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Is Kiwi Culture holding back Tech?

Ian Apperley, Guest post. 31 August 2016, 12:21 pm
Is Kiwi Culture holding back Tech?

Culture is a difficult thing to define, my favourite definition is; "the ideas, customs, and social behaviour of a particular people or society." While culture lends us a sense of self and our place in the world, sometimes our cultural foibles can hold us back. I've been asking people what cultural aspects hold back Tech in New Zealand. 

The "Number 8 wire" mentality is both a blessing and a curse. On the upside it allows us to innovate, often when we are under resourced and under pressure, but on the downside it can cause us to choose the cheapest of options, or to create bespoke, Frankenstein technology solutions that crumble over time. Choosing the cheapest option in a tender is a guaranteed path to hell. 

Number 8 wire is an excellent skill to produce innovative thinking, but we need to start thinking of the wire, the fence, the paddocks, the farm, and the whole market in which we all operate. 

We think we're special, but we're not. The problem with thinking that you are special is that you over complicate technology to meet the strange cultural elements of an organisation or company. Again, we end up taken perfectly good technology and bending it to fit whatever weird business processes we've created, which often ends up taking the productivity out of the service we were trying to gain in the first place. Most government agencies do two things: create policy, and pay out money. It's pretty simple when you think about it. 

We can make technology a hell of a lot simpler than we do. Minimum viable products and user narratives about core processes make for a much better deployment. 

We don't connect with each other enough. It could be related to the fact we think we are special, however it seems that once we start working in an organisation we completely lose sight of the fact there are 100,000 other tech workers in New Zealand in a myriad of companies and agencies. 

Connecting should take up a good day a week of your time. Interacting with other tech workers instantly expands our minds, gives us new experience, educates us, provides mentoring, and ultimately lets us make better decisions about our technology. 

We need to take more time to learn to think strategically. It's not something that comes easily and there are people and organisations out there that can help. Bringing back that creativity, wonder, and imagination (the reasons why we got into tech in the first place) is important to the industry.  

Being (broadly speaking) a "Hobbit Like" people we hate conflict. We avoid it, manage it badly, take it personally, and have very few skills to actually debate different aspects of an issue. We tend to "groupthink" to avoid conflict and throw stones at anyone who comes up with a good idea. Our sense of village is very, very strong. Anything that looks different is a threat. 

I've seen entire organisations struggle because they aren't brave enough to deal with resource that aren't performing. We'll do everything other than being honest including trying to redeploy people internally to keep them a job, while getting rid of them from our area. 

We have to get better at giving people direct feedback about performance and being brave if we can't help them. I struggle this one personally, it's very challenging for me to sit down and tell people that they are failing and asking how I can help them out. The worst thing we can do is just watch people fail. We wouldn't want it to happen to us, but we need to learn to be up front and we can still be nice about it. 

We have this perception that bigger is better. It amazes me that New Zealand has a tech industry that is bigger than either Dairy or Tourism (as per the Digital Nation report), and yet a lot of the work is export based. We often overlook local tech companies to help us in our organisations in deference to large multi-nationals. Don't get me wrong, all tech companies have their skill sets, but we are wilfully blind to the local success stories that could help us. 

We should make it easier for local, smaller, tech companies not only to present their solutions but also find their way through the morass of red tape that organisations have created on the contract side. I still shake my head when I see a contract that is more than ten pages long. It's unnecessary. At some of the more successful organisations I have worked with the contract is no more than two pages long. I don't know what the answer to this particular issue is, but I do know that we miss a huge opportunity to work with tech companies that are wildly successful internationally and could be transformational for our economy. 

We love to reinvent the wheel. I think at our heart, Kiwis are very curious but we are not well trained in the tech industry. During the collapse around 1990 and then 2000, organisations stopped training staff in IT. That was a glorious mistake. Because now we have to instinctually learn how to make all these components and technology work. The best way to do that, is to recreate the wheel. 

