Culture is the ultimate barrier to technological change, says MIT professor

MIT engineering professor Yossi Sheffi notes that a core reason for government's initially tepid response to Hurricane Katrina may have been cultural. "If this root cause is not addressed systematically then all the special commissions, forecasting tools, special gear, and training available will not fix the problem," Sheffi notes. Upgrading communications gear and dedicating bandwidth to emergency personnel won't create a culture where bad news is communicated quickly and fearlessly.

Writing in the Boston Globe today, MIT engineering professor Yossi Sheffi notes that a core reason for government's initially tepid response to Hurricane Katrina may have been cultural.  "If this root cause is not addressed systematically then all the special commissions, forecasting tools, special gear, and training available will not fix the problem," Sheffi notes.

He points to three examples from business, two from the tech sector, that illustrate how culture can make the difference between smooth handling of a crises and failure:

  • A fire in a Philips Chip plant impacted both Ericson and Nokia. Ericson had to get out of the cellphone business while Nokia increased market share.
  • A 1999 earthquake in Taiwan disrupted chip manufacturing, shaking Apple deeply while Dell continued to soar.
  • And in 1998, Chiquita recovered more smoothly than Dole from Hurricane Mitch, which struck Latin America.

Sure, says Sheffi, the winning companies had better operational planning and contingency management. But there was something more - choices the companies made by virtue of their cultures. To wit:

  • Empowerment of front-line employees. "Front-line employees are close to the action and can assess what is needed; as a disruption develops there is usually not enough time to go through the usual chain of command," says Sheffi. Contast that with revelations that FEMA chief Michael Brown did not  have authority to mobilize major relief efforts. That power lay solely with Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff.
  • Constant communications. "Intel keeps an emergency center in each region of the world where it is doing business and each center is equipped with landline telephones, cell phones, SSB communications, satellite phones, Internet connections, and even globe-spanning ham radios. But resilient organizations ... create the environment in which communications are important and bad news travels fast." It's all too obvious that the government is operating with far less gear and far less interest in hearing bad news.
  • The big picture: "At UPS, employees are keenly aware of how dependent their customers are on timely deliveries and thus 'nobody goes home until all the packages are delivered' regardless of disruptions." This is perhaps the most intractable problem with government culture, perhaps more so at the federal level than at local levels. If employees don't feel like what they do really matters, they're likely to have a 9 to 5 attitude.

Finally, says Sheffi:

The response to Katrina demonstrated how woefully unprepared the government was at all levels. Instead of taking decisive actions, city, state and federal officials argued with one another; communications broke down, and too many civil servants, from New Orleans police officers to Louisiana state officials to FEMA directors, did not have the urgency or the passion required.

What has to be done is strikingly obvious -- instill a radical change in organizational culture. Will this largely avoidable tragedy change the culture of the organizations involved? We can only hope.

What would it take to instill such a radical cultural change? Must it come from the top? If so, must it come from the President, the Secretary's office, or  can  each group within an agency  make the change on their  own?

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