Hero Syndrome: Why Internal IT and Outsourcing Cultures Clash

The "stay up all night, do anything for the user" hero culture of corporate IT may win friends in the business, say outsourcing consultants at TPI and Compass, but it won't yield real business-IT alignment. And it makes it almost impossible to succeed at outsourcing.

Everybody loves a hero, particularly in IT—that talented professional willing to twist himself in knots to please his users and work overtime to get the job done. Most corporate IT organizations actively recruit, reward, and retain those willing to repeatedly save the technological day.

But internal IT organizations wind up paying a high price for that hero culture particularly when they decide to outsource to a third party, says consultants at outsourcing consultancies TPI and Compass Management Consulting (recently acquired by TPI's parent company). The internal culture inevitably clashes with that of the service provider, which values process discipline, predictability, and consistency. Higher costs and lower productivity often result.

Even those IT organizations that never outsource suffer under a superman regime, say Todd Dreger, partner in TPI's operational strategy practice and Bob Mathers, principal consultant with Compass.

CIO.com talked to Dreger and Mathers about the origins of the hero IT culture, the value of the rare provider that resists it, and what happens when cultures collide.

CIO.com: You say that most corporate IT organizations built around a "hero" culture—one that values responsiveness, commitment to quality service, and individual initiative to solve user problems? Does that culture serve internal IT well?

Todd Dreger, Partner, TPI's Operational Strategy Practice: Hero cultures usually develop unintentionally. IT organizations of many Fortune 500 companies seek to recruit the top talent. They look for people with ambition, drive and passion for customer service. These individuals tend to serve a very demanding business. This usually requires reacting quickly to issues or requests, staying up all night or working all weekend. Business and IT management often applaud this behavior and reward it with gifts or promotions.

When this approach is successful, the IT people become part of the business team. A negative consequence is that visibility into incidents and problems is often lost as the business contacts staff in IT directly to resolve issues or concerns, rather than working through a process. And guess who they call? The hero. Success and reward are the motivation. Others in IT pattern the behavior. The result is a culture based on heroics.

Managing business user expectations, adhering to process, and proactively managing problems is contradictory to this culture. While the relationships with business may be good from an IT perspective, we often find little alignment to the business. Projects routinely over-run their budgets and schedule, and the business often cites a lack of innovation provided by IT and inflated cost structure or chargebacks.

CIO.com: How does that hero culture clash with an IT outsourcer culture? How and when do those clashes tend to play out?

Dreger: The outsourcer culture is built around process discipline, consistency, and repeatability. It has to be that way in order for the outsourcer's business model to be profitable. Specifically, outsourcing works when you can bring in relatively inexperienced people to run things.

The way it usually plays out is that the client culture prevails, because you've got the dynamic, talented leaders in the client organization competing for cultural dominance with the relatively inexperienced staff of the outsourcer. This is especially true with some of the offshore providers, who have undergone significant growth in the last five years. They have a lot of young and inexperienced staff who often aren't equipped to push back on the client and say, 'We need to follow the process here.' Instead, they adapt to the reactive, hero approach.

Bob Mathers, Principal Consultant, Compass Management Consulting: This culture clash is fairly well-recognized, at least among companies that have been through outsourcing a few times. It's not so much the vendor's fault as it is a clash of organizational styles that should have been reconciled before switching services over to the vendor. What is still surprising is that even organizations that recognize the dangers ahead of time don't appear to be willing or able to do anything about it until it becomes a big issue well into the contract.

This clash is one of the biggest drivers of client dissatisfaction with outsourcing in general, because the vendor appears to be rigid and difficult to deal with and changes from that structure cost more money. Clients cite this structure and discipline as one of the reasons they wanted to outsource in the first place, they just don't always appreciate what that means for the organization.

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