Is Culture > Technology?

By May 13, 2016Blog
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One of the interesting points presented in the keynotes, and a theme through many other sessions, at the OpenStack Summit a few weeks ago in Austin was the idea that culture trumps technology many times when it comes to seeing real improvement and innovation. This is true in any domain, but can be especially true in the areas we operate in day to day.

There is this laser focus on the technology, the next release, the next hot feature, the next open source project you can add to your lab, etc. We tend to inject all of these new things into the business with little to no thought on things like existing skillsets and how they transition to the new tech, new roles that may be needed (as opposed to shoehorning the new tech into existing roles), new operational models that may be required, and impact on existing technology and processes.

In the grand scheme of things the technology is the easy part. You can bring in a vendor to implement things in your lab, then transition that to your live network and everything works from a technical and functional perspective. What the vendor can’t do for you is implement that new DevOps mentality into your Engineering team, for example, that is required to manage the new virtualized environment you are creating, along with all of its associated tools. There are vendors out there, such as Itential, that can provide advisory services on top of the technical things they bring to the table to help you make these transitions as smoothly as possible, but it is largely up to you to commit to the cultural evolution required.

Another interesting twist on this is that sometimes this cultural shift is so powerful that there is benefit to tackling it even before the technology is introduced. Sometimes the cultural shift has so much benefit that it alone can bring immediate benefits to the table.

In a previous life I worked for a small service provider in the telecom space. We had a service delivery process for one of our major product sets that was averaging around 65 days from order entry to completion. I was placed in charge of leading the effort to improve this. We had all of these grand plans on how to implement automation technology to reduce this time to 25 days or less. There were regulatory reasons that we thought an average in this range would be as good as we could do, with 20 days being the absolute best even possible. We started mapping and analyzing processes, evaluating vendor solutions, trialing things in our lab…all of the standard things you do in a situation like this.

A funny thing happened. Before we changed a single thing the average dropped to around 58 days. The fact that we were measuring the process more closely, and people knew we were doing so, caused a cultural shift in the way people looked at their day to day tasks. The little things started mattering a little more. As we continued asking questions, changing a role’s responsibilities here and there, and a few other process tweaks we found that that average dropped into the 40-45 day range. Still no technology implementations of ANY kind. It was 100% process and cultural mindset changes to that point.

We were able to drive the process to our 25 day average before the technology was introduced, which allowed us to reach a best point of 18 days on average when we did introduce the automation technology. Two days better than what we thought was the best possible result.

The lessons here?

  1. No vendor can walk in the door with a silver bullet that is going to fix your problems.
  2. No technology solution, regardless of how impressive it is, is going to dramatically shift your business in a positive direction if you don’t put in the work on the people and process sides of things. This is as true in the SDN/NFV world as it ever has been in any other.
  3. If you think technology is the only way you will meet your goals, then you may just not be looking hard enough. If you can be good enough based on your people, process, and cultural strengths, THEN rely on technology to put you over the top, you can be better than you ever thought possible.

Therefore, your culture, people, and processes are truly greater than technology. Technology can be an enabler for greatness, but you must find greatness in your culture first to actually achieve all that you can.