Do CIO + CHRO = Culture Change?

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Technically, they’re right.

I’m talking about Gartner and its new forecast, that “… by 2021, CIOs Will Be as Responsible for Culture Change as Chief HR Officers.”

They’re technically correct. Chief HR Officers aren’t responsible for culture change right now, and won’t be in 2021. Chief Information Officers also won’t be responsible for it in 2021, making them exactly as responsible as CHROs.

Why am I so sure? It’s because of the nature of culture, discussed here many times and codified in both Leading IT and Bare Bones Change Management. Culture is the learned behavior people exhibit in response to their environment. Among employees, most of the environment each employee responds to is the behavior of the employees with whom they work.

And not all of these employees have an equal impact. Those who supervise and manage have more impact than those who don’t.

So today, tomorrow, and in 2021, employees’ managers will be the ones who have to change the culture, accomplishing this by changing their own behavior. Not HR, not the CIO. Every manager in the company.

Gartner’s forecast begins with the proposition that, “Successful Digital Transformation Initiatives Must Be Accompanied by Culture Changes.”

Which isn’t wrong. No matter how you define “digital,” it can’t succeed without a radical change to most business cultures.

The illogic starts shortly thereafter an assertion that the mission and values of an organization usually fall into the remit of HR.

There’s only one counterargument, but it’s compelling: WHAT?!?!

HR often does take charge of the dreaded Mission Statement. But, were you to take a random sample of corporate mission statements and their actual corporate missions, you’d find the correlation between the two is at best a miniscule statistical artifact, nothing more.

Asserting that HR is responsible for the corporate mission disqualifies Gartner as an advisor regarding How Things Work. (If you’re looking for a qualified advisor you know who to call …)

As for HR owning culture change, yes, smart CEOs, having superior CHROs, will consult with them and involve them in operationalizing the digital culture change. And increasingly, assuming they’ve also hired superior CIOs, they’ll consult with them, involving them in defining what a digital culture looks and feels like.

But consultation and involvement aren’t the same thing as delegation and authority, and any CEO willing to delegate the business culture to anyone else is misguided — misguided because it abrogates their single most important responsibility.

And more misguided because it can’t be done. Business culture is the learned behavior employees exhibit in response to their environment and in particular in response to their line manager’s behavior.

The company’s management culture is the learned behavior line managers exhibit in response to their environment, and in particular in response to their managers’ behavior.

Which in turn is a response to middle management behavior, which is connected to the ankle bone, which is connected to the thigh bone, which ossium inexorably ends up in the CEO’s office for the same reason that when you fall, the direction you go is down:

That’s how the world is put together.

But the fallacy starts upstream from there, with the culture change needed most for digital transformations to succeed. It’s in the executive suite, as I recently explained (he modestly pointed out) on CIO.com (“Digital transformation’s dark secret,” 10/31/2018). Neither the CIO (or Chief Digital Officer if your company has one) nor CHRO is going to lead an executive suite culture change.

Who is? Gartner needs to pick up the clue phone about this, because (it’s time for a blinding flash of the obvious) that’s the CEO’s job.

What’s the essence of the executive suite culture change? That, of course, depends on the organization in question and its current situation. One place to look is something we discussed last week: the lack of respect given to what are usually called “intangible benefits.”

Hidden among the benefits of digital strategies and transformations is a radical change in management thinking. In the industrial age of business, tangible, which is to say direct financial benefits, usually in the form of cost-cutting, was what mattered. Everything else was a means to that end.

Digital strategies, in contrast, focus, or at least should focus, on competitive advantage and what gives it to you. While in the end tangible financial benefits do happen, they’re a byproduct, nothing more.

So here’s the scorecard: Gartner is right about digital transformations requiring a change in corporate culture. I’m happy for Gartner that its analysts finally figured this out.

As for how to make it happen? Maybe, if its analysts start to read KJR, they’ll figure that out too someday.

They’ll probably take credit for it when they do.

Comments (10)

  • Great column, Bob.

  • Actually, I have to agree with Gartner, on both points. Everything you said about management and leadership is true. But, if HR can’t recruit the kinds of people who can be productive in the new culture, nothing is really going to change. You can be the best chef in the world, but if you decide to switch from salads to steak, but farms near you have lousy cattle, you’re not going to have success in your desired menu changes.

    I think the expectations the organization has for its workers, as well as the expectations of employees for themselves has shifted, such that there is a greater expectation of data analysis of more employees, rather than just data entry or data reporting. Thus, the software, development, and computer resources choices IT make, will have an increasingly profound affect on what the organizational culture can be, if not what it should be.

    HR and IT don’t replace the role and responsibility of leadership, but they do unavoidably affect whether a desired cultural change can succeed.

    • I don’t think we’re disagreeing. Yes, HR and IT do and will have important roles to play for designing and operationalizing culture.

      Leading the change? It can’t be done, because neither the CIO nor CHRO is in a position to tell the CEO, “You need to behave differently. Here’s how.”

  • Yes, yes, and yes. I agree with you, Bob, that “corporate culture” is mostly the learned behavior of employees, and that they learn from those they work with. If the learning is facilitated by those above them in the the command chain, so much the better. If not, then they learn from each other as to what really matters for success in their employment. The key is to encourage this learning environment and provide worthwhile lessons to be learned; ideally, this starts at the top of an organization. In reality, it often mostly goes on between employees who are good at networking and interested in learning.

  • 100% on target! TOP management — specifically, the CEO is in charge of culture.

    P.S. You’re making me pull out my calculator for your Captcha!

  • Do you observe much variation in culture across the US? Is there a (significant) east coast-west coast or north-south divide? I ran European systems for a large US multinational, and the cultural divergence across Europe is huge (comparable to that between the US and Japan, for instance), but visitors from head office were often taken unawares by this.

    • Oh, yes, and then some. There are a lot of “cultural axes” that have an influence: Urban vs small town. Warm climate vs locales where “polar vortex” is part of everyone’s working vocabulary. Tech industry vs finance vs industrial (and don’t get me started on ad agencies!) North American vs Latin American vs European vs Indian vs Asian. (I have little experience with any African cultures.)

      All of these contribute hidden assumptions to the business culture, and well-designed diversity programs help uncover these and make everyone aware of them.

      It isn’t that the person at the top is the sole influence on business culture. It’s that the person at the top has an outsized role in it. And … a point I think you’re getting at … the person at the top’s origins regarding all of the above end up having a significant impact on business culture: A CEO who comes out of U.S. business culture ends up leading in a very different business culture from, say, one who comes out of Indian business culture.

  • Bingo! Couldn’t agree more. CIO and CHRO are not the only ones to lead culture change and digital transformation, but they’re essential to a successful changeover.

  • “As usual you got to the core of the issue ”
    But consultation and involvement aren’t the same thing as delegation and authority, and any CEO willing to delegate the business culture to anyone else is misguided — misguided because it abrogates their single most important responsibility.”

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