Cultural debt can be the primary driver of technical debt

Last updated on May 15th, 2018 at 01:34 pm

Cultural debt can be expensive because, like technical debt, it can incur ongoing metaphorical interest charges. 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. The need to possess tools that serve both measurement systems can be viewed as the metaphorical interest charges on a technical debt resulting from the failure 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, one element of cultural debt is the very term IT itself — information technology. Coined in 1958 by Leavitt and Whisler [Leavitt 1958], the term was apt up to as recently as 20 years ago, when the role of IT was primarily management, storage, retrieval, manipulation, and presentation of data — information — by technological means. Although those functions remain relevant, the responsibilities of IT have expanded dramatically since 1958. In many organizations, IT is now responsible for designing, implementing, and maintaining the communication infrastructure, including Internet access, personal computers, networking, Web presence, telephones, video conferencing equipment, and television.

In modern organizations in which communication plays a critical and strategic role, an essential element for success is a clear understanding of what IT does and what it contributes. To regard IT as the “information technology” function of the enterprise is, therefore, to risk 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 the focus and span of the IT function. That assumption is that IT is responsible for information—an assumption that is no longer well aligned to the reality of the role of IT. We can regard this misalignment as a 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) — both desktop and laptop. This responsibility can arise as a consequence of two shared assumptions. First, that computers process information, and second, that IT is responsible for technology-based information processing. The result is that decisions about what many regard as a “personal” computer are not in the control of the person who uses the computer. This conflict in shared assumptions can lead to conflict between PC users and IT, when the IT decision is at variance with their personal preferences.

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, which only adds to the frustrations of PC users, and exacerbates the conflict between them and IT. To mitigate the risk that some PC users might try to circumvent IT policy, IT must deploy technology to ensure adherence to their policies. 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 toAmerican Programmer and created Cutter IT Journal, which 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 because of the split of citations between the former title and the new title for 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 effect on impact.

What about cultural debt retirement in companies?

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

In many organizations, IT reports to an enterprise Chief Information Officer (CIO). Associated with this official’s title are some of the same cultural debts we find associated with the name of the IT organization. First, within their organizations, CIOs aren’t the only officers with information management responsibility. Second, many CIOs have responsibilities that extend beyond information management, to include, for example, the communication infrastructure. And 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.”

When cultures view IT as an information-centric service organization, a remnant perhaps of the middle or late 20th century, they tend to regard IT as a source of expense to be minimized, rather than as a strategic partner [Ross 2000]. Trends toward strategic acceptance of IT are nevertheless favorable, with room for improvement, according to recent surveys of CIOs [CIO 2018], probably because of reality.

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

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