Leadership

Understand behavioral culture of IT teams to help align with business goals

CIOs sometimes get so busy addressing problems with structure, staff skill sets, and effective processes that they fail to recognize the biggest issue: staff behavioral culture.

By Harris Kern

For years, my company has employed assessments, workshops, process owners and champions, and leadership counseling to address the common problems found in IT infrastructures. We’ve accomplished varying degrees of success.

We've helped organizations with poor structures eliminate conflicts of interest and increase efficiencies. And we've helped them add key processes and educate management and staff. But ultimately, the efforts to improve communication, encourage information sharing, boost morale, and improve the quality of the staff’s experience lost energy and suffered from neglect, in some cases dying altogether.

When you’ve exhausted valuable time and resources in tools, processes, and value chains, all with varying degrees of limited success, where do you turn? In the first article in this series, we discovered the root cause of IT departments struggling to perform at various levels: their behavioral culture. To understand how this culture is manifested and learn to begin addressing your real issues, read on.

Follow our series on understanding cultural behavior
The first article in this series, "Examine group behavior to identify causes of nonperformance in your IT department," offers a way to take your own behavioral identity test.

Getting to the root of the problem
One day last year, I was leading a workshop with the technical leaders of an IT client. There were almost 100 problem statements on the wall, and we’d categorized them into themes. The People/Organizational theme had the largest number of problem statements. While analyzing and prioritizing these issues, it became clear to me that many of them were rooted in the simple behavior of the collective staff. But that wasn’t what was being discussed during the analysis.

The debate was over issues of organizational structure, skill sets of the staff, deficiencies in management and leadership, lack of effective processes—everything except the real problem. Finally, I stopped the group and said, “Folks, doesn’t a lot of this boil down to the way we behave and treat each other?” You could almost feel the tension and pressure come out of the group physically, as they collectively sighed and almost in unison yelled, “Yes!”

From there, we changed our focus, made a successful pitch to the CIO, and launched a behavioral campaign that has had more lasting positive impact than any other initiative I’ve seen in my 20 years in this business. You can do the same, but first you must understand the IT cultural identity.

Understanding cultural identity
It’s clear that for every major initiative you undertake that involves organizational change, your results will vary greatly depending on whether you understand the cultural identity of your department and address those issues first. So how do you do this? The answer comes in two stages: awareness and transformation.

First, it’s imperative to fully understand the IT staff members who make up your IT department. In his book, Leading Geeks: How to Manage and Lead the People who Deliver Technology, Paul Glen does a tremendous job of detailing the nature of IT personnel. They:
  • Are highly intellectual people who have been rewarded since a young age for individual achievements.
  • Value other persons of similar knowledge and can be intolerant of others not so.
  • Are attracted to this business solely by the technology and tend to work on technology for technology's sake, not necessarily for business’ sake.
  • Can tend to view data centers and networks as their own personal toy boxes and/or creations of their own artwork.
  • Are introverted by nature, choosing machines over humans and facing challenges in effective day-to-day formal and informal communications.
  • View the business world through what I call the Dilbert filter, which from a certain point of view is a sarcastic view of business, its objectives, drivers, and more importantly, the people who make up the business units.

Now contrast this with the business you support, and you’ll find the distinction to be a sharp one. Table A shows this contrast.
Table A
IT stereotype: The geek
The business IT supports
Is highly intellectual and intolerant of those who do not share the same knowledge.
Does not share the same knowledge and requires tolerance.
Likes technology for technology's sake—Often views the technology as one's own artwork and toy box.
Do not care. Has business needs that technology is to solve—accompanied by statements like, "Can't you just fix this thing?" 
Is introverted by nature—a poor communicator. 
Is extroverted by nature—in desperate need of effective communication from IT.
Views the business through the Dilbert filter.
Views the business through profits and losses—accompanied by statements like, "If we don't make any money, you don't have a toy box."

Further, consider the infancy of the IT industry, technology itself—as a great distraction, and the ever-changing role of IT.

Preparing for change
IT has been around as an industry for only 30 to 40 years. By the late 1980s, legacy systems churned along with high reliability and predictability. Industrial-strength organizations and processes to support the platform had become institutionalized, and businesses relied on them to manage billions of transactions with very little interruption.

But then came that nasty word again, technology. Legacy computing gave way to client-server computing, which quickly grew into full-blown distributed computing, architectures, networks, and operations. Many of the processes that ruled the legacy environment were abandoned in the name of new technology, a new culture, and a new role for IT. Once a necessary cost-center reporting to the VP of finance, IT was emerging as the center of business because the world put a premium on its information and how it was processed, and the technology sector, led by the dot coms, roared through the stock market.

Today, IT is changing again. The business world still puts a premium on its information and processes, but is investing with much more caution. IT departments and leaders find the business casts them in two very different lights: on one side, a cost-center; on the other, a strategic partner to the business.

This is where CIOs find themselves: challenged to prove themselves to the business and with a department made up of staff whose nature and collective identity holds a unique key to meeting or failing at this challenge. Understanding this scenario is the first step toward making a true difference in the behavior of your IT organization.

In the next article in this series, we’ll address the ultimate goal: Changing the mindset, objectives, and behaviors of your organization.

For more information on the Harris Kern Enterprise Computing Institute, visit harriskern.com.

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