I work in a field that frequently deals with changing the culture of work through managed change engagements. They are most often aligned to new technology adoption or digital transformation efforts. In all this work, the typical influencers present themselves: people, technology and process.
I’m exploring the first two in this post and assuming people as being synonymous with culture. Mindset is a relatively new component I also delve into. This is an essay capturing recent observations on the changing influence of all these elements. You may get more questions than answers ;)
Recently, I discussed this graph with some colleagues. I introduced the business consideration and staged approach to the other standard considerations. I’m sharing this by way of explanation. To point out that a lot of debate was held over these considerations with no clear and easy conclusion.
In my work, I’m often confronted by the duality of where cause or correlation lie – with culture or with technology. Which comes first and is the antecedent of the other.
This is not by any means a new topic. Take the message or content and what is communicated, which is often an important element of people change management efforts. Marshall McLuhan proposed that in the context of societal change, “the medium (the channel through which a message is transmitted) is more important than the meaning or content of the message”.
He said that a medium affects the society in which it plays a role not only by the content delivered over the medium, but also by the characteristics of the medium itself. Which is to say technology effects society and the culture of that society. Here is another more recent essay that explores this connection beautifully: Technology and Culture Influence Each Other.
How does this play out at work?
Have you ever started working at a company and noticed that what was promised at interview is not the reality? A palpable culture that is noticeably different to the glossy views presented on the website. Have you then begun to notice how much this culture is driven by senior executives?
In workplace change initiatives this is recognised and heavy reliance is often placed on executive stakeholder engagement for success. At Microsoft where I currently work, we have gone through a period of succesful transformation that is largely attributed to our new CEO, Satya Nadella, and how he changed the culture as a leading factor.
On the other hand, in recent cases in Silicon Valley technology companies, the influence of founders has been reported to deeply impact the culture in often negative ways. Take Uber who created a disruptive new technology. A toxic culture at the company was put down to Uber Founder, Travis Kalanick’s personality. I’m not aware of what internal technologies were adopted to support their work but I’m pretty sure technology was used and it went beyond email.
At Microsoft, technology certainly has played a key role. I became a Microsoftie as a result of the Yammer acquisition in 2012 and I know that since then, Yammer has and still does play a large role in the way it has influenced culture change there.
Between culture and technology I’m not sure what plays a leading role. I do know the rise of workplace chat tools and other social technologies like Yammer that are becoming increasingly prevalent, play an increasingly influential role. And not just at technology companies as you’d expect. How they influence culture and how culture influences the conversations going on in them increasingly overlaps. So too the influence of leaders as it trickles down and diffuses itself into the company culture through the technology.
Whichever has a greater influence, these technologies often allow a company’s culture to be laid bare and made transparent. And the sad fact of why so many change initiatives fail is that what these tools embody (openness , sharing, creativity, etc.), is so counter to most work cultures. Cultures formed largely through past modes of work practice and the efforts to conserve them.
At some point I have found that when technology adoption reaches a certain threshold, it can breathe new life into a culture and lead the change.
Other than technology and culture there is mindset. Often talked about these days is having a fixed versus growth mindset. The former is one intent on maintaining the status quo, stuck in old industrial thinking, with entropy and inertia a result. The latter is often focused on being open to new ideas, diffused through digital technologies. In the battlefield of the mind, fresh ideas often win.
The role of ideas
Ideas are formed in peoples minds and then disseminated and evolved by communication and through collaboration. Technology plays a crucial role in that. Culture provides fertile or barren ground on which those ideas flourish or wither.
The Renaissance was a cultural, political, scientific and intellectual explosion in Europe (emphasis mine) – the fluidity of its ideas changing and evolving to match local cultural thinking and conditions. Always remaining true to its ideals but changing the world in just about every way one could think of. It had a kind of snowball effect: each new intellectual advance paved the way for further advancements.
It was intellect wot did it.
I see intellect, ideas and creativity at work playing a similar role in changing things. I believe these to be equally strong factors in influencing culture and the future workplace. I believe an intellectual battle is going on at the moment, not dissimilar to the Renaissance. Essentially between the creative and industrial world views as I see it. I’ve written about his here: The post robotic AI age and the role of creativity and innovation.
I draw a lot of these conclusions based on books like The War of Art by Steven Pressfield. Another is The Icarus Deception by Seth Godin. There are many more. I of course have made my own interpretations and added my own perspectives but if you read the books you would easily recognise the common themes.
