Cultural debt can be the primary driver of technical debt

Last updated on July 17th, 2021 at 06:53 am

Cultural debt can be expensive. Like technical debt, it can incur ongoing metaphorical interest charges (MICs). Schein defines organizational culture as “…a pattern of shared basic assumptions learned by a group as it solved its problems of external adaptation and internal integration…” [Schein 2016]. Following the concept of technical debt, we can regard as cultural debt the subset of shared basic assumptions comprising enterprise culture that are no longer fitting for enterprise realities. We can also include as cultural debt any assumptions that ought to be shared, but which are missing or are only partially shared. And we can include shared assumptions that conflict with each other and need to be resolved.

An example of cultural debt: the term “IT”

A tape measure calibrated in both feet/inches and meters/centimeters
A tape measure calibrated in both feet/inches and meters/centimeters. We can regard the need to possess tools that serve both measurement systems as the metaphorical interest charges on a technical debt. The debt is the result of failing to retire the older “English” system. But from another perspective, the debt involved is actually cultural. Retiring the older system would truly involve a cultural shift.
For most modern enterprises, an element of cultural debt is the very term ITinformation technology. Coined in 1958 by Leavitt and Whisler [Leavitt 1958], the term was then appropriate. It was apt up to about 20 years ago. Until then, the role of IT was primarily management, storage, retrieval, manipulation, and presentation of information. Although those functions remain relevant, the responsibilities of IT have expanded dramatically since then. In many organizations, IT is now responsible for designing, implementing, and maintaining the communication infrastructure. That infrastructure includes Internet access, personal computers, networking, Web presence, telephones, video conferencing equipment, and television.

The modern role of communication

Communication plays a critical and strategic role. An essential element for success is a clear understanding of what IT does and what it contributes. Regarding IT as the “information technology” function of the enterprise therefore risks overlooking and undervaluing these more recently acquired responsibilities. And since the IT function is no longer solely responsible for enterprise information, using the name “IT” or the term information technology risks overvaluing the role of the IT organization relative to information management, while undervaluing its role relative to communications.

In Schein’s culture framework, the term IT reflects a shared assumption about IT’s role. That assumption is that IT is responsible for information. Unfortunately, that assumption is no longer well aligned to the reality of IT’s role. We can regard this misalignment as a cultural debt.

The consequences of cultural debt

The consequences of this particular kind of cultural debt can be severe. For instance, IT is typically responsible for selecting and configuring software for personal computers (PCs). This responsibility can arise as a consequence of two shared assumptions. First is the assumption that computers process information, and second, that IT is responsible for technology-based information processing. The result is that the person who uses the computer doesn’t make all decisions about what many regard as a “personal” computers. When the IT decision differs from the personal preferences of the computer user, we can find conflict.

Worse, a centralized decision process for determining PC configurations is likely to produce outcomes less suitable than would a process more focused at the individual level. That adds to the frustrations of PC users, and exacerbates the conflict between them and IT. To mitigate the risk that some PC users might circumvent IT policy, IT must take steps to prevent such actions. We can regard all of that activity, on the part of both IT and the PC users, as metaphorical interest charges on cultural debt.

An example of retiring cultural debt

In 1987, Edward Yourdon founded a magazine then known as American Programmer. In 1990, Cutter Information Corporation purchased the rights to American Programmer and created Cutter IT Journal. That name includes the term IT. At the time, IT was more suitable than the term programmer. As noted above, the term IT, while once useful and apt, is now outmoded at best and often misleading. Just as the functional name IT in organizations constitutes cultural debt, so it does in the name of a journal.

So in the autumn of 2016, Cutter IT Journal retired the cultural debt in its name, and became Cutter Business Technology Journal. Journals rarely change their names. When they do, the impact of the journal is temporarily depressed. The reduction in impact is due to the split of citations between the former title and the new title. That effect lasts for about two years or so [Tempest 2005]. But as research fields change, their journals must keep pace. Evidently Cutter felt a significant need to retire its cultural debt—significant enough to justify a temporary reduction in impact.

What about cultural debt retirement in companies?

Difficulties associated with retiring cultural debt depend strongly on both the nature of the culture and the nature of the debt. To provide insight into these issues, let’s continue with our exploration of the term IT and its cultural implications.

In many organizations, IT reports to a Chief Information Officer (CIO). Associated with this official’s title are some of the same cultural debts we find for the name “IT”. First, CIOs aren’t the only officers with information management responsibility. Second, many CIOs have responsibilities that transcend information management. Their responsibilities include, for example, the communication infrastructure. Unlike other peer titles such as CEO, CFO, CMO, and COO, the CIO title evokes separation from business-oriented decisions. That separation contributes to a cultural wall between “IT” and “the business.”

The view of IT as an information-centric service organization is perhaps a remnant of the 20th century. Cultures that have this view can become problematic for the organization. The problem is that they tend to regard IT as a source of expense to be minimized, rather than as a strategic partner [Ross 2000]. Still, trends toward strategic acceptance of IT are favorable, according to recent surveys of CIOs [CIO 2018].

The reality is that business technology must contribute to formulation and implementation of enterprise strategy. But some CIOs and their organizations are viewed as separate from “the business.” This limits their ability to help shape enterprise strategy. But it also subjects them to cultural assumptions about their responsibilities that in some instances conflict with each other. That’s a significant source of the metaphorical interest charges on the cultural debt.

One way out of this cultural debt

One possible way to retire this debt might entail retitling Chief Information Officer to Chief Business Technology Officer (CBTO). That’s precisely what happened at Forrester Research in 2011 [Plant 2014].

Unfortunately, the name CBTO conflicts with the three-word pattern of enterprise officer titles (C*O), which might create an urge to name the office Chief Technology Officer (CTO). But that role usually has responsibility for the functions that create technological products or services. Thus, for many organizations, to create a CBTO where there is already a CTO might create further sources of conflict. Using the CTO designation for the CBTO is probably impractical.

But we must find some way to retire this particular cultural debt, because it’s such an effective generator of technical debt. CBTO seems to be the best available path.


[CIO 2018] CIO. “2018 State of the Cio: CIOs Race Towards Digital Business,” CIO, winter 2018.

Available: here; Retrieved March 30, 2018

Cited in:

[Leavitt 1958] Harold J. Leavitt and Thomas L. Whisler. “Management in the 1980s,” Harvard Business Review, November-December, 36, 41-48, 1958.

Cited in:

[Plant 2014] Robert Plant. “IT Has Finally Cracked the C-Suite,” Harvard Business Review, July 16, 2014.

Available: here; Retrieved: April 8, 2018

Cited in:

[Ross 2000] Jeanne W. Ross and David F. Feeny. “The Evolving Role of the CIO,” in Framing the Domains of IS Management Research: Glimpsing the Future through the Past, edited by Robert W. Zmud. Pinnaflex, 2000.

Available: here; Retrieved: December 20, 2017.

Cited in:

[Schein 2016] Edgar H. Schein. Organizational Culture and Leadership, Fifth Edition, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2016.

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Cited in:

[Tempest 2005] “The effect of journal title changes on impact factors,” Learned Publishing 18, 57–62, 2005.

Available: here; Retrieved: April 5, 2018

Cited in:

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