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.

References

[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.

Order from Amazon

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:

Other posts in this thread

Self-sustaining technical knowledge deficits during contract negotiations

Last updated on July 7th, 2021 at 07:56 pm

Avoid technical knowledge deficits in important contract negotiations
Contract negotiations can be complex

Enterprises that grow by acquisition inevitably acquire the technological assets of the organizations they acquire. And most enterprises acquire technological assets by other means as well. The contract negotiation teams need technical knowledge to accurately project the effects of these acquisitions on enterprise technical debt. But as total enterprise technical debt grows, the capacity of enterprise technologists to support new contract negotiations declines. That leads to a self-sustaining cycle of technical knowledge deficits. Hiring more technologists is the way to break the cycle. And policymakers and strategic planners are likely the most effective possible advocates for adopting that solution.

Negotiating contracts with significant technological content relating to acquiring assets can require special expertise. In the asset acquisition process, assessing the technical debt status of the assets is often necessary. Such contracts include contracts with vendors that provide outsourcing services or subcontracting work, or contracts with organizations to be acquired. Moreover, the technical debt in question includes more than just the debt the asset carries as it stands in its pre-acquisition context. It also includes the debt that the asset will carry after insertion into the asset portfolio of the acquiring enterprise.

These two debts—pre-acquisition and post-acquisition—can differ. The main source of difference is that the interfaces, standards, and approaches of the acquiring organization likely differ from those prevailing within the vendor organization or the acquired organization. Making a valid assessment of the post-acquisition levels of technical debt requires knowledge of the interfaces, standards, and approaches of both organizations.

A vicious cycle

The enterprise negotiation team therefore requires the services of technologists. These technologists must be familiar with the modifications the acquired assets will need after the acquisition. But problems can arise. Specifically, resource contention occurs when technical debt levels in the enterprise reach a level so serious that debt service requires the full attention of all available technologists. If that happens negotiating contracts usually gets less attention. Contract negotiation teams then experience a deficit of knowledge concerning the consequences of acquiring assets laden with technical debt. That leads to increasing levels of nonstrategic technical debt. And that condition has the potential to exacerbate the technical knowledge deficit for the negotiating teams.

This situation is an example of a dynamic widely known as a vicious cycle. After technical debt has reached a critical level, there are really only two tactics that can break the cycle—get more engineers, or suspend some work.

References

[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.

Order from Amazon

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:

Other posts in this thread

Organizational culture and technical debt

Last updated on July 7th, 2021 at 03:18 pm

A bonsai tree
A bonsai tree. We cannot control the growth of bonsai in detail. We can only make suggestions, and hope that the tree will follow our guidance. So it is with organizational culture.

Organizational culture affects—and is affected by—everything the organization does. It is complex beyond imagining. It creates leaders and leaders shape culture [Schein 2016]. Fortunately, for our narrow purposes—namely, improving how we manage technical debt—we need not explore every available model of culture. All we need to know is how to adjust cultures so that they’re more amenable to technical debt management efforts. Even so, that’s an ambitious objective.

Organizational culture is the collection of values, beliefs, and principles the people of the organization share. Some of these elements are within the awareness of the organization’s people. But some might not be. Culture excludes behavior; behavior is a result of the combined effects of personal choices and organizational culture.

With respect to technical debt, our objective is ambitious because it is at once specific and general. It is general in the sense that as a goal, we would like to devise prescriptions for all organizational cultures as they strive to be more effective in managing technical debt. It is specific in the sense that we’re concerned only with those cultural factors that affect technical debt management.

The case for considering cultural effects on technical debt

But aren’t there enough technical problems to keep us occupied before we get involved in all that culture change stuff? The answer to that, I believe, is yes. But we can make more rapid progress if we allow considerations of culture to guide our technical investigations.

Some of our best minds have been working on the technical debt problem for more than two decades, mostly from the technological perspective. True, we haven’t given the issue the attention and resources it deserves. That might be changing now, but one can reasonably ask a simple question: If some of the causes of the technical debt problem are cultural, and if we begin to make some technological progress in reducing the burden of technical debt, wouldn’t the cultural causes begin to dominate at some point? If that were to happen, the effectiveness of our technical solutions would appear to decline, even though they might be “right,” because technical solutions cannot address cultural problems.

It seems only prudent to prepare for that case by examining the role of culture in creating technical debt and preventing or delaying its retirement.

A reasonable goal might be to define a set of attributes an organizational culture should have if the organization wants to limit the contributions of culture to the formation and persistence of technical debt. I suspect that for most cultures, change would be required, because most organizations now carry more technical debt than they would care to acknowledge.

As with all culture change efforts, we seek, in the end, to modify the behavior of the people who live within that culture. We want to modify aspects of the culture so as to lead its people to be more likely to make choices that are consistent with prudent technical debt management.

Where to from here

With that goal in mind, I’m opening a thread in this blog that I hope will stimulate your thinking and mine about how organizational culture and technical debt interact. This post will contain an outline of these ruminations. Here’s what I have so far:

References

[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.

Order from Amazon

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:

Related posts

Technical debt in the highway system

Last updated on July 18th, 2021 at 07:08 pm

The ghost ramps of highway I-695 in Somerville, Massachusetts
The ghost ramps of highway I-695 in Somerville, Massachusetts. Photo (cc) Nick Allen.

Interstate 695 was planned in 1955 as an “inner belt” circumferential route in Boston and adjacent towns. When cancelled in 1971, construction had already begun. The cancellation thus resulted in an incomplete implementation.

