Do you remember the scene in the movie Stand by Me where the kids are walking down the railroad tracks talking about their favorite superheros? One kid thinks Mighty Mouse is the most powerful, another one Superman. Then the discussion turns to the inevitable: what would happen if Superman fought Might Mouse? The answer, of course, was obvious. Since Mighty Mouse was a cartoon and Superman real, Superman would win.
I was thinking about this over the weekend as I had two very different but illuminating conversations. Having worked in both consulting and in IT, I have friends in both camps. In one conversation, I was speaking with a friend who is frustrated that he can't get his IT team to agree to implement software that would (in his eyes) dramatically improve the operations within his team. The IT organization in his company has a significant amount of control over the selection and implementation of systems, and simply will not allow the system he thinks his team needs for success. When I heard this, I started to write about the fact that IT often has more power (although it is informal power) than it should in many organizations, and use this scenario as an example.
Then, on Sunday I talked to a good friend who is an IT director in a local firm. He is struggling with the implementation of new systems and processes which support lean manufacturing for his organization. His big struggle? The Not Invented Here (NIH) attitude. In other words "we've done it this way for 20 years, why do we need to change?" The systems work, and IT is trying to be a partner with the business leaders, but there's a little revolt going on among the people who should be adopting the new processes and systems. In this case, IT is working hard to be a partner to the business leaders, but the culture of the business is getting in the way.
So, to paraphrase the boys from Stand by Me, which is more powerful, IT or corporate culture? At first glance, the answer should be IT, since IT controls the information flow and the data within the organization, and culture is not "real" in the sense that it only reflects shared beliefs or norms. However, at a closer look I think you'll find that in many firms, culture is probably the strongest force for good or for bad in the company.
That's not to say that IT gets a pass. In too many firms, IT has taken on the "Just say no" approach far too easily. I understand that business processes and needs are changing frequently, and that IT is forced to catch up to the latest fads, while trying to keep a functional, operating baseline system. In fact it seems to me that we ought to break IT up in many organization into two teams - one to maintain the existing systems and processes, and one to experiment and work with the functional teams to prototype and evaluate the latest technologies. Then there might be more partnership and understanding of the business needs, and IT would have the staff it needs to keep the existing systems working as they should. After all, when's the last time you thanked your IT team when the email worked and the purchase orders get processes as they should? We have the expectation that our IT should be as consistent and persistent as our electricity or water supply, yet we don't subject those to the sudden rapid changes we expect from IT.
Nope, in our fictional battle, culture wins every time. Culture can defeat just about anything. Ask Hewlett-Packard, whose employees did not like the Compaq merger or Carly Fiorina. Ask Enron, whose employees drank the Kool-Aid and thought they could get away with just about anything. A strong corporate culture can halt any project, end any career it chooses. A strong corporate culture can be a great benefit, but can also be a great curse. All the large manufacturing organizations in our country are learning what a strong set of shared beliefs can mean as they "right size" the organizations. The cultures that expect free health care and "job banks" won't align to new competition very quickly.