Strategic CIO // IT Strategy
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6/5/2014
09:06 AM
David Wagner
David Wagner
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Geeks Versus Jocks: CIOs, Beware Your Culture

Geeks, jocks, or anything else -- if you have too many, it's a problem.

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IT organizations tend to celebrate the geek -- and deservedly so. But for CIOs to build the right kinds of teams to meet current business challenges, they need to start creating more diverse cultures. This movement isn't about dumping people with ironic T shirts or pocket protectors, but about instilling a kind of diversity that leads to productivity and innovation.

The goal is to break out of hiring habits that define your culture by personality traits rather than skillsets and mindsets. A recent article in the Harvard Business Review, "The Trouble with a 'Jock Culture' at the Office," points to the same problem in a different field: sales. In the article, former CEO Jim Dougherty highlights the danger of assembling a sales team dominated by former athletes. In Dougherty's experience, women and other personality types felt their achievements wouldn't be recognized and that they wouldn't be promoted. They felt their ideas were not valued as much as their jock peers, and they weren't included in many of the conversations where business decisions were made.

Whether your company's culture is one of jocks or geeks doesn't matter -- many of the same issues hold true. Both cultures tend to exclude women. Consider that the STEM fields employ twice as many men as women. And according to this study by the Census Bureau, most of the growth of women in STEM came between the 1970s and the 1990s.

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Consider this example of a major geek company: Google just admitted it has a diversity problem, as only 17% of its technology employees are female. Google is also predominantly white and Asian, employing very few Hispanic or black engineers. One Google senior VP of people operations went so far as to say, "Put simply, Google is not where we want to be when it comes to diversity, and it's hard to address these kinds of challenges if you're not prepared to discuss them openly, and with the facts."

It isn't only about racial or gender diversity -- obviously, there are geeks of every gender and race. And it isn't that geeks are bad -- they're delightful (and I count myself among them, and I even write a weekly column dedicated to them). The issue is homogeneity. As Dougherty pointed out concerning jock culture, a single-minded culture destroys conversation, engagement, and innovation, and it sublimates the minority voices (of all types) in your company.

Not every IT department is stuck in the geek culture, because not every IT pro is a geek. And not every department celebrates the culture, even if it's full of geeks. One way to tell if this is your problem is to check out some of the following descriptions of IT pros by Paul Glen, author of Leading Geeks: How to Manage and Lead the People Who Deliver Technology (Jossey-Bass, 2002). IT pros often:

  • Value other persons of similar knowledge and can be intolerant of others (without the same knowledge)
  • Are attracted to this business solely by the technology and tend to work on technology for technology's sake, not necessarily for business's sake
  • Tend to view data centers and networks as their own personal toy boxes and/or creations of their own artwork
  • Are introverted by nature, choosing machines over humans and facing challenges in effective day-to-day formal and informal communications

If you see these traits in your IT culture, you've got a problem. Not only is it counter to your mission to serve and drive the business, but it also means you have the type of homogeneous culture that's threatening innovation and creativity in your department.

So how do you address the problem? First, think about diversity in all forms: race, gender, age, mindset, skillset, social background, and education. Research suggests, for example, that racial diversity and gender equality both lead to greater innovation and productivity as well as overall business performance. Social diversity should do so as well, although this type of culture is admittedly hard to define and research.

Second, pay attention to the types of people you hire, particularly for management positions. If you find yourself hiring the same types of people (former athletes or former mathletes, for example), re-think your reasoning. Dougherty explains that there was a reasonable mindset behind creating the original jock culture in his company's sales department -- the previous manager thought that the teamwork and the striving through adversity of sports made for better workers. There's nothing wrong with that concept. It's only a problem when it overrides your other hiring priorities.

Third, and most important, make sure you aren't suppressing the other voices in your organization because "the crowd" does. If you surface the different voices in your department, you'll give them the confidence to speak up and you'll be rewarded with a richer pool of ideas.

When Dougherty gave voice to the workers previously pushed aside at his company, he found a remarkable impact: "… these workers began to shine. They'd been working at about 70% of their capacity, they told us. Once they were convinced the culture was changing and realized they could be promoted and rewarded, they worked harder. Productivity soared. When a few thousand people increase their productivity by 30%, it has a meaningful impact."

Are you ready to make a meaningful impact on your department? Surface as many types of workers as possible. Celebrate the differences on your team. If you do, you might find you get the best out of your geeks and jocks, millennials and boomers, and everyone else on your team.

