One of the explanations for why change in the workplace can fail, particularly the introduction of systems built on new technology, is ‘culture’, as in the culture of the organisation is not ready for the new technology or the solution (e.g. sharing knowledge) doesn’t fit with the culture of the organisation.
That isn’t an explanation. It’s an excuse.
Time and again on the Internet, conventional wisdom about what people will and won’t do is challenged by evidence that begs to differ. Grandparents are supposed to be technology-averse and not understand the Internet. That soon changes if their children move abroad and webcams and Facebook are the easiest way to keep in touch and watch the grandchildren grow up. The old argument that nobody bothers to classify information fell flat when Flickr and photo tagging came along.
In short, culture is used as an excuse when the real reason for failure to adopt new systems is because the target audience doesn’t see any value in what they are being asked to do versus what they have been doing in the past. And so they either don’t change or do reluctantly, which can have worse outcomes than not doing anything at all.
Culture matters in the interpretation of how people use systems, how they communicate. But the differences are regional, not organisational. In some countries, talking up your success is perceived negatively as boasting. In others, modesty is misinterpreted as lacking ambition. People in some societies say ‘Yes’ to every question regardless of what the question is asking, sometimes before you’ve even finished asking the qeustion. In others, the default response is ‘No’. Some societies expect permission to be asked before doing something, others admire those who try and ask forgiveness if the outcome doesn’t go to plan. These differences will affect how people communicate and the words they choose to use, verbally and in written form.
If you need to make a judgement based on what people say and do, interpreting information to compensate for cultural differences will improve your chances of making the right decision. But culture does not prevent people from adapting and using new systems.
Systems fail because they are poorly designed and don’t offer benefits to the people expected to use them. It reminds me of a quote from a Gartner conference, that went along the lines:
Ask a sales person what they need from a new system and it’s one requirement – make it easier for me to sell more stuff. Ask a sales manager and you’ll get 400 requirements on how to report, analyse and manage what gets sold.
The latter gets built and its failure will have nothing to do with culture (or technology for that matter) and everything to do with creating a system that takes longer to sell anything at all.