Amazon New York Times Bezos CIO

IT departments may often get criticized for being slow to deliver results or failing to produce solutions to problems that really work, but when they occasionally complain or push back, I would hope that senior management and employees respond by telling them to “climb the wall.”

In some respects, though, that may be considered kind compared to the other epithets that the New York Times says are routinely thrown at those working for Amazon. In a lengthy profile published over the weekend, the Times interviews a number of current employees who describe a culture driven by “purposeful Darwinism” and a like-it-or-leave-it approach to managing talent. For CIOs, however, the most important insight is how the online retail giant uses numbers not only to assess its operations, but to relentlessly drive performance:

Amazon may be singular but perhaps not quite as peculiar as it claims. It has just been quicker in responding to changes that the rest of the work world is now experiencing: data that allows individual performance to be measured continuously, come-and-go relationships between employers and employees, and global competition in which empires rise and fall overnight. Amazon is in the vanguard of where technology wants to take the modern office: more nimble and more productive, but harsher and less forgiving.

Even the most forward-thinking IT leaders have probably not envisioned this as the natural outcome of the work they do to monitor and optimize various aspects of enterprise work. If they did, some of them might second-guess whether it’s the kind of work they really want to do. To be fair, the Times piece does cite a number of sources who say Amazon’s tactics — discouraging time spent with family, emailing and texting at all hours, browbeating those whose productivity or results are felt wanting — pushed them to do better. Even the Amazon principle of “disagree or commit,” which sounds like a nastier version of how many others suggest to conduct brainstorming, gets some praise. “Conflict breeds innovation,” one Amazon recruit says.

Leadership Starts With Listening

For some, it may be difficult to argue with Amazon’s success, but it would probably be a mistake to interpret this portrait of its corporate culture — a portrait, it should be pointed out, that CEO Jeff Bezos claims he does not recognize — as the only way to implement data-driven management. In fact, the decision by Bezos to learn more by reaching out directly to employees for their feedback and resetting what may be the perceived tone from the top is a great way to influence change, even if it may a lot to turn around what the Times reported.

As a starting point, think about the way IT departments have changed the way they measure their own results. For many CIOs, it’s no longer solely about uptime. They grade themselves based on how well they and their teams are supporting key business objectives, the level of satisfaction among employees about the technology they use to do their jobs and so on.

Is it possible to do well in these areas and still have an office where people aren’t frequently crying in the hallways (as sources told the Times happens frequently at Amazon?). I suspect it is, as annual rankings of the Best Managed Companies and similar research initiatives often prove. They may not dominate their industry or disrupt it to the extent Amazon does — or make for a juicy feature story in a major newspaper — but they provide value to customers and create fulfilling work — something we should probably value as much as we do pure profit.

If CIOs get asked their opinion of the Amazon article, it may be a good opportunity to talk about the company values that should be part of the strategic underpinnings of any IT investment. And even if they’re not asked, they could ask themselves what kind of impact they want the technology decisions they make to have on the people that end up using it. Is it about empowering a more mobile, data-rich, productive workforce — or making employees feel as though they’re fighting each other to the death in a high-tech jungle?



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