Culture wars

Why do IT projects sometimes fail to achieve their goals? Earlier research focused on usability, employee resistance to change and other factors. But Jeffrey Stanton, assistant professor of industrial and organizational psychology at Syracuse University, takes a new perspective by focusing on occupational subcultures within organizations. He told interviewer Peter Buxbaum that IT projects may fail because a distinct IT subculture poisons relations with end users.

How did you go about studying IT subcultures?

We focused on 14 organizations in central New York state. The organizations are involved in health care, education, manufacturing and social services. We conducted interviews with over 80 IT professionals and analyzed those (interviews) using software called Atlas.ti to detect patterns. We noticed similarities in the responses given to us by IT people.

What sort of patterns did you detect?

We found that IT people used common modes of communication and expressed a common ethnocentricity.

We were struck by the common symbology used by IT people through which they expressed the unwillingness of computer users to learn certain things. We heard over and over again one story about the guy who put his coffee cup in the CD-ROM holder. It’s an amusing and possibly apocryphal story, and it expresses the commonly held belief about the cluelessness of end users.

How does ethnocentricity come into play?

Ethnocentric people believe in the importance of their group and in its differentness from others. We noticed indicators of group status among IT people in their belief that they possess esoteric knowledge, their perception of extreme working conditions and their complaints about other groups.

What is the connection between an IT subculture and the success or failure of technology implementations?

If IT people occupy a distinct subculture, then implementations could boil down to culture wars between them and others. That may be at the root of the troubles organizations have in implementing IT.

How does this play out in the real world?

We took an in-depth look at three organizations implementing substantial projects over a period of nine to 12 months in health care, manufacturing and social services.

(For example,) A.L. Lee Hospital replaced legacy systems that covered individual functions like the lab, accounting, etc., with a single hospital information system (similar to an ERP system). It proved to be a difficult technological transition. We found in a qualitative way that the communications capabilities of the IT group had an important impact on the projects.

Are you saying that the IT people couldn’t communicate with the business people?

The communication at the hospital was good, as were the project outcomes, thanks to an experienced IT leader who effectively broke down barriers between the IT folks and the individuals affected by the changes. But the communication at the social services organization was poor.

Our data suggest that the failures of communication between IT people and the administration contributed to the problems with the technology-driven change.

How did this show itself?

Planning meetings included only directors and assistant directors. There was no inclusion of affected employees. Communication was downward, and they allowed only minimal upward communication opportunities for affected employees. They didn’t implement a pilot phase, and therefore, affected employees had no opportunity for interim feedback.

How were these communication problems tied to ethnocentricity?

There was no individual within the IT group who could articulate the benefits of the changes to those who would be affected. As a result, the changes were viewed with suspicion by the workers.

Did you see evidence of culture wars during the implementation, and if so, how did they affect progress?

There were conflicts between members of different cultures, and these caused communication breakdowns between the subcultural groups. These conflicts were rooted in differing beliefs about the potential benefits of the technology. The IT people valued compatibility with existing systems and maintainability, the administrators valued expected benefits in efficiency, and the users valued benefits that IT would bring to their quality of work life. These issues effectively stopped all progress in two of the organizations.

What can be done to overcome the subculture problem?

Cross-training may be a powerful way of integrating cultures. How do Americans get immersed in other cultures? They volunteer for the Peace Corps or go on student exchange programs. A person living that kind of experience comes back to his home culture with a powerful appreciation of what it takes to speak across a cultural boundary.

Instead of sitting at a desk working on new network topologies, IT people should be sent to the lab, the accounting group or the reception area to live the experience of an end user. And you can take an accountant and make him an IT person for six months.

What would you expect the results to be?

If cross-training were implemented beforehand, they would less likely get tripped up over cultural differences that could hamper the relationship between groups and scuttle the implementation.

Buxbaum is a freelance writer in Washington. Contact him at

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