Newly constructed roads and mass transit now use the rights of way that were the original paths for I-695. Some never-used structures remain to this day, including a “ghost ramp” in Somerville that would have connected I-695 to I-93. Because this ramp is a mere stub that begins on an elevated stretch of I-93 and ends in mid-air, barriers across the stub entrance prevent accidental use. The ghost ramp constitutes technical debt because it’s an incomplete implementation. Google satellite view

For safety reasons, regular inspections, maintenance, and insurance are necessary for the ghost ramp. But it provides no utility and serves no civic purpose. Because the cost of retiring this technical debt—namely, demolition costs—would likely exceed the present value of the lifetime costs of inspection, maintenance, and insurance, the ghost ramp remains.

Sometimes, the best way to deal with technical debt is to leave it in place.

References

[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.

Order from Amazon

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:

Related posts

Case 3: Help desk operations

Last updated on July 7th, 2021 at 10:32 am

This case illustrates how a decision to incur technical debt in one part of an organization can burden others with the metaphorical interest charges (MICs) on that debt. To gain effective control of technical debt, hold accountable those who make the decisions that lead to incurring new debt.

Background

A tech support person at workDuring the troubles following release of UGI’s StrawIntoGold 1.0 product, the Help Desk operated by UGI’s Customer Service Department was inundated with calls. Customer Service alerted Engineering. Engineering provided an explanation and an estimated repair date to pass on to callers. But neither Engineering management nor Customer Service management provided a script for the representatives. Consequently, calls took approximately 15% longer to handle than they would have if with a script. Further, the message conveyed to customers wasn’t always clear or consistent. That resulted in some customers calling repeatedly with the same issue.

Discussion

We can view as incurring a technical debt the decision not to provide customer service representatives with a script. We can view as the metaphorical interest charges the extra time handling calls, the extra calls, and even a few lost customers. Because of the singular nature of this incident, it’s doubtful that anyone will write a script. But if someone were to do so, the cost of writing it, distributing it, and training all customer service representatives would be the metaphorical principal of this technical debt.

The policymaker’s perspective

UGI doesn’t have a means of holding accountable those who incurred the debt. In this case, the Customer Service function incurs additional expenses because Engineering and Customer Service elected not to develop a script.

Other components of the metaphorical interest charges include the total of lost sales, damage to UGI’s reputation, and possible loss of market share. Marketing could have stepped in to assist with limiting that damage. But because they viewed the problem as technical, they didn’t participate. A whole-enterprise perspective on managing the technical debt might have led to a collaboration among Engineering, Marketing, and Customer Service. That collaboration could help build better relationships with the customers who were affected by the incident.

Accounting properly for the MICs associated with technical debt can lead to a better understanding of its effects.

References

[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.

Order from Amazon

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:

Related posts

Case 1: A platform upgrade

Last updated on July 18th, 2021 at 07:13 pm

This case involves deferring a platform upgrade for SharePoint sites. It illustrates the importance of the policymaker’s view of technical debt, as compared to the view that restricts technical debt to the engineering or IT functions.

Background
File servers in a rack
File servers in a rack. Photo (cc) Abigor courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Growth at the fictional company Unbelievable Growth, Inc., (UGI) has been so unbelievable that there is now a shortage of financial resources. Resources are especially tight for migrating the last groups of SharePoint users from SharePoint 2010 to SharePoint 2013. Consequently, the CFO instructed IT to continue to support SharePoint 2010 for at least two more quarters. Meanwhile, the affected SharePoint users must continue to use SharePoint 2010. Someday, currently set for two quarters from now, IT and the users of SharePoint 2010 will migrate to SharePoint 2013. Both IT and the users might need to expend resources to keep the SharePoint 2010 site operational. Users who make enhancements to their SharePoint 2010 sites will migrate that work to the SharePoint 2013 site. Unfortunately, that might require some rework that would have been unnecessary if the migration had not been deferred.

Discussion

We can regard as a debt UGI’s decision to defer the SharePoint migration. Because it isn’t a financial obligation, we call it a technical debt. UGI must retire that technical debt two quarters from now, when they finally execute the migration from SharePoint 2010 to SharePoint 2013. We can regard the cost of the final migration as the (metaphorical) principal of the technical debt. In the meantime, IT and the users must do some work that might have been unnecessary if they could have performed the migration now. We can regard that extra work as the (metaphorical) interest charges on that technical debt.

The policymaker’s perspective

Some—indeed most—conventional views of technical debt do not regard the deferred upgrade as technical debt, for various reasons—it isn’t software, or it isn’t in a product, or it isn’t a shortcut taken for expedience, and so on. Moreover, the person who made the decision to take on the debt was the CFO, who isn’t an engineer, and who might not even realize that the implications of the decision result in taking on technical debt.

But from the viewpoint of the policymaker, the commitment to execute the upgrade in the future is equivalent to accepting a technical obligation. For the enterprise, it’s a technical debt. Following UGI’s current accounting procedures, the SharePoint users and IT will pay the metaphorical interest on that technical debt. It will appear as an operating expense for those groups. That’s unfortunate, because the purpose of deferring the upgrade was unrelated to their operations. It was an enterprise cost-leveling maneuver. As such, the enterprise should probably account for the costs at the enterprise level to ensure accurate representation of the operational costs for the SharePoint users and for IT, and to accurately represent the CFO’s operations.

Non-technical decisions, occurring anywhere in the enterprise, can sometimes lead to incurring technical debt. Enterprise policy intended to support effective technical debt management must take these phenomena into account.

References

[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.

Order from Amazon

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:

Related posts