Big Thoughts, General Technology

The impact of IT decisions on organizational culture

It’s said that with great power comes great responsibility. Among business functions, the IT group has disproportionate control over what can and can’t happen in an organization.

Let’s take instant messaging as an example. Assuming IT makes the final decision (which is often the case), enabling instant messaging both internally and with external parties can fundamentally change the way a business communicates. But prohibit instant messaging (which still happens today), and the IT organization is fundamentally dictating how communication will take place. That’s considerable power for a business function, and it must be managed carefully.

Should IT dictate how everyone works?

The obvious and most visible control the IT organization has is over product choices. If you’re reading this blog on a work computer, it’s likely you didn’t choose that model yourself. If your software is locked down, I’d guess you didn’t select the browser or the word processor or the email client. Fortunately some organizations allow staff to download applications of their choice, but they are often the freebies, and not the major business solutions. For those there is an approval path and it usually leads back to the IT organization.

Given that the IT organization has chosen many of your basic information tools, it has already predetermined what you can and can’t do.

Advice: Non-IT staff should participate in your standards and product selections process. Also, in addition to understanding what the technology will enable, it’s important to explore and articulate what it will limit.

Is IT enabling or killing ideas?

I’ve written often about the critical importance of IT governance. With all its significant benefits, the risk with IT governance is that it becomes the opposite of what is intended. The process in which a new idea becomes a great new product or solution can live or die with IT. That’s the power the IT organization has within a business. Executives know this and it is often a source of considerable frustration.

IT is often characterized as an enabler. While mostly accurate, to what degree have we acknowledged that through our decisions it can be a limitation? And more importantly, how do we manage that risk?

Advice: Don’t lock your IT governance down. It must be a process that quickly changes as constraints are identified. Stick to the principles but constantly look for ways to reduce friction.

Does your IT organization move fast enough?

Does the IT organization move as fast as the business? Ideally yes, but we all know that the sobering reality is that IT, largely due to its popularity as an enabler (read: demand for IT almost always exceeds supply of capacity), is often a bottleneck. I’ve seen it too many times: a request won’t even make it to IT because there is a perception that it will never get done or at least not get done in a timely manner. If this is the perception in your organization, then IT is stifling innovation. In other words, IT is limiting the possibility of a favorable cultural quality.

Advice: Look for ways to manage and prioritize ideas outside of those deeply aligned with business strategy. It’s important to explore and continuously evolve your processes to be more agile.

Living with your IT decisions

I’ve touched on a few examples here, but it must be clear to you now that almost all IT decisions today can have lasting negative implications (we already assume that we understand the benefits of our decisions). Choices like an ERP suite or architectural decisions around how data is stored and shared can have profound impacts on the ability for stakeholders to make timely business decisions. In many cases, and particularly in our new business environment, these IT decisions can make or break a business.

Smart organizations foster the culture they want. They make deliberate decisions to encourage and discourage certain behaviors. Today, business brand and culture are often intertwined and those that get it right consistently win in the marketplace.

While I believe we recognize the limiting qualities of IT decisions, I’d suggest we’ve insufficiently studied the degree to which those decisions in aggregate can have a large influence on organizational culture.

It might be time to better understand the relationship between the culture of your organization and the IT decisions that are being made.

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