Culture, Collaboration & Capabilities vs People, Process & Technology

[TL;DR The term ‘people, process and technology’ has been widely understood to represent the main dimensions impacting how organisations can differentiate themselves in a fast-changing technology-enabled world. This article argues that this expression may be misinterpreted with the best of intentions, leading to undesirable/unintended outcomes. The alternative, ‘culture, collaboration and capability’ is proposed.]

People, process & technology

When teams, functions or organisations are under-performing, the underlying issues can usually be narrowed down to one or more of the dimensions of people, process and technology.

Unfortunately, these terms can lead to an incorrect focus. Specifically,

  • ‘People’ can be understood to mean individuals who are under-performing or somehow disruptive to overall performance
  • ‘Process’ can be understood to mean formal business processes, leading to a focus on business process design
  • ‘Technology’ can be understood to mean engineering or legacy technology challenges which are resolvable only by replacing or updating existing technology

In many cases, this may in fact be the approach needed: fire the disruptive individual, redesign business processes using Six Sigma experts, or find another vendor selling technology that will solve all your engineering challenges.

In general, however, these approaches are neither practical nor desirable. Removing people can be fraught with challenges, and should only be used as a last resort. Firms using this as a way to solve problems will rapidly build up a culture of distrust and self-preservation.

Redesigning business processes using Six Sigma or other techniques may work well in very mature, well understood, highly automatable situations. However, in most dynamic business situations, no sooner has the process been optimised than it requires changing again. In addition, highly optimised processes may cause the so-called ‘local optimisation’ problem, where the sum of the optimised parts yields something far from an optimised whole.

Technology is generally not easy to replace: some technologies are significantly embedded in an organisation, with a large investment in people and skills to support the technology. But technologies change faster than people can adapt, and business environments change even quicker than technology changes. So replacing technologies come at a massive cost (and risk) of replacing functionally rich existing systems with relatively immature new technology, and replacing existing people with people who may be familiar with the technology, but less so with your organisation. And what to do with the folks who have invested so much of their careers in the ‘old’ technology? (Back to the ‘people’ problem.)

A new meme

In order to effect change within a team, department or organisation, the focus on ‘people, process and technology’ needs to be adapted to ‘culture, collaboration and capabilities’. The following sections lays out what the subtle difference is and how it could change how one approaches solving certain types of performance challenges.

Culture

When we talk about ‘people’, we are really not talking about individuals, but about cultures. The culture of a team, department or organisation has a more significant impact on how people collectively perform than anything else.

Changing culture is hard: for a ‘bad’ culture caught early enough, it may be possible to simply replace the most senior person who is (consciously or not) leading the creation of the undesirable cultural characteristics. But once a culture is established, even replacing senior leadership does not guarantee it will change.

Changing culture requires the willing participation of most of the people involved. For this to happen, people need to realise that there is a problem, and they need to be open to new cultural leadership. Then, it is mainly a case of finding the right leadership to establish the new norms and carry them forward – something which can be difficult for some senior managers to do, particularly when they have an arms-length approach to management.

Typical ‘bad’ cultures in a (technology) organisation include poor practices such as lack of testing discipline, poor collaboration with other groups focused on different concerns (such as stability, infrastructure, etc), a lack of transparency into how work is done, or even a lack of collaboration within members of the same team (i.e., a ‘hero’ based approach to development).

Changing these can be notoriously difficult, especially if the firm is highly dependent on this team and what it does.

Collaboration

Processes are, ultimately, a way to formalise how different people collaborate at different times. Processes formalise collaborations, but often collaborations happen before the process is formalised – especially in high-performance teams who are aware of their environment and are open to collaboration.

Many challenges in teams, departments or organisations can be boiled down to collaboration challenges. People not understanding how (or even if) they should be collaborating, how often, how closely, etc.

In most organisations, ‘cooperation’ is a necessity: there are many different functions, most of which depend on each other. So there is a minimum level of cooperation in order to get certain things done. But this cooperation does not necessarily extend to collaboration, which is cooperation based on trust and a deeper understanding of the reasons why a collaboration is important.

Collaboration ultimately serves to strengthen relationships and improve the overall performance of the team, department or organisation.

Collaborations can be captured formally using business process design notation (such as BPMN) but often these treat roles as machines, not people, and can lead to forgetting the underlying goal: people need to collaborate in order to meet the goals of the organisation. Process design often aims to define people’s roles so narrowly that the individuals may as well be a machine – and as technology advances, this is exactly what is happening in many cases.

People will naturally resist this; defining processes in terms of collaborations will change the perspective and result in a more sustainable and productive outcome.

Capabilities

Much has been written here about ‘capabilities’, particularly when it comes to architecture. In this article, I am narrowing my definition to anything that allows an individual (or group of individuals) to perform better than they otherwise would.

From a technology perspective, particular technologies provide developers with capabilities they would not have otherwise. These capabilities allow developers to offer value to other people who need software developed to help them do their job, and who in turn offer capabilities to other people who need those people to perform that job.

When a given capability is ‘broken’ (for example, where people do not understand a particular technology very well, and so it limits their capabilities rather than expands them), then it ripples up to everybody who depends directly or indirectly on that capability: systems become unstable, change takes a long time to implement, users of systems become frustrated and unable to do their jobs, the clients of those users become frustrated at  people being paid to do a job not being able to do it.

In the worst case, this can bring a firm to its knees, unable to survive in an increasingly dynamic, fast-changing world where the weakest firms do not survive long.

Technology should *always* provide a capability: the capability to deliver value in the right hands. When it is no longer able to achieve that role in the eyes of the people who depend on it (or when the ‘right hands’ simply cannot be found), then it is time to move on quickly.

Conclusion

Many of todays innovations in technology revolves around culture, collaboration and capabilities. An agile, disciplined culture, where collaboration between systems reflects collaborations between departments and vice-versa, and where technologies provide people with the capabilities they need to do their jobs, is what every firm strives for (or should be striving for).

For new startups, much of this is a given – this is, after all, how they differentiate themselves against more established players. For larger organisations that have been around for a while, the challenge has been, and continues to be, how to drive continuous improvement and change along these three axes, while remaining sensitive to the capacity of the firm to absorb disruption to the people and technologies that those firms have relied on to get them to the (presumably) successful state they are in today.

Get it wrong and firms could rapidly lose market share and become over-taken by their upstart competitors. Get it right, and those upstart competitors will be bought out by the newly agile established players.

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Culture, Collaboration & Capabilities vs People, Process & Technology

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