Government does not need edicts from the GCIO on which products to choose. It's an expensive proposition fraught with risk and old thinking. What we need is the GCIO to create the wheels for us, then turn that IP over to government agencies and private companies. Leveraging the very skilled resource in GCIO to advise organisations would give New Zealand a massive competitive advantage while also increasing productivity and reducing the reliance on consultants. 

These are just my observations on how Kiwi Culture can hold us back and I am very interested to hear your feedback on your perceptions. 


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Ron Segal 31 August 2016, 6:45 pm

Hi Ian. You will also see very few comments on a critical article such as this one! Perhaps another symptom of much of what you say above?

Ian Apperley 01 September 2016, 9:47 am

Oh cruel irony. :)

Jan Wijninckx 02 September 2016, 8:09 pm

You're a brave man again - ok let's pick up the stick...

Jan Wijninckx 02 September 2016, 8:09 pm

"Choosing the cheapest option in a tender is a guaranteed path to hell."

So true, I see it all the time. I have written on this topic many a time and it is holding back the entire industry. One needs to buy taking into account "capability maturity". Goes back to that old thing that we all want to conveniently forget - the CMMI. Level 1 project behaviour on average delivers twice over time cost. Level 2 predicts at a higher cost (say 1.3x the cheapest) but on average will deliver on that. That would be a massive saving (from 2x to 1.3 times). But no we don't look at that when buying, instead we try to mop up using assurance during the project when the wheels are about to start to fly off. Because we buy from the cheapest, organisations that try to step up to capability maturity level 2 never make it(!) - even though on average they are cheaper. Dutch Telecom (KPN) used to multiply the tender prices, by something as follows: Level 1 x2; level 2 x1.3, level 3 x1. Thus those that up their process capability win. Put it in a different context. Do the All blacks play a good game - yip? Do they know the rules, i.e. the process in detail? Yip? So why is it ok in IT not to do good process? IITP wake up - it is about capability maturity :)

Jan Wijninckx 02 September 2016, 8:10 pm

"Connecting should take up a good day a week of your time."

Thanks never thought of it that way -but who has the time. And if I don't have the time - don't make the time - then indeed, you are right. But what happens to my charge-out rate? *1.25, and who will pay for that?!

Jan Wijninckx 02 September 2016, 8:17 pm

"Being (broadly speaking) a "Hobbit Like" people we hate conflict. We avoid it, manage it badly, take it personally, and have very few skills to actually debate different aspects of an issue."

That is one angle - the other angle is that we have now a management culture where bullying is the norm. Management like politicians take a dim view of anything they perceive as a challenge. Thus they thwart innovation. I come from the 1990's where continuous improvement and critical thinking were cornerstones to innovate and improve (improve measurably, like more efficient, effective etc). In a recent course I learnt that one shouldn't ask the why question, as people see it as a challenge. Wow that was an eye opener - as an engineer if I ask you a why question it is to get to the bottom of the issue/understanding. If I ask you the why question I respect you, otherwise I wouldn't ask you. And I respect you so much, that if you don't have an answer you no doubt will think about it and come up with one. How different with today's managers - ask why and they feel threatened. And that is so true. Now Ian - you say this is kiwi culture, however I wonder if it isn't a thing of the current day and age, rather than NZ culture, i.e. this happens in any OECD country?

Jan Wijninckx 02 September 2016, 8:22 pm

I've seen entire organisations struggle because they aren't brave enough to deal with resource that aren't performing.

Eh yes - we are not brave enough to deal with 2nd, 3rd and 4th layers of management. You see accountability stops at the project manager's level in organisations. No one makes business owners and SRO's accountable for not delivering on the promised benefits. I've only once seen an organisation where the CFO tracked the benefits to the name of these people, no matter how they rejigged their organisational unit / span of accountabilities. He didn't survive long of course. Level 2 to 4 are the ones that continuously re-jig the organisation to hide their not meeting of "outcomes" (hate that word with a passion - make it measurable for god sake). Oops did I write this :)

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