As many as 85 percent of survey respondents believe the culture of IT can differ from the overall culture of a firm, according to a recent report by Forrester Research entitled "Does your IT culture need an overhaul?"
In fact, IT department culture is probably not a match with overall corporate culture in about half of all businesses, Forrester analyst Marc Cecere estimated. The research firm interviewed 15 CIOs in depth and surveyed 41 IT decision makers for the study, which defines corporate culture as the way individuals feel themselves to be part of a company's identity.
"Sometimes your IT is organized around efficiency and your business is organized more around responsiveness," Cecere said in an interview.
A distinct IT culture may evolve in a firm due to the different ways each department measures success. And, in a large company where leadership varies among departments, cultural gaps are almost inevitable, Cecere noted.
However, the report states, problems can arise when the culture of IT strays too far in three directions:
-- Too IT-centric, insular or fearful - When IT doesn't have a healthy relationship with the rest of the enterprise, it's in danger of forming what Forrester calls "an us-versus-them culture where IT hunkers down behind the technologies they manage, problems they solve, and metrics like help desk tickets served, system capacity, uptime, and volumes."
-- Too heroic, free range or autonomous - The dangers inherent in this style are a tendency to firefighting and working extreme hours to solve problems for customers. This can also spawn a tendency to developing workarounds, rather than understanding and fixing the underlying issues.
-- Too bureaucratic - IT departments can isolate themselves from the business if they set up too many formal processes that customers must follow. In the interests of comprehensiveness or security they may ask customers to submit overly complex requirements definitions and the like, but this can create unnecessary barriers between business needs and IT solutions, according to Forrester.
Cecere believes a company operates most effectively when the cultures between IT and other departments are in sync.
"At a minimum, the cultures shouldn't be in conflict with each other," he said.
So, how does a CIO go about overhauling IT culture?
The first step, Cecere said, is to clearly identify the cultural gaps, examining differences in decision-making styles and levels of risk between IT and other departments.
Once identified, strong leadership and clearly defined metrics of success will aid in closing those gaps, as will a strong network of people within IT who share information with the CIO on a regular basis.
"It's what I call institutionalizing communication," he said. "It's more than just communicate, communicate, communicate, which you hear all the time. It's actually being very disciplined and very organized about it."
Performing such an overhaul, though, requires patience, as Cecere admitted a cultural shift is "a long process."
"You can change systems quickly compared to how fast you change culture," he said, "because culture is a lot about how people act when you're not looking at them."