The holy grail of (tech) trends
Big data and Artificial Intelligence (AI) have been the big promises in the business world for some time, with tech giants such as Google and Amazon as great examples. Yet recent research among 85 “Fortune 1000” companies shows that, despite significant investments, the use of Big Data and AI is not yet leading to the expected improvements (Harvard Business Review, February 5, 2021, Why is it so hard to become a data-driven company?, Randy Bean): only 24% of the companies surveyed indicated that they were “data-driven”. In the same study a year earlier this was 38%. The importance of “big data” and AI in decision making is not yet as great as expected.

What is striking is that – for the fifth year in a row! – “Cultural barriers” was cited by 92% of the companies surveyed as the most important obstacle in the development towards a “data-driven” organization.

The promise of innovation …
The realization of promising trends or new management methods is usually more difficult than expected. Well-known examples are the rise of office automation in the eighties, the internet, and “agile” working. There is a systematic underestimation of the time and effort required to implement new ways of working and then use it effectively. In the examples mentioned, the promise was largely correct: office automation has resulted in an enormous efficiency improvement. Thanks to the internet, many business processes can continue as usual in Corona time. And agile working is commonplace within many ICT companies. But for all these developments, the realization of the promise usually took longer than initially expected. And the organizational culture was often cited as an important bottleneck. Apparently people become so enthusiastic about the promise of innovation that the same mistake is made over and over again: an implicit assumption arises that the benefits are so great that success will almost come naturally…

… and the prospect of great results
I have experienced this firsthand. During a “global meeting” of division managers of a multinational I presented a strategic change plan. The presentation had been preceded by months of preparation and coordination. Much time had gone into the way the message was conveyed. And apparently it had worked: the reactions were enthusiastic without exception. “This is a homerun,” I thought. The support for the plan was so great, it only seemed a matter of rolling it out.

This assumption turned out to be completely false. We, too, were blinded by the promise of the plan, inspired by the beautiful prospect of the results we would achieve. Consequently, there was no insight into what was really needed to achieve success while using the existing culture. I later learned that there was insufficient understanding in the organization for the initiative: it had to be explained better. It was only after I had visited branches all over the world to engage people that support grew for the plans and the roll-out gained traction.

Culture is a breeding ground…
Every organizational culture has a unique potential. And that is the breeding ground for success. The question is therefore not how you bring about change despite the culture. The trick is to use the culture – the people with their beliefs, ambitions and behavior – for the intended change. Therefore it is important to understand the causes of resistance and friction.

…not a barrier
“Action is reaction” is what I learned during the Physics lessons in high-school: the force you exert on something leads to the same, opposite force. This law of nature also applies to organizational cultures: the harder you blame them, the greater the resistance, because somehow people feel not understood, and affected in their authenticity and free will.

In this light, the conclusion of the aforementioned study should read: “Apparently, companies have insufficiently organized for success while they were planning the transformation to a data- or AI-driven organization.” So that support and energy could be generated to use data and AI for what they are intended: improving business operations. and realizing competitive advantages.

If there is a ‘Holy Grail’ it ought to be culture
It is not the promise of new technology or new management methods that is the holy grail. If there is one, it ought to be culture: the unique potential of people: they determine the degree of success of any initiative.

The promise of big data and AI is true, at least to a large extent. Moving As One also makes good use of it, to help clients with their change projects. But that promise can only be fulfilled by the organization.

“Slow is fast”
Entrepreneurs and managers who see this make good use of it. And yes, it takes time and a lot of patience to understand how you can take everyone along and set the flywheel of change in motion. But once it is moving well, improvements can emerge suddenly and rather quickly. Or, as the world-famous coach Stephen Covey once put it: “With things, fast is fast. But with people, slow is fast.”

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