The culture thing - From the roots to the lily pads

At yesterday's annual CIO Summit in London, many of the speakers touched on the subject of organisational culture. In fact Staffordshire County Council CIO Sander Kristel even went as far as to claim that the role of CIO is going from one of business change to one of cultural change in the digital era.

But culture is a fluffy, nebulous concept that many people in IT and outside struggle to get a handle on. It's way easier to make changes to the hard stuff - structures, systems and strategies - than the wooly world of culture. In fact, often when organisations say they are making a cultural change, they actually mean that they are implementing things that are counter-cultural (and those changes often fail as a result).

So what is culture? Despite having spent a whole term of my undergraduate life studying the topic, over the years the most useful way of thinking about culture comes in the form of a metaphor that was introduced to me on a management training course. Let's head to the world of the lily pond...

Above the surface of the water in the lily pond float the lilies. The flowers represent the visible artifacts of an organisation's culture - the things that you can see and feel. The lily pads the behaviours that people in an organisation demonstrate to each other and to customers and suppliers.

Below the water the stems of the lilies, invisible from above the pond, represent the attitudes that people hold, and hidden deep in the mud at the bottom of the pool are the roots - the underlying values and beliefs that are at the heart of the culture.

How do these manifest? Well one example that seems to hold pretty true is how the reception areas of organisations paint a picture in microcosm of the organisation behind the barriers.

Whenever I have visited insurance companies, there seemed to have been many more indications of risk and risk mitigation in evidence, from health and safety disclaimers to be signed, to more "Caution Hot Water" signs and the like in the visitor wash rooms that you could shake a towel at. Insurance companies, at their core, are about the successful management and mitigation of risk - that's what make them successful or failures -  and that core culture comes through at the front desk.

Central Government organisations, where I'm spending a bit of time at the moment, seem to have outsourced reception to security contractors. Fairly serious, and sometimes quite intimidating, men and women take lots of details and process your entry. A combination of years of outsourcing of non-core functions to provide benefit for tax payers, risk-avoiding processes, and a sense of importance and security seem to be the underlying values that are at the root of these visible artifacts.

I was a visitor to one of Google's London offices recently, and there the reception processes has been almost entirely automated. Guests enter their details into a big touch screen and their hosts are automatically informed of their arrival. Google's mission to collect every bit of data imaginable becomes realised in concrete form, even if the resulting process is somewhat cold and impersonal as a result.

The benefit of the lily pond model is that it helps to articulate what cultural change might actually require. If you want to establish a deep, lasting change in your organisation, don't just hack about with the visible, above-the-waterline stuff you can see: it'll grow back just as it was. Changing things down in the roots is hard, and takes a long time to have impact in comparison to the visible stuff. Sometimes, maybe, if you want a business to do things differently, it might be a better option to try to match new behaviours and things into the existing cultural context rather than delivering something countercultural.

As digital transformation forces organisations to rethink how they operate and the new communications channels make them increasingly transparent, I think that issues of culture will become increasingly important. Putting some language around that - as the lily pond model does - can help those conversations be grounded in more than the big blob of a word that no-one really understands that deeply.

Copyright © 2014 IDG Communications, Inc.

7 secrets of successful remote IT teams