“Culture still eats strategy for breakfast.” Peter Drucker
Cloud and big data projects often fail to deliver business results. Why? Most lists of common causes are likely to include the company culture, and the conversation often stops there because culture can be a hard thing to change. But, there are specific steps you can take to promote cultural change, along with workarounds for the clash of cultures among different teams.
It’s well documented that technology projects – including cloud transitions, big data, and analytics – have a high failure rate. In some cases of failure, the technology change may go according to plan, but it still fails to deliver business results. For example, in the case of analytics projects, Gartner estimates that through 2022, only 20% of analytic insights will deliver business outcomes.
Culture is often a factor. Culture may get in the way of execution, and even with the best of plans and a big budget, an initiative will fail if it’s not adopted. A survey of big data and AI executives by NewVantage found that culture was not just one factor, but the single biggest impediment to becoming a data-driven organization.
Why culture is a challenge
You wouldn’t think that the cultural part of the equation would be so hard. When the technical problems are solved, the rest should be just a matter of getting the word out. But, there are good reasons for culture to keep coming up. Every company – like every community – is made up of multiple cultures. A team may have its own culture, and so may a discipline. For example, how often have you seen salespeople and engineers mixing together and speaking the same language?
In particular, there’s usually a divide between the more technical and less technical disciplines. On the more technical side, you have engineering, IT, and operations. On the less technical side are sales, marketing, HR, and perhaps program management. This is a long-standing feature of modern life, described in 1959 by C.P. Snow, in his book, The Two Cultures (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Two_Cultures). Snow talked about society in general, and a division between the technical and less technical cultures in higher education. There’s no question that this divide can still be found in society, and, of course, it is mirrored in the workplace.
We should also keep in mind that even two technical teams may have different cultures – different traditions and different areas of technical expertise. For a team immersed in data science, a development in cloud computing like serverless computing may be a foreign way of thinking. Their technical skills make the idea of lambda functions easier to pick up than for a team in the finance department, but it still requires a leap.
Differences in culture across a company lead to communication challenges:
- For much of the workforce, usually more than half, the technical change is hard to grasp. It may be too abstract, or too technically deep, or not follow a familiar paradigm. They can’t begin to think about practical uses for the technology.
- For the group that does find it intuitive – usually not many more than the owners of the change – there may be a lack of awareness of quite how challenging it is to others. This keeps them from setting up others for success, or gathering their input for planning.
Without an ability to communicate, project management breaks down because the technology owners don’t get the right requirements from the business managers. The essential loop between product and customer – identifying customer needs, setting goals, executing them, and refining based on the customer’s input – is broken.
Take action on culture
To bridge culture gaps at the ground level, be deliberate about setting up connections. Here are six steps to take:
- Embed someone in the business team who represents the technical team – who can speak both languages… an interpreter. This could be a member of the business team who has been trained in the technical domain. In effect, the technical team builds a community across the company with these embedded partners. This community may even be networked together into a community of practice (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Community_of_practice). Social ties like these can help build momentum.
- The technical team should also have a member, perhaps a PM, who is a customer advocate. This person will be ready to talk to customers in interviews as well as seek analytics data about them.
- Train technical teams to treat business teams as customers, and focus on the voice of the customer (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Voice_of_the_customer). This requires the technical team to do market research. This is not sales – this is not about pushing a finished product. It’s about understanding the customer’s needs before designing the product. Use interviews and focus groups, as well as higher-level views like surveys and discussion boards.
- Promote a lean methodology (https://leanstack.com/running-lean-book). This means that technical teams should release features that are as granular as possible, and monitor how well they’re landing. This is far more than just testing for bugs. It’s about checking with the customers concerning their experience at each stage in order to confirm that you’re solving their problems; thus, closing the loop with the customer teams. While it can lead to more rapid development of a mature product (the usual selling point of lean methods), as an added benefit, it can also deliver paradigm changes to internal customers who are more gradual. These changes then become easier to incorporate into their culture.
- Emphasize minimum viable products (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Minimum_viable_product). Early stages of the product should provide a visible benefit in such a way that makes life easier for the business team. This may only be a small fraction of the vision that the technical team has mapped out, but it will immediately start to gain trust and buy-in.
- Make it easy to get started with the new technology. When onboarding is necessary – for new skills or new ways of thinking – provide resources that are as simple as possible in order to consume. Whether this is training, videos, or templates, invest the time to make it clear and concise. Make it approachable to someone with no background in technology. Check with the customers to see what’s blocking them, and then address only those things. This way, they don’t have to wade through extra information to solve their problems.
With the right groundwork on culture, your investments in cloud and big data technology won’t go to waste. Even more importantly, your business will tap into the energy of these huge innovations and find new niches and new momentum.