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 (“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.

If you can’t resolve a thorny conundrum, try asking the question backward.

In the United States we have an ongoing, unresolved question: What are society’s obligations to the poor? 90 years after FDR’s New Deal we’re still arguing about this, with plenty of programs but little in the way of a national consensus.

What if we asked the question backward — instead of asking what obligations, if any, we have to the poor, let’s ask what privileges should accompany wealth?

We might imagine a continuum. On one end are certainties: Wealth should entitle those who have it to more and cooler toys. Tastier meals. Freedom from having to pick up after themselves, vacuum their floors, and scrub their plumbing fixtures.

Terry Pratchett once pointed out that “privilege” means “private law.” On the other end of the continuum from better toys, food, and household hygiene I think most of us would agree that wealth shouldn’t entitle its owners to private laws, whether in the form of legislation passed to benefit the favored few, or better judicial outcomes because that’s what you get when you can afford the best lawyers.

For that matter, instead of asking if the poor should be entitled to free healthcare, question inversion leads us to instead ask if wealth should confer better health and longer lifespans for those who, through luck or skill, have more of it.

Keep the Joint Running isn’t the place for this conversation, although I’d be delighted if you decide to have it, whether in the Comments, at your dinner table, or in a local tavern accompanied by conversational lubricants.

What does fit KJR’s charter is a very different business question that looks much the same when you invert it.

The question: How can business leaders keep their organizations from turning into stifling, choking bureaucracies.

The inversion: Must all rules apply, all the time, to everyone, regardless of their performance, contribution to the bottom line, or where they rank on the organizational chart?

For example:

> In your sales force is a rainmaker — someone who’s exceptional at designing and closing big, profitable deals. He also has a volatile disposition and huge temper, which he aims at whoever is convenient whenever he feels frustrated. The question: Should his direct financial contributions result in, shall we say, a more flexible and nuanced response from HR than another employee, with a similar temperament who contributes far less to the company’s success should get?

> Your company has a well-structured governance practice for defining, evaluating, and deciding which capital projects to undertake.

Your CFO is championing a major capital project. While it seems to make sense she hasn’t run it through the process. Instead she’s schmoozed it through the committee, whose members trust her judgment … or might want her to return the favor come budget season.

The question: Should the CFO and her executive peers be allowed to skip procedural steps that lower-level managers are required to follow?

> Your company’s recruiting function has established specific procedures for filling all open positions. The CEO recently brought in a new CIO to straighten out the company’s IT organization, and the CIO wants to bring in “his team” — three managers he’s worked with in the past. He knows they share his approach to running IT and are the right people to lead the company’s IT turnaround.

Should he be allowed to bypass Recruiting’s procedures?

For most of us the instinctive answer is yes — the rules apply to everyone.

Except for most entrepreneurs, who tend to see the uniquenesses of situations as well as their similarities.

Take the case of the CFO and her capital project. Companies institute governance frameworks and procedures for reviewing capital proposals to reduce the risk of making poor investments. The CFO applies these frameworks in her sleep. Dragging her proposal through the procedure wastes a lot of her valuable time with little additional risk reduction.

On the other hand, insisting everyone follows these rules, from the top of the organization to the bottom, helps establish an egalitarian perspective that says nobody gets special privileges. It also ensures the company’s executives don’t get sloppy, mistaking arrogance for good judgment.

But on yet another hand, if everyone in the organization had the CFO’s level of financial sophistication, there might never have been a need for the rules in the first place.

“There are reasons we have rules,” is a phrase you’ve probably heard from time to time.

And I agree. There are reasons we have rules. And if we took the time to remember those reasons we’d all be better off.