How to drive a value chain culture?


In a previous article, “Digital Transformation Demystified”, I came to the conclusion that the hard problem is not so much mastering technical challenges, but change the culture towards end-to-end value chain oriented behaviours. A value chain orientation is the required underlying principle as well for delivering Zero-Outage services, taking the IT4ITTM (1) concepts as a basis.

This also became glaringly obvious in a customer discussion at the recent ZOIS executive event in London, when we talked about the notion of service levels for Zero Outage. One of the customers took a very blunt perspective, saying that he doesn’t want service levels at all, he wants a change of behaviour that service providers (regardless whether internal or external) always do the best they can to optimize the outcome. In essence he observed that service providers always manage towards just meeting the objective, e.g. when the service level is to respond within three hours he can be sure to receive a call in the last 15 minutes. From a customer perspective that is obviously not the right attitude, as it does not aim at optimizing the customer’s experience. Zero Outage however is all about customer experience and you can’t seriously attempt to change customer experience without taking a hard look at your own culture of delivering services to your customer.

The cultural aspect appears to be the fundamental problem realising the IT value chain, which aims at optimising the outcome of the end-to-end service delivery (better, fast, cheaper, and at less risk), rather than sub-optimising individual steps on the way. Hence, the important question to answer is how to change a culture that evolved over the past decades and is almost branded into people’s mind. I do not claim to have the answer, but I’d like to share some thoughts and hopefully inspire a collaborative discussion.

What is culture?

Here are a couple of statements you can find on the internet, which in my opinion all carry an important message inspiring to think about the consequences thereof. However, as a disclaimer, my intent is not to come up with an all-encompassing definition.

  • Culture is the lifeblood of any organization
  • Culture is specific to group of people
  • Culture is dynamic
  • Culture can be seen as growth of a group identity
  • Culture is complicated, difficult to understand
  • Culture is a shared pattern of behaviours, based upon common values and expectations
  • Culture is the connective tissue between people and output

The last one is particularly brilliant due to its simplicity and elegance. Zero Outage is a blunt definition of a desired outcome, but despite all technology involved, at the end of the day it is the people living their culture that make it happen.

However, if you ask employees, in general they feel rather peripheral to culture, passively enduring culture rather than feeling empowered to influence it. I guess one can see a problem right away.

Culture for the digital transformation

The obvious question to ask is “how does the digital transformation impact IT culture?”, but before looking into IT we should look at its impact on society at large. The fact that virtually all information is available electronically anywhere via various media, local or mobile, has a dramatic impact on people and how they behave. Simply take a look at a packed subway bringing people to school and work in the morning. I would reckon that more than 80% of the people sit or stand heads down staring at the smartphone in their hand. Ironically the classical socializing, such as chatting with your neighbour disappears in favour of digital socializing, electronically communicating with a community of like minds. And this is possible since information has become accessible to everyone, including people who are less technology savvy. I’d even claim that this transformation has increased people’s affinity to technology in general.

Which has an impact on cultural norms and behaviours, e.g. personal value judged by social media presence, focusing on consumption experience, less tolerating failure or bad performance, valuing the elegance and simplicity of the consumption design, consuming what one wants, whenever and wherever one wants it. Maybe you share the experience smiling at the 2 year old, who intuitively tries to swipe the screen on the old, stupid TV set, and you recognize two generations with different intuitions.

With the “new” generation starting to fill the ranks of IT, the same thing happens: different expectations and behaviours meet and influence a transformation of cultural norms. Admittedly, it may not be that blunt in reality, but for the sake of the discussion let’s be black and white:

  • In the traditional IT culture you can experience behaviours like: specialization aiming at deep expert knowledge, individuals and teams scoped around a focused set of dedicated objectives, seeing themselves as the centre of the company’s universe, designing big systems solving complex problems of the entire company, driven by logic and KPIs, always aiming at green scorecards for their scope of work, valuing the hero effort and the corresponding hero management style holding a cloak of myth over their organization and fighting for budget growth.
  • Whereas the digital IT culture favours teams with a high diversity of knowledge and mind-set, looking at technology as an enable, a means rather than an end, driving collaboration between the teams, jointly experimenting, failing, learning and adjusting to achieve the best outcome for the company, providing full transparency and insight, valuing empathy and organizational health along the corresponding servant management style.

In a recent portrait of Bill McDermott in a German magazine (2) I saw a cool quote about culture free of fear, which is quite applicable to this discussion. In essence Bill aims at full transparency of what’s going on in the company, based on the cultural norm that everyone can express the good, the bad and the ugly without fearing any repercussions. That goes back to the value of winning and losing together, the behaviour of experimenting and learning, and the management style of serving the organization for the benefit of the company.

And that is exactly the culture we need in order to establish and live a value chain oriented service delivery in the new IT. And as discussed, that serves as the basis to achieve the highest level of quality and consumption experience for our customers.

Strategies to drive cultural change

Driving cultural change is a difficult undertaking as such, especially in IT where sub optimization of silos is somewhat branded in organization’s mind-sets by decades of related education and experience. It certainly is nothing that can be ordered or demanded, but rather a slow and organic evolution across all ranks of the organization.

It starts with the recognition the outcome requires a certain culture, followed by an analysis and decision about the required people to inspire and live it, especially in leadership positions.

When looking at the leadership ranks of bigger enterprises, one often finds the hero types, the spreadsheet administrators, and the financial analyst worshipper, as opposed to the servant types, demonstrating emotional intelligence and social competence. If management doesn’t lead the change, doesn’t genuinely walk the talk, there is no snowflake’s chance in hell of success.

Which leads to a number of strategic organizational imperatives framing a cultural change:

  • Servant leadership and empathy, as just discussed being the basis for organizational health.
  • Communication of the desired outcome and cross pollination of diverse teams and skills striving for the best customer experience.
  • Responsibility and empowerment motivates people to give their best and demonstrates trust in their intentions.
  • Innovation by experimentation, which by intention includes the risk of not meeting the expectation at first (which is not a failure), but fosters quick learning and adjusting.

This is not supposed to be an all-encompassing answer to the problem, but rather food for thought and further discussion. I believe, there is no standard answer anyways, but dependent on the given realities, certain characteristics are more suitable than others. However, I also believe that the above strategies and related behaviours have intrinsic values to any value chain oriented culture.

KPIs: yes or no, good or evil?

Key performance indicators (KPIs) can be seen as pertinent to the traditional IT culture and have always been interpreted as a critical success factor for the proper working of any organization there is. Given the rather orthogonal values of the digital culture, one can easily come to the conclusion that the concept of KPIs is potentially contradictory.

However, one can’t deny either, that measures and defined boundaries are important for human beings to find their inner centre and comfort zone of behaviour. When thinking about measures, two objectives come to mind:

  • A means to control limiting behaviours, which is clearly a notion of the traditional IT culture.
  • An incentive to motivate the desired behaviour, which is in-line with the digital culture.

Hence, KPIs are neither good nor bad in general, but the answer is to find the right KPIs to motivate the desired behaviour. Which needs to be a topic for another focused discussion, stay tuned.


(1) IT4IT™ is a trademark of The Open Group
(2) Der Spiegel 33 / 2017


The information contained in this document is contributed and shared as thought leadership in order to evolve the Zero Outage Best Practices. It represents the personal view of the author and not the view of the Zero Outage Industry Standard Association.

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