There is No Such Thing as Culture Change

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Venkatesh Rao, Contributor

April 1, 2009

7 Min Read

One theme persistently comes up whenever I talk social media, either inside my workplace or outside. This is "culture change." When talking about catalyzing adoption of social media within the enterprise, at some point, someone will predictably say something like, "the most important thing is to get the culture to change." Framing social media adoption in these terms is basically a show-stopper, because it means you've trotted out a reassuring phrase that allows you to view yourself as a visionary, others as obdurate idiots, and gives you something abstract to blame when (not if) your initiative fails. I don't have an alternate framing, a phrase to replace "culture change" because there isn't one. "Culture change" is merely a zeroth-order framing that screams "some hard, context-specific thinking needs to be done here." When you hear the phrase, you are hearing lazy thinking. The key is to start thinking, not to substitute a different lazy-thinking phrase. Here is how you can unclog the mental plumbing.Here's the short version: there is no such thing as culture change. The only process that can actually occur is Darwinian natural selection and displacement of a central culture by a marginal one within industry sectors and inside individual companies. The odds against this happening are astronomically high if a business is healthy (why mess with something that isn't broken?). The odds improve slightly if the business is in some sort of strategic trouble and requires a new business model to survive. They only improve slightly because the case that needs to be made is a two part one. If the company is mulling shifting focus from manufacturing declining margins product X to manufacturing newbie product Y, you first have to argue that Y demands a different culture. Then you have to argue that social media catalyzes the right culture to be a manufacturer of Y. The only dead-certain way to clinch both arguments at once is to point to some upstart little disruptor in your industry that is growing rapidly and taking away marketshare, is selling Y and has a social media DNA.I can't tell you how to solve that complicated problem, since it is about industry specifics, competitive strategy and business model architecture. But it does help to stop the unproductive "culture change" train of thought in its tracks.Five Ways to Get Out of the "Culture Change" Mindset

  1. The Churn Argument: There is an idea in Kuhn's theory of paradigm shifts in science that says radical new ideas (like relativity) don't get adopted because people are won over. They get adopted because the nay-sayers retire or die out and get replaced by others. Resistance ceases because the resisters leave, and because the adopters are younger and are clearly producing more value using their ideas. Kodak CEO Antonio Perez is credited with a refinement of the idea: that any change or adoption will face a population with 3 segments: the people who buy in immediately, the people on the fence who can be convinced, and the people on the other side who will need to be waited out.

  2. Don't Blame Culture for User Experience Issues: Enthusiasts of some social-media triggered idea (like "don't email attachments, put them in the repository and send a link") often blame lazy, resistant cultures when what is actually wrong is that the new user experience simply isn't engineered well enough to use. Emailed attachments are a good example. Email is a such a frequent daily task that every little extra step is a burden. Emailing attachments around is easy and convenient in most cases, and the version control mess is easier to deal with than repository discipline. This is a case where the technology had better meet the productivity expectations of the users. If you can't make sending links simpler than attachments, don't blame the end user. The user is expecting something along the lines of the "Attach" button getting replaced with a "CloudStore-And-LinkAttach" button that works with the same or fewer number of steps.

  3. Don't Blame Culture for Your Misunderstanding of Incentives: Librarians and change-management/workforce aging people from HR would love to see Boomer knowledge documented before they retire. That's because their jobs would become easier. The people who actually have the knowledge to be captured may or may not have posterity/archival instincts. If you can't figure out who is reaping benefits and who is paying the costs, and align incentives appropriately, you are a bad economist. Don't blame culture.

  4. Stop a Moment to Ponder the Darn Word!: Cultures and subcultures aren't technology-use behaviors. Some technology-use behaviors have cultural components, but culture is a broader construct. And the biggest thing about it is people self-select into cultures containing people they want to be socially connected with. To the extent that social media are friendlier to certain cultures (just as wine bars and beer pubs will attract certain cultures), the best you can do is create highly visible self-selection mechanisms, compete in hiring to bring in more people of that sort, and in promotions to put more such people in mission-critical roles. There is a limit to how much this helps, because many factors create a huge incumbency effect. These include: the maturity of the company, the nature of the few people who are stewards of key money-making processes, as well as the inherited organizational culture descended from the founders. Sheer numbers will not win this game (in fact you will not succeed in building numbers). If social media truly are critical to survival in the new industry environment and you aren't winning the displacement battle, the ship is going to go down. You are better off finding a start-up ship that is sailing off with the right culture.

  5. Retooling Running Operations Costs Money: All sorts of gatekeeper organizations exist in enterprises that can seem like they are there purely to thwart you. Petty bureaucrats out to shut down things they don't understand. What you don't understand if you ever entertain this thought, is this: they are there to protect rivers of money, not systems or processes. That workflow you want to wiki-ize, that monstrosity written in Cobol that requires an expensive end-of-life support operation, is not just sitting there like a rusting hulk. It is working furiously to generate cash flow. Shutting down to retool is not smart. What you want to do is spin up the momentum of an ancillary effort that adds value to the management of this death process. For instance, legacy applications are always crashing or creating other sorts of trouble. Documentation is out of date and the support team is under-resourced (possibly outsourced) and demotivated by having to play funeral director. Rather than rip-out-and-replace, get your social media solution to start by playing band-aid and helping with the extra exception-handling being caused by the brittle end-of-life alternative. Then when the thing is ready to die, your effort has a chance to step in. Things that are robust and live applications that are problematic but not end-of-life (email is a prime example) aren't good starter targets. Which is why email is going to be the last bastion holding out against 2.0ization.

  6. Recognize the "Culture Change"-"Victim Mentality" Connection: You may not realize this, but most smart and productive people see the phrase "culture change" as a clear sign of somebody with a hand-wringing victim mentality. 90% of the time, they are correct. If you are in the other 10%, do you really want to be perceived this way? If you are in the other 90%, chances are you will not admit it. So I wash my hands off you.

Have fun being Darwinian!Venkatesh G. Rao writes a blog on business and innovation at, and is a Web technology researcher at Xerox. The views expressed in this blog are his personal ones and do not represent the views of his employer.

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