Here goes with a brief description of the key differences I have drawn between the two models of work (the old and the new) where I see daily battles being waged.
Difference in new versus old work outputs
Art >< Widget. Art is no longer the preserve of the traditional artist. Anyone imbuing what they produce or how they serve, with a personal expression of beauty, difference or excellence that connects with or impacts other people at an emotional level is an artist. Producing widgets (mostly for a corporation and its stakeholder’s benefits) often is impersonal and has the sole purpose to achieve lowest costs, at scale and then pushing them on markets, regardless of the value they bring to lives.
Cause >< Job. A cause is something someone works towards because of the purpose it brings to their lives. It is often bigger than them and it benefits society on a much grander scale. Personal causes can align with those of an organisation. A job is simply a role fulfilling a broader purpose for a corporation, where profit is often a key driver. The role is often at the expense of the individuals that serve in them.
Idea >< Process. Ideas are the currency of creativity and art. They are the outcome of inspired thinking and at their best are unfettered by commercial interest, at least at their inception. The best ideas inspire at an emotional level first and foremost. Ideas, as the lifeblood of innovation, are often given lip service in corporations, i.e. people are encouraged to come up with them freely. But they often swiftly come up against the boundaries of process and requirements for them to fit into strict corporate criteria. Processes for evaluation, processes for delivery, etc.
Design >< Order. Design has beauty and art in it, it takes into consideration users sensibilities and aesthetics that address context and environment. When something is created only because it fits well into the order of the entity that created it, then it loses value and becomes merely functional.
Differentiation >< Standardisation. The struggle the best people and organisations will need to make in future is to be different. Not just for its own sake but to stand out. In a world of endless choice and diversity, those that are authentically different will stand out. This contradicts the industrial era model where scale and efficiency to meet mass demand required standardised processes, outputs, etc. These approaches no longer work.
Experience >< Task. In the new world of work, an outcome of either a product or service delivered, is often measured in the experience it elicits. What the customer experiences but also the employee. In the industrial world outcomes are often measured in tasks, especially for employees, but even with customers. Once delivered, the product or service is often forgotten unless there is a complaint, then it’s assigned as a task to solve. Experiences last forever.
Connection >< Promotion. A connection is a bond drawn between people based on mutual interest. People are pulled towards one another based on any of the outputs described above. When an output has to be pushed on people regardless of their interest or need then this is simply promoting something for its own ends, not because of its inherent value.
Difference in new versus old work characteristics
Networked >< Hierarchical. The new world of work is flat and people are able to collaborate and create across geographical, departmental and cultural boundaries. Organisational borders are porous and customers are allowed in. In the industrial world there are layers of command and control and these are strictly adhered to. Customers are seen as the end of the chain, not a part of it.
Open >< Closed. The creative world by definition needs to be open because full expression can only be found on the basis of connections. Often outputs are co-created. In the industrial world, protectionism reigns and the default position is to close off access to knowledge, information and people.
Individual >< Corporate. No longer can people be amassed into target segments or restricted to the group or organisation they belong to. Boundaries blur, jobs are no longer for a lifetime, the mighty corporation is no longer invincible. And the power is back in the hands of the individual, even in tough times. Or a group of individuals, unafraid to start-up a company and tackle the behemoths, even re-inventing industries.
Diverse >< Conformist. In the creative world view diversity is celebrated. The long tail is a result of this in that there is endless appreciation for the diverse, even the obscure. On the other hand in the industrial world view, the task at hand is often ever greater conformity or compliance, especially at work.
Humane >< Productive. Humanity and the arts are fundamentally intertwined and it is in our nature to be humane, this is the greatest possible good, the cornerstone of social behaviour. Productivity is not bad per se when it driven by the correct purpose but when it is on the basis of squeezing greater efficiency out of people and processes, at the expense of those people, then the law of diminishing returns starts operating.
Interesting >< Coherent. Often with art or creative output, perfection is not the goal (it being in any event in the eye of the beholder). What can often only be hoped for is eliciting interest and at best a connection, on a mass scale or with the right audience. On the other hand, the industrial world view craves coherence or order. Sense making is not bad but when everything has to fit in or f@&*k off, then it is.
Risky >< Secure. The abiding theme of our times is the risk that we live with and the efforts we should make to avoid it. This suits the captains of power because this way their models and businesses will remain unchallenged by those unwilling to take risks. But in the timeless words of Helen Keller, nothing is secure….. It is only through taking great risks, and overpowering vulnerability and shame that we will strive and create new work or businesses worthy of our promise.