The Impact of Culture and People

Robert N. Phillips
CEO, Lasotell Pty Ltd.
www.lasotell.com.au

Our company has worked in a wide variety of fields—pharmaceuticals, biotechnology, information technology (IT), radio communications, telecommunications, defence, and television. It is interesting to make comparisons between the different jobs and to consider what intangible factors seemed to play a part in the progress or outcome of the work. Two of the most striking factors appear to be the culture of the company and the real background of the people contributing to the work.

Generally speaking, the IT and telecommunications industries seem to have the most negative cultural impacts. It is interesting to observe how long the culture of an organisation can persist after the circumstances of an organisation have changed significantly. There is nothing new in that observation. The sad thing is how much management underrate the cultural impacts on the day-to-day progress of the business. It is evident even in the simplest of things.

For example, there is solid, statistical evidence based on years of research that 65% of the test population (that was slightly biased to higher education) had good comprehension of material written in Times Roman whereas only 12% had good comprehension of material written in sans serif fonts (such as Arial). It is interesting to note that Rupert Murdoch (News Ltd) spent $5 million to determine that Times Roman was the most readable font for his newspapers. The implication of these findings is that any company that distributes information in sans serif fonts risks failing to communicate adequately with nearly 80% of its intended audience. (The data also means that if you want 100% comprehension in your audience, printed material, on its own, is not enough.)

Yet despite being faced with real data of this kind, most of the staff of companies that have sans serif print standards won’t take the matter to the senior management (who for some reason are always the ones who set such policies). And those who do try to push the matter, more often than not, are told, “But I think Arial looks nicer.” If you went to the same senior manager and said you have a never-been-known-to-fail twinge in your right big toe that means the company share price will drop 10% within 10 days, you would be killed in the rush to put counter measures into place. (If you doubt that statement, ask yourself how market pundits make their predictions—it certainly is not on the basis of statistical research.)

So the reality is that much of the culture and indeed many of the standards and policies in a company are driven by the “religious” beliefs of, basically, one or two people, which raises an even more interesting question as to the real value, place, or purpose of a standard that is based on the “religious convictions” of one individual. Given the earlier comment that the culture often lingers long after the circumstances that created it have changed, it is no wonder that large organisations lose management flexibility and agility.

The other predominant factor in the progress or outcome of work seems to be the real background of the people. One of the great weaknesses of the IT industry, in general, is that far too much work, and eventually authority, comes to be vested in people who do not have backgrounds that support the job titles thieved from the professions. Terms such as architect and engineer are generally bandied around far too freely in the IT industry and the difference becomes starkly apparent when one works with real engineers and real architects. These people have the professional qualifications and work history that traditionally accompanies such titles. That is not to say that no one with those titles in the IT industry has similar professional qualifications and work history.

The difference is that those who have the necessary professional standing to set up office and render professional services to the public are trained in a code of practice, discipline, and approach as part and parcel of their education. It is second nature for them to apply far more of the practice of their professions than those with the generic engineer and architect titles in the IT world. The IT people always talk about it, but they so seldom do it. In our experience in working on projects dominated by traditional engineers, with projects of similar work-year efforts and similar budgets as IT projects, the progress of the projects, the levels of stress, and the project culture are markedly different from the IT varieties. It is not that the IT people do not know about the correct approaches; they just do not apply them with the same rigour.

Obviously the process maturity of the IT industry is still a long way from that of the traditional, professional engineering profession. But why does the industry collectively not learn? Is it because it is still young enough to remember the scallywags and the legends of the industry’s birth? If so, does that imply that only time will bring the necessary maturity to the industry? That implication is too hard to figure, but it is certainly worth thinking about what it means for trying to move any organisation, and IT organisations in particular, to adopt best practices. A useful point to bear in mind is that traditional engineers and architects are potentially very strong process champions and hence useful to have on your side in the long haul of making cultural and process change.

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