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David has been writing on business and technology for over 10 years and was most recently Managing Editor at Enterpriseefficiency.com. Before that he was an Assistant Editor at MIT Sloan Management Review, where he covered a wide range of business topics including IT, ... View Full Bio
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Susan_Nunziata
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Susan_Nunziata,
User Rank: Strategist
6/6/2014 | 6:14:57 PM
Re: Monoculture
@Progman2000: Yahoo is the only recent example I can think of where a dispersed workforce was required to return to working in the office. From what I have read about it, that was the right move for that company at that time. In general, though, most people I know and most companies I have worked for in the past 10 years have allowed some degree of remote work and in some cases have fully encouraged it. I think this became especially important during the last recession, when companies could not offer salary increases, or in some cases had to cut salaries, and yet wanted a way to retain their top performers. Perks such as telecommuting, additional vacation time and other things that had no "hard cost" associated with them started to becomre more common and are now fully entrenched. I don't think we'll ever turn back the clock on this trend.
Susan_Nunziata
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Susan_Nunziata,
User Rank: Strategist
6/6/2014 | 6:11:29 PM
Re: Identity Crises
@sferguson10001: It could be that Google's lack of diversity is, in part, a reflection of the available labor pool especially when it comes to the tech-related job openings there. Although, as I recall, the Google report said that something close to 50% of its workforce was in non-tech related jobs. while much has been written about the lack of diversity in the overall STEM labor pool -- with no really good answers as to why this is the case -- I can't imagine the same argument could be made for the non-tech jobs at Google or anyplace else. It's a problem of human nature, and an organization has to provide the training and top-down culture that helps people avoid the "like-hires-like" default that so many of us may act upon, oftentimes without even being aware of it.
progman2000
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progman2000,
User Rank: Moderator
6/6/2014 | 4:15:45 PM
Re: Monoculture
I thought we were past the era of companies wanting employees centrally located.  I'm also curious as to where you have seen differently lately.  I was actually starting to wonder if some companies were rushing too fast to utilizing a remote workforce.
sferguson10001
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sferguson10001,
User Rank: Moderator
6/5/2014 | 5:35:57 PM
Re: Identity Crises
@DavidWagner: What I think is most interesting here, and especially with the Google example you used to illustrate the point, is how hard it is for companies to create the kind of ideal culture you want. After all, if Google admits that its corporate makeup is not where it should be, how can other companies achieve what one of the world's best run businesses cannot? In the end, maybe the decisions are driven by expediency and need and not by strategic thinking. Thoughts?
Drew Conry-Murray
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Drew Conry-Murray,
User Rank: Ninja
6/5/2014 | 4:50:07 PM
Re: Monoculture
@David Wagner: Not too Zen at all. That's an apt description of harmony.
David Wagner
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David Wagner,
User Rank: Strategist
6/5/2014 | 4:00:39 PM
Re: Identity Crises
@TerryB- I think you can claim multiple memberships. More importantly, well-rounded folks are the best to find for a department. The only "problem" with being a geek or a jock or anything else is if it prevents you from doing your job. And the only reason have too many of any of them is a problem is if it creates a problem in your department.

In terms of geeks, I'm like king of the athletes, too, so i totally get what you're saying. But i happily hold a dual passport. :)
PedroGonzales
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PedroGonzales,
User Rank: Ninja
6/5/2014 | 3:54:24 PM
Re: Monoculture
I completelly agree that it all depends on the team.  If the members of the team fit together and can cooperate.  This can make a great difference in the output of the team's results.   
Susan_Nunziata
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Susan_Nunziata,
User Rank: Strategist
6/5/2014 | 3:14:44 PM
Re: Monoculture
@jagibbons: I've worked in both situations, as a telecommuter with a dispersed team and in an office where all my team mates were there alongside me. My takeaway from these experiences is that it all depends 100% on the personalities involved. Given the right mix of people, either can be equally effective. The wrong mix of people can make either option a disaster. The dynamic, in my experience, depends much more on the culture and personality of the team members than it does on where they are based.
Susan_Nunziata
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Susan_Nunziata,
User Rank: Strategist
6/5/2014 | 3:09:11 PM
Re: Monoculture
@jastro: I wish that were true of ALL teams. I'm not convinced it can even be stated across the board as regards to virtual teams, at least based on what I've heard from some women developers who work on remote teams. In fact, I know one who just had to leave such a position because the culture became too unpleasant for her. She's as Geek as they come, and so were her colleagues. It would be oversimplifying it to say she was in a boys' club culture there, though I do think that was part of it. It was the kind of place where she was always the one asked to keep the meeting notes because she was always the only woman at the meeting.
Susan_Nunziata
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Susan_Nunziata,
User Rank: Strategist
6/5/2014 | 3:05:17 PM
Re: Identity Crises
@TerryB: You're the reason I hate putting labels on people. Most of us are complex and nuanced in our likes and dislikes, how we choose to spend our personal time versus what our work interests are. To answer your primary question, I'd label you a Jeek or a Gok.

:)
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Transformative CIOs Organize for Success
Transformative CIOs Organize for Success
Trying to meet today’s business technology needs with yesterday’s IT organizational structure is like driving a Model T at the Indy 500. Time for a reset.
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