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Ben Brubaker-Zehr | December 14, 2018

Company Culture Is Going Digital

Modern business leaders have embraced the power that culture has in determining company performance. What isn't as well embraced is that the software tools we use on a daily basis have the potential to foster, or detract from the cultures we aim to build.

A lot of recent discussion around culture has made it clear that it isn't about ping-pong tables and employee perks; instead, it's what people first think of when asked questions like "What is it like working at ?". In a similar way, Brand isn't defined as your logo or tagline. Instead, it’s what people think and feel when they hear your name or see your logo. Your culture isn't the company values you print up on posters and hang on the wall - it is the observed behaviors and true working methods of your company. It’s how you make decisions. It’s how you collaborate. It’s how you communicate.

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When you consider this definition of organizational culture, it becomes impossible to ignore the impact  software we use regularly has. For better or worse, work is becoming increasingly digital. The tools that we use need to support the culture we wish to curate.

This article explores three critical ways that software informs our organizational cultures.


Silos and Collaboration


Companies have a habit of using buzz-y phrases when trying to describe how they (wish to) do work.

  • "We are a flat organization"; ormatteo-vistocco-240766-unsplash
  • "We have networked organizational culture"; or
  • "We avoid the silo effect and collaborate".

That's Brilliant! but how do you deliver it?

It's easy to achieve these when you're a startup. The whole company uses Slack, Trello, Google Drive and runs company-wide daily standups. As things scale up, this unified working system  dissolves in favor of purpose-built tools. Each of the functions retreats to its 'best in class' ecosystem to manage this scale. Sales uses Salesforce. Engineering uses Jira and Finance uses Netsuite.  Knowledge that was once well understood and integrated, becomes dis-integrated, and understood by only a small portion of the information. 

Software tools can play a role in supporting these silos but they also have the potential to break them down. Of course, this is not a call to abandon important tools. Rather, merely a invitation to consider the impact that new and existing software has on the way information sharing and collaboration happens, and how that aligns with the desired culture.Each ecosystem claims to have features that will pull in users across the company, yet they are rarely able to engage the full organization in meaningful regular usage. This should be expected; these tools succeeded by being 'best in class' for their target market, not catering to company-wide purpose. Instead, employees feel the cognitive load of trying to remember which of the 'glue tools' like slack channels, wiki pages, shared files, and team meetings is currently being used to keep it all aligned.


Autonomy and Empowerment


Everyone and their mother has seen this Steve Jobs Quote:

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Leaders seek to follow this advice in hopes that it will fend off the misery of bureaucracy and accelerate innovation and growth.

But the smartest person on the planet can't get the right answer if they don't have the right information. Transparency is what ensures employees can be autonomous. Employees need the context of business goals and the current status of operations to make effective autonomous decisions. A company can have the best of intentions to be transparent, but if data accessibility becomes problematic, it doesn't work. This could stem from information silos or poor data accessibility. In either case - the consequence is that your best and brightest are working with incomplete information.

It's only natural under opaque conditions for organizations to act in ways that erode the desired effects of autonomy. They either remain autonomous, and make poor uniformed decisions, OR top-down decision-making hierarchies and bureaucratic processes emerge to protect the company from misaligned and wasteful work.

Let's consider a hypothetical company where intended transparency doesn't actualize. Their financial data is kept in a tool like NetSuite. They configured it so that everyone in the company could log-in for a read-only view. So, this data - it is transparent, right? Perhaps it's exported to a spreadsheet buried on some shared drive that some people know about. This is transparent, right? No - both are opaque, because it's not aligned to the daily workflow of most employees, and not intuitively found by new employees.

Now many say that a Wiki solves this problem. Again, this sounds great in theory but almost all Wikis need a lot of manual curation. This means that they're only as good as the diligence of the people who maintain them. To overcome this, a single interface that's connected to [or integrated with tools that are a part of] the daily life of people, must exist for visualizing:

  • Company Purpose, Strategy & Objectives;
  • How those are organized into work in the form of Programs, Projects, Functions & Teams
  • And how each individual dynamically contributes to that work and shared purpose.

Only with this kind of true transparency can the desired effects of autonomy become realized. Success here depends largely on the mix of technology a company chooses to deploy.


Accountability

Our final culture buzz-word: Accountability. Companies talk about it a lot, especially when missing targets. Few know how to achieve it at scale, without a command and control organizational structure.

We recently heard Huggy Rao, a professor at Stanford and author of Scaling-Up Excellence, talk about the important relationship between Performance -> Accountability -> Transparency.

The trick—and it is a difficult trick—is to design a system where this tug of responsibility is constant, strong, and embraced by everyone, and where slackers, energy suckers, and selfish soloists have no place to hide.

- Robert Sutton & Huggy Rao, Scaling Up Excellence

Huggy's quote is important. It indicates a shift in the way we create accountability. In 20th century companies, accountability was driven through the org-structure and a clear reporting hierarchy. A manager's job was to give work and ensure it's completion. At scale, this approach has far too much overhead for the modern agile organization and fails to strike a balance of autonomy and accountability.

Striking that balance is delicate work. In a digital age, it depends largely on the suite of software tools and IT strategy. A recent conversation with a customer confirmed as much, when they told us that "accountability needs to connect all the way down to the 'raw data' of an employee's day-to-day work."

To achieve this, individual contributions and related work data must be aggregated in a meaningful way, and be made visible company wide; it must be perceived as readily accessible to everyone. If employees feel their contributions are being observed by their peers, it shifts behaviors. They are likely to exhibit the same, much coveted, behaviors of the startup that come from the transparency of one's work being exposed in the morning stand-up.

IT strategy, again, plays a huge role by selecting and integrating the tools responsible for the collection, transposition, and sharing of data org-wide. A thoughtful strategy can ensure meaningful connection into the company's purpose and existing working methods. With this, teams can achieve the often desired culture of accountability in the digital workplace and achieve it at scale.