by Clint Boulton

Culture change 101: Collaborate with HR to drive transformation

Mar 05, 20197 mins
Digital TransformationIT LeadershipStaff Management

There's no silver bullet for culture change, but CIOs should consider partnering with their CHROs on technology architectures and processes intended to shape and influence culture.

Define your organization's culture
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CIOs lament change-resistant corporate cultures as one of the biggest barriers they face in executing their digital strategy. But jettisoning unhealthy habits and comfortable modes of operating creates the kind of friction that can kill IT careers.

Changing culture is doubly hard at a time when more than 80 percent of 700 CIOs surveyed for IDG’s 2019 State of the CIO survey say that corporate culture dictates the CIO role. It’s hard to prescribe change, when your job is prescribed for you. It’s sound logic, but it can also seem defeatist for progressive and enterprising CIOs seeking to be agents of change.

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CIOs should avail themselves of an unlikely guiding light: their HR department, who are typically responsible for the mission and values of an organization. Partnering with chief human resources officers (CHROs) can help IT learn how to make technology and process design decisions to steer the desired organizational culture, says Gartner analyst Elise Olding.

For example, enterprise architecture can adopt principles that align to the cultural traits, and when business analysts design processes they can create them with the intended traits in mind. CIOs can work with HR to create diversity and inclusion scorecards, set transparent goals and measure the impacts. Collaborating with HR, Olding says, enables IT to fosters a more transparent, data-driven culture.

Building momentum for change

For IT leaders seeking to steer change, Olding suggests starting small. “If culture is the elephant in the room, the worse thing to do is eat the elephant all at once,” Olding says. CIOs and HR should try a “culture hack,” starting with a small, motivated user group and use it to showcase fast wins and results.

Critical to a CIO’s success is understanding how to align his or her role as an IT service provider with that of being strategic contributors to the business, says Raytheon CIO Kevin Neifert. “If I have a view of how the organization is run that is different from how the organization views me, that creates a tension that will be problematic,” Neifert says.

In his three-plus years at Raytheon, Neifert has taken steps to cultivate a different culture within IT. Approaching his role as a business leader first, CIO second, Neifert has instilled in his staff the idea that success comes from the fulfillment of business objectives, not simply launching a technology solution into production. Such projects typically help the business become more profitable while mitigating risk. “We focus on value delivered to the business,” Neifert says.

Core to Neifert’s philosophy is not treating business line leaders as peers and partners rather than customers, which he says has helped him foster trust and between IT and business lines. Neifert says that transparency, which remains a rarity at a time when most IT departments operate as black boxes, has been a critical part of his culture change. He regularly writes blog posts that reflect personal musings.

Achieving credibility to accelerate digital change

Eighty percent of enterprises will change their culture to accelerate their digital transformation strategy by 2021, according to Gartner. For example, Microsoft CEO Satya Natella’s cloud and mobile-first approach to enterprise software, a massive cultural shift from the company’s desktop operating system-bound business model, has revitalized the company, boosting employee morale and financial fortunes.

The increased emphasis on using technology to drive the digital transformation means CIOs have a huge opportunity to influence culture in an organization, says Ishit Vachhrajani, CTO of A+E Networks.

But CIOs coming into a new company must be acutely aware of the “way things get done” in an organization — the unstated rules that embody corporate culture — and work from there to foster change.

These changes typically include shifts in how people work, collaborate and communicate, which in turn changes the way information flows, bringing more transparency throughout an organization, says Vachhrajani. For example, CIOs can help nudge culture in a new direction by adding self-service capabilities that help improve workflow efficiency or breaking down data silos to facilitate better decision making.

At A+E Networks, Vachhrajani has adopted DevOps delivery models. He’s eliminated the traditional, siloed structure of separate application and infrastructure teams in favor of a “business-focused tech team” that moves in lock-step with every business line. There are “no fences to go around,” he adds. 

Even so, Vachhrajani says that it is crucial for IT leaders to build credibility with the business by providing core systems for email, ERP and operations. “That plays a huge role in CIO’s ability to drive change. If you do that stuff right, you [have the ability] to drive more deeper transformation at the company.”

Tips for the culture-change challenged

Vachhrajani and Niefert have already embarked on their companies’ cultural transformations. CIOs who are just getting started at a company often require a push, yet 50 percent of CIOs said culture remains a barrier to them facilitating digital transformation, says Gartner’s Olding.

Olding offers a three-step process for executing culture change, together with HR.

Shape. CIOs should create deliberate “North Star” attributes that define the organization and lead by example. Neifert, for example, espouses transparency and trust as key attributes in his IT organization. Diversity and inclusion should play a key role here.

Shift. Everyone becomes accountable for being a culture leader or ambassador, which will ultimately make culture change more sticky in the organization. Having staff with different perspectives pull together in the same direction will help the organization catch the blind spots and fill the gaps.

Share. Go viral. Leaders should scale new behaviors so that everyone in the organization sees and understands what’s happening. “As humans we learn through social learning,” Olding says.

Of course, following such broadstroke pearls of wisdom are easier said than done. Olding says that many IT leaders still struggle with the basics of change management. But CIOs are warming to the notion of becoming agents of change, so much so that they will be as responsible for culture change as CHROs officers by 2021. 

That’s already happening at enterprises such as Whirlpool, where CIO Michael Heim occupies one of many key roles in the appliance maker’s Redefine Product digital strategy. “We all play a role in shaping corporate culture,” says Heim. “We’re business leaders with IT accountability, working on business problems. “There is no difference between us and everyone else.”

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