Technology Can Help Change Corporate Culture

In an effort to foster collaboration, insurance brokerage Marsh & McLennan tests software that lets employees search colleagues' address books.
It's become a mantra among IT-business professionals: Business needs, not technology, determine how IT is used. Still, IT can nudge businesses in defining their corporate culture.

Marsh & McLennan Cos., the $11.6 billion-a-year insurance brokerage, is piloting technology that lets employees search the address books of colleagues to identify potential business contacts. This and other technologies are seen as a way to foster collaboration among employees who might otherwise shy away from such sharing.

Despite talk by executives about the benefits of collaboration, most companies don't reward individuals for teamwork; instead, they prize individual initiative. That, in turn, can discourage collaboration. "We have a system of meritocracy, where individual achievement is rewarded," Sandeep Manchanda, Marsh & McLennan's CIO for global development, told a collaboration conference Tuesday sponsored by the management consulting firm Basex Inc. "How many people are rewarded for group achievement?"

It's not surprising that a culture rewarding individual achievement exists in most organization; the top people who run companies got to their positions through personal achievements. That attitude permeates through the enterprise. "Middle management grew up the same way," Manchanda said.

Manchanda characterizes this culture as the theory of the individual; managers and workers naturally avoid collaboration unless some urgency exists that requires a group effort. "Urgency creates discomfort for individuals," he said. "If people are comfortable, they'll never collaborate. Did you ever scratch an itch before it happens?"

But recognition exists among top executives at Marsh & McLennan that employee cooperation is key to its success, despite a culture mirrored at most companies that traditionally has rewarded individual inventiveness. The company is exploring various technologies to help facilitate collaboration. One such pilot, which began three weeks ago, employs a tool from Contact Network Corp. that lets 150 employees use a search engine to seek business contacts from colleagues Microsoft Outlook address books. By default, all entries can be accessed through the search engine; the address-book owner, however, can protect specific ones from prying eyes.

Marsh & McLennan will soon begin a second test, with a larger group of employees, of similar technology from Spoke Software Inc. Top Marsh & McLennan business managers will decide within three months whether to implement such a tool. If the company decides to use such technology, the company will then explore whether it will license Contact Network, Spoke Software, or some other vendor's professional-relationship software.

In an interview, Manchanda said CIOs and other business-technology managers have an obligation to show how IT can help companies change the way they conduct business. Said Manchanda, "IT can demonstrate business leadership by showing what's possible today."