The Mistake of Investing in Technology Without First Investing in Values

Don Tennant
Slide Show

How to Create a Culture of Innovation

Too many companies focus on buying and implementing technology without understanding that in order for the investment to pay off, the companies’ leaders first need to instill a corporate culture with core values that will sustain and optimize the improvements that the technology is meant to yield.

That was my key takeaway from a recent interview with Steven L. Blue, CEO of Miller Ingenuity, a manufacturer of components for the railroad industry in Winona, Minn., and author of “American Manufacturing 2.0: What Went Wrong and How to Make It Right.” Blue is a manufacturing guy, not an IT guy, but that’s beside the point. His perspective on technology is spot on.

“These CEOs want to go out and spend $1 million on [technology] and smart factories, and they want to put that on a work force that can’t wait to get to the bowling alley,” he said. “They’ve got it backwards — smart manufacturing shouldn’t start at the top, it should start at the bottom. Smart manufacturing is all about people, not machines.”


Most CEOs want to be able to check off a box, move on to the next deal, and be done with it, Blue said. What they’re missing are the fundamentals of any organization — how they build their culture, and how they treat their people.

“I’ve got an IoT factory, and I’ve got smart manufacturing and all that good stuff, but that’s not where we started,” Blue said. “We started with the fundamentals of building a strong culture, and then we moved on to that other stuff. You can’t have one without the other — you’ve got to have both. Why buy $1 million worth of technology, and put a guy in front of it who couldn’t care less?”

Blue cited the Wells Fargo scandal to drive home his point.

“There’s a cultural cesspool in a lot of companies today,” he said. “Thank you, Wells Fargo, for giving me a perfect example of it. Two of their core values were ethics and doing right by the customer. That was bullshit — those were bumper-sticker values. The real value was, get the money at any cost.”

Blue has come up with seven steps to help companies focus on values first, and I felt they were well worth sharing here:

  • Understand the values your organization currently has. Some, perhaps all, of the values may be perfectly appropriate. Some may not be. But remember, the underlying values are probably different from the bumper sticker values. Conduct an anonymous survey of every single employee and ask them. Don’t make this a human resources exercise. It has to come right from the top to be taken seriously.
  • Once you know the underlying values of the organization, decide which ones are worth keeping, nourishing and promoting, and which ones need to be discarded. And then you and your senior leadership team can decide which new values need to be implemented. This is not a slogan exercise. It is a gut-wrenching, soul-searching mission. Which values should you choose? It will be different in every company, but you should choose values that drive organizational behavior toward remarkable outcomes. Don’t choose values that sound cool in the C-suite, but stupid to employees. Choose values that everyone in the organization can get behind and feel good about. Sound like a tough job? It is. The last time I did this it took a year.
  • Declare to the organization the new values that have been chosen, and why. If you have chosen well, people will applaud you when you tell them. If you have chosen poorly, you’ll be a water cooler joke. Be very deliberate and comprehensive when you announce the new values. Explain completely what each value means, why it was chosen, and what you expect from employees in terms of behavior to support the values.
  • Now comes the most crucial part: You must be certain your senior executives live these values day by day. You can’t expect people from below to do what the top does not. Some of your executives won’t go along with the new values. Ask them to leave the company. Yes, you read that right. One loose cannon on the values ship can scuttle the whole effort.
  • Align all organization policies and practices to support the new values. Make them part of performance appraisals, standards for promotions, and compensation increases. Don’t let this become a “check the box to keep human resources happy” exercise.
  • Once the values are firmly entrenched, don’t let anybody in the front door that doesn’t believe in them. Do a “values check” as part of the interview process.
  • Finally, this has to be a CEO initiative, or it will fail. Think of this as a strategic culture plan, requiring years to execute, not months. And give it the same time, importance, attention, and resources as you do the strategic operating plan.

A contributing writer on IT management and career topics with IT Business Edge since 2009, Don Tennant began his technology journalism career in 1990 in Hong Kong, where he served as editor of the Hong Kong edition of Computerworld. After returning to the U.S. in 2000, he became Editor in Chief of the U.S. edition of Computerworld, and later assumed the editorial directorship of Computerworld and InfoWorld. Don was presented with the 2007 Timothy White Award for Editorial Integrity by American Business Media, and he is a recipient of the Jesse H. Neal National Business Journalism Award for editorial excellence in news coverage. Follow him on Twitter @dontennant.


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