The age-old question, “Which came first, the chicken or the egg?” is a fun debate-starter for lively dinner time conversation or for actual pondering, despite there being no actual firm answer to the question. I think most of us are resigned to that, and we don’t really need an answer. It’s thinking about the question and discussing the possibilities that keeps us entertained.
The same could be said for the 21st century question, “Which comes first? Cultural change or technological change?” Sure, we’ve written articles on how you need the right culture to embrace tech change and culture is a main driver in the digital transformation. Yet we haven’t answered the question. So here’s another question: Do we need to?
Technology drives cultural change in the workplace
Throughout history, technology has driven cultural change. Consider the major cultural and social impacts of the Industrial Revolution, cars, and computers, for example. In our personal lives, technology has brought about cultural change in ways we probably don’t even recognize, such as relying on social media and texts for our communications vs. seeing each other in person, streaming Netflix rather than heading to a local movie theater, or downloading music instead of buying CDs.
As technology advancements are made, they influence workplace culture by enabling change. For example, having a central data repository that’s easily accessed vs. filing cabinets full of papers has broken down barriers and enabled cross-department collaboration. New tools mean teams are the new norm. With 24/7 access to applications and information, employees can work when they are most productive rather than being tied to a 9-to-5 structure. Leadership is less top-down and more across-the-board.
Yet even as I write those words, I am not sure if technology drove culture or vice versa.
Culture drives technological change in the workplace
As powerful as technology can be in driving change, it can also be influenced by a changing culture that demands the tech enable new ways of doing things. For example, consider the history of telecommuting. From the OPEC oil crisis of the 1970s that drove up the price of fuel to the Clean Air Act of 1990 that required businesses to reduce commuting hours, the mindset that people had to be “at work” to work slowly changed as we started to telework from home. Since then, technology has evolved to enable remote workers and today we take the ability to work anywhere, any time for granted thanks to smartphones, laptops, WiFi, and collaborative applications and cloud-based platforms such as Slack and Dropbox.
Did technology enable this change? Or did circumstances drive the technology?
Is being open to change more important than knowing what drives it?
As with the chicken and the egg debate, however, I’m not sure it matters if technology drives workplace culture or vice versa. What matters is being adaptable to that change, and anticipating needs proactively rather than being reactive when a shift comes about.
Being open to change—either technological or cultural—can also work to a company’s advantage. Organizations can use their corporate culture as a recruiting tool, for example, competing for top talent by offering a collaborative, creative environment as opposed to a top-down leadership one. At that point, the culture becomes a competitive advantage, but it does not happen without the technology to enable it.
Maybe there isn’t an answer and maybe it doesn’t matter. Maybe what matters is being open to changes in both culture and technology to ensure your organization is, and continues to be, best-of-breed.