What’s Your Engineering Culture Like?

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There are many elaborate and accurate definitions for organizational culture, but at its core it’s about the values and behaviors that make up a workplace. These values and behaviors dictate the activities of the individuals who operate within it.

Culture can be a critical piece with regard to training. If an organization’s culture does not value learning, talent will suffer. Therefore, a company must not only understand its culture, it must continuously build and sustain one that supports and enables learning. This will inform the organization’s technical training strategy, affect implementation, adoption rates and subsequent business impact related to any technology or training investment.

Johanna Rothman, president of the Rothman Consulting Group Inc., has spent more than 20 years helping organizations manage successful product development projects. Not only does she help to get the products out the door, she does it so that people will want to continue to work, be innovative, and contribute at a high level. 

Why is it important for an organization to understand its current culture and to actively work to build the one that they want?

With culture, you have to understand – and I’m using former MIT professor Edgar Schein’s definition of culture* – what people can discuss, how you treat people, how people treat each other, and what the organization rewards. That drives absolutely everything. From a training perspective, it drives what you choose to train and for whom.

Back in the 70s and 80s we actually had training budgets, maybe even into the 90s. Starting around the mid-90s all of a sudden, managers thought that people should be totally trained, that they should just know what they needed to do their jobs. That’s never been the case.

When you move from a culture that values coaching and apprenticeship to one that says you must know everything before you come here, that’s a total change. We saw this at a time when the social contract between organizations and people was being broken. The social contract used to promise you had a job for life. But managers started to say, we have interchangeable people. If we don’t need people in this location, we will put them in that one. When you start to treat people as fungible assets, as cogs, people end up treating you the way they are treated. That changed what companies chose to train, the skills they chose to train, and how much training they actually offered.

That kind of cultural issue could be a big problem for technical talent who need to be continuously updated in order to keep up with technology.

Yes. This is why it’s so important to think about: What kind of technical training do we need? What does it look like? Is it something where we bring in training for a few days or a week? For technical training it’s often something like that where you work on your own code with this new operating system, or this new programming language.

Agile is a huge thing in the industry right now, and agile depends on people being able to give honest and open feedback to each other, and in offering and accepting coaching. If you can’t offer coaching and feedback, you can’t be part of an effective cross functional team. And it’s not so much the cross functional team for the engineering or IT team, it’s the management team also.

Feedback, coaching, the ability to give and receive these things, those are inherently cultural phenomenon.

Yes. If your culture says we don’t talk about the success or failure of an ongoing project, if your culture says everything is green until it’s red, how can you possibly give feedback to senior management that there is a problem? How can you problem solve together?

If you think your culture needs some work, how do you take a cultural pulse and evaluate what needs to be done?

First, assess the culture. What kinds of phrases do you hear? Ask yourself and a few other people, how do we treat each other? What’s tolerated in the organization? What’s not tolerated in the organization? What can we discuss?

Everybody tells me they have an open culture, and they can discuss everything. So, I ask the obvious question. Can you discuss salaries? Do you post them? That’s when people say, oh, no. we wouldn’t do that. Well, then you’re not discussing them. You need to know what you can and cannot discuss. Then, ask what do you reward? A lot of organizations still reward hero work, heroic efforts. That’s the antithesis of teamwork. You’re saying, this one person did this great thing, instead of this team delivered their deliverables.

What’s the connection between that attitude and promoting the value of technical training?

If you always have a heroic people, if they continue to deliver, why would you bother to train anybody else?

How could you build a learning culture that would value technical training for more than just your heroes?

Look at what you reward, at all aspects of culture, and then ask what kinds of training do we think we need? Not everybody needs everything. I might think that almost all technical people require interpersonal skills training – I don’t know about you, but I did not get into computers because I was good with people. But let’s ask the team what kinds of things they might consider for training. Where are their problems? Do they have problems with a tool they need training on? Are they having trouble with collaboration? What do they want?

Too often I find that managers impose training on people, and people like the training, but it’s not necessarily what they need. Ask, what would you like? What would make a difference to you? If we use a retrospective from your most recent project, what do you want to improve?

What more can you tell me about how to build a learning culture?

There’s a very nice approach called double loop learning where you challenge your assumptions, not just challenge yourselves. You’ve probably heard of single loop learning, plan the work and work the plan? Double loop learning says don’t just plan the work and work the plan, it asks, do we need to challenge assumptions about our work, either what we’re doing or how we’re doing it.

I would talk with a variety of people, not just the teams but the managers of the teams, and ask them, what kind of assumptions would you like your technical people to challenge? That’s where they might say, we’ve been using this approach to technology for a long time. Is it time to do something different? Should we consider another architecture? How do we want to change our technical approach, not just our interpersonal approach, to figure out what we need to do and when we need to do it?

So, cultural change is about asking questions, not just of those in the workforce, but of those who lead it.

Yes. Leaders and managers have another more strategic perspective on what’s important to the organization. I would like it if they shared that perspective more often, but it might be difficult for them to do so. What do we need to ask our leaders and managers so they can share their perspective and say, we’re headed over here. What kind of training do we need to get there?

The key is to ask, how can we create an environment in which people can feel successful in all aspects of their work? When you start to look at the holistic environment, that’s when you start to say ah, you might want to do some technical training over there with this piece. You might want to do some interpersonal training over there for that piece. Then, how frequently do we want to reassess where we are and figure out if we’re going in the right direction?

* In his classic book “Organizational Culture and Leadership,” Edgar H. Shein, a former professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management discussed how to transform the abstract concept of culture into a practical tool that managers and students can use to understand the dynamics of organizations and change. – Google Books