setting it’s perfectly appropriate: culture has a very specific meaning in anthropology and the study of organizations. In this context, though, it’s tantamount to hand-waving.

Monolithic, god-like “culture” teaches IT how to use tools effectively.

Culture is not something that’s done to you. It’s not some external force with its own intentions. Culture is just the bundle of habits that your organization uses to get something accomplished. And changing those habits is precisely the business of an IT leader.

So let’s leave “culture” alone. Let’s instead try “my organization”:

  • “My organization has to change quicker, and have better controls on how mobile devices are used.”

“My organization” can change: it has policies that can be reformed and procedures that can be fixed. “Culture” is nebulous. “My organization” tells us who’s in charge.

…implementing CDM will require a real culture change, so people get used to looking at information in real time2.

That’s not culture change. That’s a change to the operational plan: your staff reacts to events instead of running batch reports. There’s nothing magical about it.

I find “so people get used to looking at information in real time” especially galling. Do you hear the fervent prayer to the god of Culture? Do you hear the distance between whoever’s in charge and that goal? Do you hear his use of the passive voice? This is distancing language, and it goes hand-in-hand with the use of the word “culture”. It creates a sense of powerlessness, as if nobody was responsible. Instead:

“Implementing CDM will require my organization to change, so people are expected to look at information in real time.”

So much better. I will take responsibility for these changes, and my staff are going to be trained and given the tools they need to look at this security information as it arrives. That sounds like a recipe for change. All this talk of “culture” obscures the actual work being done, and who’s responsible for it.

Change, and the ability to change, is at the heart of any IT operation. If nothing changes, IT is a maintenance exercise, a cost center, and the CFO could run it. So when you hear “culture” blamed for a lack of change, you should hear “leadership failure.” Change is not easy, but those in IT leadership have the tools and authority they need to affect those changes. They even have names. We just need to use them.

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One thought on “IT Culture is a lie.

  1. Good point. Leadership’s job is to inculcate suitable norms within the organization. This must include leadership by example. If everyone knows (for example) that a senior VP has had porn filters disabled for his office computer then people don’t take harassment policies seriously. Fortunately many organizations are now beginning to wise up because there are a sufficient number of examples anywhere along the spectrum from bad to disgraceful that are a matter of public record.

    I think this issue needs to see a lot more daylight among a much broader audience. While it might be uncomfortable at first, those working for improvements in gender balance would be more helped by it than those silently or vociferously opposing such improvements. If it became national news headlines people might have to start rethinking their attitudes.


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