Culture Change Through Technological Seduction

One of the less obvious but more important ways in which the leaders of midlife organizations change cultural assumptions is through the subtle, cumulative, and sometimes unintended consequences of new technology that they introduce deliberately or take advantage of. At one extreme, we can observe the gradual evolutionary diffusion of a technological innova­tion such as the automobile as it displaces not only the horse and buggy but also, eventually, many of the assumptions and rituals that accompanied the old technology. The infusion of information technology today is probably comparable. At the other extreme, technological seduction involves the deliberate, managed introduction of specific new technologies to change member behavior, which will, in turn, require them to reexamine their pres­ent assumptions and adopt new values, beliefs, and assumptions.

The espoused reason for the introduction of new technologies is almost always that it will increase efficiency and productivity, but sometimes the goal is to reduce what the leader perceives to be too much cultural diversity by deliberately introducing a seemingly neutral or progressive technology that has the effect of getting people to think and behave in common terms. Sometimes the goal is to force assumptions out into the open in a neutral and ostensibly nonthreatening way. Sometimes the technology is physical, such as the introduction of robots into an assembly line or the automa­tion of a chemical or nuclear plant, and sometimes it is a socio-technical process, such as the introduction of a formal total quality program or the introduction of a new information technology process that requires stan­dard behavior from everyone.

Many companies have used educational interventions to introduce a new social technology as part of an organization development program, with the avowed purpose of creating some common concepts and language in a situ­ation where they perceive a lack of shared assumptions; for example, Blake’s Managerial Grid (Blake and Mouton, 1969; Blake, Mouton and McCanse, 1989). The most recent and increasingly popular versions of this type of intervention are “Systems Dynamics” and “The Learning Organization” as presented in Senge ’s The Fifth Discipline (1990, 2006), and Total Quality Management, as presented in a variety of books and programs (for example, Ciampa, 1992; Womack, Jones, and Roos, 2007). The assumption underlying this strategy is that a new common language and concepts in a given cultural area, such as “how people relate to subordinates” or “how people define reality in terms of their mental models,” will gradually force organization members to adopt a common frame of reference that will eventually lead to common assumptions. As the organization builds up experience and resolves crises successfully, new shared assumptions gradually come into being.

The growing practice of introducing personal computers and related information technology tools to several layers of management as a vehicle for networking the organization, the mandatory attendance at training courses, the introduction of expert systems to facilitate decision making, and the use of various kinds of groupware to facilitate meetings across time and space bar­riers all clearly constitute another version of technological seduction, though perhaps unintended by the original architects (Gerstein, 1987; Grenier and Metes, 1992; Johansen and others, 1991; Savage, 1990; Schein, 1992).

In high hazard organizations such as Alpha Power, the introduction of cell phones for all operators has not only made field operations more efficient but has changed relations between supervisors and front-line employees. In the chemical industry, Zuboff (1984) showed how the automation of the control room displaced many workers who could not switch from using observation, smell, and other hands-on techniques for control to monitor­ing data on a computer screen. Barley’s (1988) study of the introduction of CT scanners into hospitals showed how relations between technicians and radiologists were fundamentally altered.

An unusual example of technological seduction was provided by a manager who took over a British transportation company that had grown up with a royal charter 100 years earlier and had developed strong traditions around its blue trucks with the royal coat of arms painted on their sides (Lewis, 1988). The company was losing money because it was not aggressively seeking new concepts of how to sell transportation. After observing the company for a few months, the newly appointed CEO abruptly and without giving reasons ordered that the entire fleet of trucks be painted solid white. Needless to say, there was consternation. Delegations urging the president to reconsider, protestations about loss of identity, predictions of total economic disaster, and other forms of resistance arose. All of these were patiently listened to, but the president simply reiterated that he wanted it done, and soon. He eroded the resistance by making the request nonnegotiable.

After the trucks were painted white, the drivers suddenly noticed that customers were curious about what they had done and inquired what they would now put on the trucks in the way of new logos. These questions got the employees at all levels thinking about what business they were in and initiated the market-oriented focus that the president had been trying to establish in the first place. Rightly or wrongly, he assumed that he could not get this broader focus just by requesting it. He had to seduce the employees into a situation in which they had no choice but to rethink their identity.

Beyond these intra-organizational processes, we have to acknowl­edge that the broader IT revolution is at least as powerful as the introduc­tion of the automobile in creating sweeping world-wide changes even in the concept of “organization” and “occupational community.” As Tyrell puts it in his summary of these impacts:

. . . the development and deployment of rapid interactive communications tech­nologies (especially . . . the Internet, intranets, EDI, and the World Wide Web) has produced new environments that give many people unprecedented access to specialized communities of interest.” (In Ashkanasy, Wilderhorn, and Peterson, 2000, p. 96)

If the boundaries of organizations and occupational communities become fluid, the whole question arises of how culture can form and operate in a group of people who interact only electronically. Some of the most fundamental aspects of culture deal with how people manage their interactions, so in the electronic age, new forms of social contract will have to evolve to deal with authority and intimacy issues.

For example, many professional service firms now consist of a very small headquarters organization and a vast network of the relevant experts (law­yers, consultant, doctors) who are “on call” but are not employees of the organization except on a contract basis. As various employment contracts change, the concept of what is a “career” changes as well, leading to further cultural evolution in the macrocultural domain.

Source: Schein Edgar H. (2010), Organizational Culture and Leadership, Jossey-Bass; 4th edition.

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