The Business of IT

Culture of Learning

What does getting lost on the streets of Buenos Aires have to do with high performance? I could see my destination—a restaurant near Puerto Madero—clearly on the map in my hand, yet every turn I made seemed to take me farther away. It made no sense to me. I began to become frustrated. I always thought of myself as having an excellent sense of direction, yet none of my skills were helping me. What was wrong? I was about to give up and call an Uber.

Then I realized. I had been navigating using the context that I had learned in my childhood in North America, where the sun is in the Southern half of the sky. But I was in the Southern hemisphere, for the first time, where the heuristic must be reversed. So every time I turned left I should have turned right, and vice-versa. Once I realized the correct context, the map suddenly made sense and I quickly reached my destination (and had a delicious meal).

What had happened? I had been operating under assumptions that were not true for my current context. This disconnect happens often in organizations, and it kills performance.

Everyone in your organization should share a vision about the purpose of the organization. I don’t mean the goals—though those are important—but goals change, and I am referring to something more fundamental: an agreement that everyone’s purpose is to learn together. To learn how to deliver better products, more quickly, more safely, and more sustainably. To learn about the customer, the problem domain, and the tools that must be wielded to fill the customer’s needs. To learn.

This common agreement about how we make our decisions is what we call culture. And a culture of learning is paramount for achieving high performance. Seek to become a learning organization.

The Business of IT

Don’t become a software business, become a learning organization

Watts S. Humphrey famously said, “every business is a software business.” Unfortunately, this statement has been misconstrued by well-meaning IT practitioners to demand primacy in the organization’s strategy, budgeting, and focus. But nothing could be more dysfunctional than letting technology lead your business.

A business exists to serve customers, and nothing else matters. Customers don’t care about anything “behind the curtain,” only the elements of your business with which they interact.

Here it is laid out in a convenient table:

Customers don’t care about:Customers do care about:
The tools you use while creating itThe tools they use to consume it
The clothing you wear while building itThe clothing you wear while interacting with them
The corporate mission statementThe company’s impact on their values
How easy it is to create itHow easy it is to consume it
Your share priceHow well you will serve them in the future

Do customers care what technology you use? No. The technology you use is just a tool to create the product/service.

Stop letting your technology organizations lead with technology. Instead, transform your entire organization—including the technology functions—into a learning organization. A learning organization rapidly learns about:

  • the customer
  • the problem domain
  • the tools they must wield to fill the customer’s need.

What are the elements of a successful learning organization? Watch this space for my next article.