Strategic CIO // IT Strategy
Commentary
6/5/2014
09:06 AM
David Wagner
David Wagner
Commentary
Connect Directly
Twitter
RSS
E-Mail
50%
50%

Geeks Versus Jocks: CIOs, Beware Your Culture

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

10 Big Data Pros To Follow On Twitter
10 Big Data Pros To Follow On Twitter
(Click image for larger view and slideshow.)

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.

[Good leaders earn pizza. Read Pizza & Leadership: 4 Lessons.]

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.

Our InformationWeek Elite 100 issue -- our 26th ranking of technology innovators -- shines a spotlight on businesses that are succeeding because of their digital strategies. We take a close at look at the top five companies in this year's ranking and the eight winners of our Business Innovation awards, and offer 20 great ideas that you can use in your company. We also provide a ranked list of our Elite 100 innovators. Read our InformationWeek Elite 100 issue today.

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
Comment  | 
Print  | 
More Insights
Comments
Oldest First  |  Newest First  |  Threaded View
Page 1 / 5   >   >>
Drew Conry-Murray
50%
50%
Drew Conry-Murray,
User Rank: Ninja
6/5/2014 | 9:55:40 AM
Monoculture
This article didn't go where I expected it to--and that was a good thing. It's too easy for people aligned with the IT industry to get binary about geek culture (geek culture good, non-geek culture bad). But as you point out, a monoculture--whether geek, jock or something else--can surpress other voices, alienate those who aren't aligned with the dominant model, and surpress productivity.
jagibbons
50%
50%
jagibbons,
User Rank: Ninja
6/5/2014 | 10:06:55 AM
Re: Monoculture
I concur, Drew. I appreciate the focus on reducing monoculture. Diversity in background, skillset and opinion will only benefit any IT shop (any department in any industry, really). When we all think and act the same, we miss out on valuable opportunities and insights that are only visible when someone says or does something completely unexpected.
jastroff
50%
50%
jastroff,
User Rank: Ninja
6/5/2014 | 11:22:02 AM
Outside the Box Teams
To the IT mix of staffers, let's add artists, designers and philosophers, cartoonists and MBAs. And not only those trained in graduate programs designed to turn them into systemized technology robots (I'm thinking of all those UX people, sorry).  All would make good additions to IT staffs when it comes to product development, conceptualizing how people will use it, seeing the business and financial benefits, and know how to make it appealing. Such a group did exist in product development for a large bank a long time ago – we did wonderful things. Let's not stop at the threshold, let's pull from all the disciplines and channel their contributions into the effort. The products and services will be great.
Lorna Garey
50%
50%
Lorna Garey,
User Rank: Author
6/5/2014 | 11:30:06 AM
Re: Monoculture
What's your take on culture for companies that have most employees working onsite in an HQ versus more distributed orgs, with many peope working from home offices or small branch sites? I have worked at both, and while it seems nonintuitive, I think that a virtual workforce can have an equalizing effect. 
jagibbons
50%
50%
jagibbons,
User Rank: Ninja
6/5/2014 | 11:41:54 AM
Re: Monoculture
There are benefits to a distributed workforce, but I don't believe they necessarily outweigh the productivity and organic communications that happen when a team is colocated. If you have diversity in your team and they are able to communicate efficiently and openly, then you have the best possible combination. Nothing against telecommuters, but there are concrete reasons why most agile frameworks strongly encourage a team to be located together. That is where the best communication (verbal and non-verbal) happens.
jastroff
50%
50%
jastroff,
User Rank: Ninja
6/5/2014 | 11:47:52 AM
Re: Monoculture
>> I think that a virtual workforce can have an equalizing effect.

Good point. Outsourcing in general probably has a equalizing effect.

Virtual teams can be more diverse. People tend to assemble virtual teams based on skills and need within the budget, rather than "like hires like" for on-site teams.
Lorna Garey
50%
50%
Lorna Garey,
User Rank: Author
6/5/2014 | 11:48:08 AM
Re: Monoculture
It's interesting you say that. I have heard lately of instances where companies are insisting on employees being onsite, even if it means passing up a qualified applicant. Do you see a growing backlash against remote work (or, in a better light, pull to have teams physically colocated)?
David Wagner
50%
50%
David Wagner,
User Rank: Strategist
6/5/2014 | 11:58:44 AM
Re: Monoculture
@Drew- Thanks. I try to find a new angle with everything. The interestingly thing about the monoculture is that I think a lot of managers strive for it because they mistake it for harmony. But harmony actually requires multiple voices hitting notes that sounds good together. Too zen?
David Wagner
50%
50%
David Wagner,
User Rank: Strategist
6/5/2014 | 12:01:08 PM
Re: Outside the Box Teams
@jastro- I like it. But how do you find that mix of people as a manager? the typical job asks for "qualifications" that won't necessarily resonate with that diverse group. Are we writing poor job descriptions? Are we interviewing wrong? How do you build the mix while still getting folks that can do the job?
David Wagner
50%
50%
David Wagner,
User Rank: Strategist
6/5/2014 | 12:02:44 PM
Re: Monoculture
@lorna- I think the same thing applies to coolaboration. People will tend to reach out virtually to people like them. But where i do think equalization happens is in surfacing ideas to management. 

Of course, the problem is that the manager is often complicit in the monoculture. 
Page 1 / 5   >   >>
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.
Register for InformationWeek Newsletters
White Papers
Current Issue
InformationWeek - September 2, 2014
Avoiding audits and vendor fines isn't enough. Take control of licensing to exact deeper software discounts and match purchasing to actual employee needs.
Flash Poll
Video
Slideshows
Twitter Feed
InformationWeek Radio
Archived InformationWeek Radio
In in-depth look at InformationWeek's top stories for the preceding week.
Sponsored Live Streaming Video
Everything You've Been Told About Mobility Is Wrong
Attend this video symposium with Sean Wisdom, Global Director of Mobility Solutions, and learn about how you can harness powerful new products to mobilize your business potential.