Culture Change: CIO shares skills, tools and tactics to get it done

Ellucian CIO Lee Congdon explains how his company successfully managed culture change
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Culture change is never easy, but it’s become almost a necessity in today’s business environment. As companies seek to transform themselves, considerable change must happen from the inside out. At Ellucian, we are squarely in the midst of our own culture change as we move from being a technology company to a cloud company. We’ve learned a few things along the way.

The first realization: Culture change cannot be left solely to the People team. Changing a company’s culture requires a deliberate plan and a leadership team that not only buys into it, but also actively supports and sponsors it. Companies face problems when business leaders state they want to change but don’t really support the level of effort required or believe in the need for cultural change. Before an enterprise attempts change on a meaningful level, it must ensure that the business leaders are committed – that they agree it’s not only important, but worth the investment.

[ For more CIO wisdom on culture change, see our related article, Leading culture change: Practical tips from the trenches. ]

Culture change requires more than just an investment in company resources; it is also a test of fortitude and patience, and ultimately, business leaders will be on the line to make some tough decisions.

For instance, some employees will be unwilling or unable to align with the new cultural model. Perhaps some of these same employees will be those who made the enterprise successful in the old model. That’s one of the circumstances that requires business leaders to make tough decisions. Ensuring that the right employees are engaged in the process and that no one disengages takes strong leadership, clear communication, and a lot of time and energy.

Create an ownership mentality

At Ellucian, and particularly in Ellucian IT, our culture change work focuses on increasing ownership and risk-taking across the organization. It’s a big shift from assigning tasks to groups of people, which has made us successful in the past, to asking those people to think about what the customer needs and take the lead in driving toward those solutions more independently. We believe that an ownership mindset and a shared expectation of innovation for everyone in the organization is the key to future success.

As IT evolves to become a team of technology business consultants, we need everyone in IT to better understand the long-term business and financial implications of their decisions and actions. IT people must also develop new communications skills if they want to be influential in a business environment. Organization silos and traditional hierarchical work models are becoming flatter in our culture transformation. In their place, we are implementing cross-functional teams and encouraging everyone to participate, provide input, and help the organization move faster.  

We’ve implemented Slack to enable us to better communicate and to support a flat organization. We’ve also created a physically open environment in our headquarters, where not only everyone in IT, but everyone in the organization, can walk up to anyone else, start a conversation, and get a problem solved quickly. In IT, we’re nudging our team members to present their ideas to wider audiences throughout the enterprise – thus enabling them to develop their skills for selling and defending their proposals.

Rethink the role of managers

[TEP_CALLOUT_TEXT_RIGHT:"Changing our awards and recognition programs to align with our transformation has also started to generate passion for cultural change."]

From a leadership standpoint, we’re positioning our managers as coaches. We’ve established IT business partners to align with each organization in Ellucian, to understand their business, to be a participant in their team meetings, and to become their technology business consultant.

At our most recent annual IT conference, which has historically included technical discussions, product presentations, and vendor demos, we included prominent sessions on culture change. We talked about our business transformation and the concepts of ownership, flattening silos, and how IT can enable and lead the business. We emphasized that cultural transformation is not just management’s decision; it’s the team’s decision and the team’s responsibility moving forward.

Changing our awards and recognition programs to align with our transformation has also started to generate passion for culture change. We recently held an innovation challenge in which we presented a group of IT people with a broad set of business problems to address. We asked them to develop solutions, present them to the group, and get feedback. The winning team was the one that presented the most innovative ideas, as selected by a group of peers and leaders. The competition generated many innovative ideas and was very well received by the organization.

From blame game to problem solving

We are starting to see many positive effects of our culture change throughout IT. The tone of our meetings has changed significantly. We follow agendas developed in advance. We are business-focused. We don’t assign blame; instead we come together to solve problems. It’s no longer the business, separate from IT – it’s a collaborative, blended team.

Our employee engagement surveys and focus groups show the positive results of our cultural transformation and indicate where we still have work to do. Putting the focused time and energy into culture change from the top down is a large effort, but it is contributing in a big way to the ultimate success of our business transformation.

Lee Congdon is Senior Vice President and Chief Information Officer at Ellucian, the leading independent provider of higher education software, services and analytics.