The business of culture change in the tech industry

I had interesting chats with customers and colleagues recently that I wanted to capture and share. The context was enterprise collaboration technology but I also wanted to expand a little on the increasing business of technology’s influence on culture more broadly and vice versa. It probably raised more questions than answers.

Culture change in the enterprise

The conversation below was had with a customer and then followed by some internal discussion. I have paraphrased and cleaned up some parts but the essence remains.

Customer
We need the ability to delete chat message history from Microsoft Teams Meetings or remove participants because in some of them (amongst senior executives) members join and are privvy to conversations before and after the meeting that they shouldn’t be.
Me
As you might expect, I believe more thought should be given to the cultural and open collaboration side. Sensible modern work thinking is that open collaboration and communication is the default and that people should be trusted with information and persistent and accessible chat is there by design to support this. To create exceptions to this leads you down a rabbit hole of doubt and closed and silo’d communication/collaboration that drives a culture further in this direction.
Me
Culture at [customer] is going to be a beast that either defeats them or us or both.
Colleague
It is a battle which we should rather not join. Some tussles – yes but not trying to change them. That isn’t possible.
Me
Well that is also our business – why train in change management then which we have done and is a massive industry for good reason? It has to be our business because if our customers don’t change [their culture] they wont be our customers anymore, they will be like the proverbial dead parrot.
Colleague
our job is to SUPPORT and COACH their culture change. you cannot change the culture from externally if the “patient” does not want to be changed. That is the first insight as a medical doctor with drug addicts. Any therapy for any drug dependency only works when the patient wants to change by himself. And even then the success numbers are fairly low. Of course, you still have to support that therapies but you have to be realistic about the success rates.
Me
Agreed about the patient wanting to change but my point is we have a vested interest in the patient changing too and we cannot just go 🤷‍♂️ The doctor has to have a real interest and make a real effort to help change the patient, at least a good doctor or what’s the point. And if a doctor has too many patients that don’t change, he will probably no longer remain a doctor
Colleague
No comment, yet…

Its a valid request (to govern conversations). Microsoft even enable it: Retention policies in Microsoft Teams is one way and the screenshot shows the user option in standard chat functionality.

How far to go is the question. As per my first response in the conversation, I guess it depends on what you want to achieve. Every choice has consequences.

Intervention is the key. Nudge theory was popularised in recent decades but social engineering has probably been around a lot longer. Change Management is predicated on intervention and as an industry is growing massively.

I’m not saying my arguments above were right. I’m intrigued by the thought and caught between the choices. Where does the balance lie between a genuine desire to help others and self interest, in some cases even self preservation.

Also, what is the difference between human intervention and the more subtle interventions imposed by the technology that we use every day. And how much of the influence technology imposes is there by design, by its human creators.

Culture change in society

Let me start with a video by Michael Wesch, Assistant Professor of Cultural Anthropology, Kansas State University. This video (published Jan 2007) inspired and influenced me massively at the time.

The essence of the message is we are teaching the machine. Also, the “machine is us” as it uses us to become more intelligent. All good so far.

This was at the advent of Web 2.0 and the social web around about the time Facebook started its meteoric rise.

It was a fantastically prophetic view. Especially its closing remarks:

We will need to rethink a few things, copyright, authorship, identity, ethics, aesthetics, rhetoric, governance, privacy, commerce, love, family, ourselves.

What could probably not have been foretold (to such a degree) is what has come to be since that video was made: the machine is teaching us.

Now we know there is a fascinating interplay between technology and the culture it creates. And we know how culture can influence the technology it creates.

What comes first?

With AI opening up a new frontier in the use of and interplay between humans and technology, Microsoft firmly believes humans must come first. They are doing a lot to build this into its technology – more here (disclosure).

The Silicon Valley types that created the platforms and systems with consequences unimagined more than a decade ago, may or may not have intended those consequences.

Intentional or not, now that we know of some of the consequences, what hand do we play as humans?

Some would argue that certain technology companies are now in the business of changing society. It is in their interest that users become immersed in the technology, sucked in, dependent on it even. Eyeballs and clicks generate revenue for an advertising driven business model.

For me it depends on the culture and society we want to create which is in all of our interest. We are all in the business, so to speak.

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