Culture Trumps Technology

Peter Schooff asked another excellent question today: “Does Strategy always Trump Technology” when it comes to deploying and using a content management system / Enterprise 2.0 system?  This is a very good point, but it should be “culture,” not strategy, that does the trumping.

The reason that I would call it culture, instead of strategy, is that a culture is a set of shared values and behaviors.  A culture might define the strategy that one employs in a particular situation, but the term strategy strongly connotes implicit knowledge and decision, but this needs to move to tacit knowledge and action.  One person might sit down and think up a strategy, but it takes many people a long time to develop a culture.

When I think about the culture change that has to happen, I often compare this with “anti-littering” campaigns.  If I think only about the short term cost/benefit to me personally, one can’t justify the additional effort of using the trash bin.  But we know that in the aggregate that a piece of litter has a small negative effect on everyone else.  Somehow a culture has to learn to convince everyone to take the small effort to throw things in the bin, so that everyone else benefits.  The technology is simply the trash bin, but the presence of the trash bins without the culture to use them would be ineffective.

No project will ever have the “goal” to not litter.  No person will make “not littering” a professional goal.  Instead, this behavior needs to be part of the shared goals that we all buy into simply to be part of something: it has to be part of the culture.

Currently the easiest thing to do to in most offices to communicate with others is to send an email.

See earlier post: Personal Choices Behind Email Flood
And also: Page First, Then E-Mail, Please

It will take a change of culture to get people to the point where they find using content management natural.  Using ECM is never a “goal” of any project, nor will it benefit a single project in isolation.  Instead, using a content repository correctly will benefit everyone else in the organization over time.

Storing my document in a shared repository has little benefit for me (after all, I already have the document) and mainly benefits everyone except me.  The most important thing is a culture change to get people to use it.  Once you have the culture to share, you find that there are many way to share the documents, and the particular technology you use is close to irrelevant.

So yes, culture trumps technology every time.

4 thoughts on “Culture Trumps Technology

  1. Hi Keith, one can make a strategy but only action changes the future. (Sun Tzu). Without the ability to act any strategy is utterly useless. If you need technology to act then it becomes the strategic enabler.

    I agree also on the culture being important but that is truly an intangible. You can neither measure nor intentionally create it. One can however create the opportunity, set an example and motivate. For culture to develop you need the enablers in place. You won’t get people to throw trash into non-existent cans or pick up after their dogs without poop-bag dispensers. You won’t develop a social networking or adaptive process culture without the tools in place. For the technology to be used it has to make people’s lives easier. Not having executive sponsorship (implying enforcement) is the biggest success factor for any project, but monitoring adoption and rejection and to learn from both.

    So my answer is: technology doesn’t trump anything, but you still need to have it.

  2. Keith,

    I actually realized this about 10 years ago when I was creating an assessment tool for collaboration. The tool I created is called TCEP (Technology, Culture, Economics, Politics). Each of the factors are graded on a scale of 1-10 (high), and I gave them progressive weights (1-4) based on my experience of how much each factor was critical to collaborative success in an organization. I have done thousands of these assessments, and it was clear that “culture” (weight of 2) always beat technology (weight of 1). However, both economics and politics often had more impact on collaboration than either technology or culture.

    I found this assessment worked well for most Western cultures. The only place I actually changed the weighting was in Japan; there I gave politics a weight of 2 and culture a weight of 4. I seemed to get better assessment results for Japanese companies after this change.

    So I agree with you, culture always does beat technology!


  3. I have been battling this question for quite a while too. I see no clear cut answer. It is definitely a bootstrap situation. Before effective collaboration tools were available, information flowed hierarchically, because that was the easiest way to spread the information. Over time the technologies for sharing information improved and eventually the behaviors followed.

    Those that create the technology innately see the advantages and behave accordingly. Its all those “other people” that have to learn why they should change. Thus the delay in full adoption. So to your point, the full potential isn’t realized until you get the broad cultural shift, but you have to have the technology in place to facilitate the change.

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