Why large corporations are years behind in technology

In my career I have had the privilege of working for different size companies. I have worked for interactive agencies (a rather fast paced and fun environment), medium size companies, educational institutes, and large corporations (3000+ employees).

I have worked in environments where I walk in with shorts and sandals and worked in an environment where the same shorts and sandals got me a visit to the ‘principal’s’ office. I have worked in an environment where my boss and I shared a beer on a Friday afternoon in his office and also worked in an environment where the boss was hesitant to buy the beer at the bar because he was concerned about him or his company being liable for other’s drinking.

These environment’s differ from each other tremendously but I could not tell you which is better than the other – I know which ones I preferred but I still can’t intelligently say which method of management is superior to another. And that is not what I am qualified to talk about – business management was never my forte – but what I feel qualified to discuss is technology.

And in my experience, large corporations are always behind in technology and hesitant in the adoption of new technology. Some of the reasons behind the lagging in this realm are reasonable and some are not. I am going to attempt to breakdown some of the issues that I have encountered and hopefully try to provide solutions. Here we go:

Inexperienced managers

Big corporations are stacked with Vice Presidents, directors, middle managers and the ever-lovingly titled individual contributors (really? shouldn’t it be ‘team’ contributors, how many employees does one see working in a silo or ‘individually’?).

The Vice Presidents and the managers (henceforth referred to as the Witt brothers, Dim and Nit) have offices that are strewn with ink jet printed awards, “Good to Great” book (or similar bland management books), and one or two technology-based books that let’s be honest, look like they have never been opened or have not been creased passed the first chapter because they fell asleep after the first chapter.

To be fair, there are some managers that have been developers or programmers in the past and do have some technology experience and may be able to make sound decisions, however with the speed of technology advancement; 6 months or more away from hands-on development and that same developer-promoted-to-manager will become slowly out-dated and slowly lose their technical talent.

The flaw is that these managers, low to medium technically experienced ones, are in the forefront of making technology decisions and most of the times they will make the scared, conservative, and wrong decision. As a technology enthusiast, seeing that deer-in-the-headlights look is very discouraging or worst facing the I-know-what-is-best attitude from some managers is horrifying.

Solution: One solution is to have a technical manager counterpart for every non-technical manager. Since in big corporations this means doubling the workforce and in reality would not be feasible, then a technical architecture group should be created. Now in order for this group to be affective, it needs to be a governing body that must go beyond architectural recommendations. Not a Jedi Knight ‘May the force be with you’ type group but a Sith Lord dark side of the force ‘don’t fuck with us or I will force-choke you’ governing body. What I mean is that this group should not just recommend an approach but ensure that the standards have been maintained throughout the project and even go as far as having periodic reviews to ensure the integrity of the standards that have been set are maintained.

Mediocrity breeds mediocrity

Some of the burden of promoting new technology does fall on the ‘individual contributors’. If my job description is to maintain a corporate website, well that is just boring. The problem is that the employees that are bored with this type of work, the ones that are always looking for a challenge to better themselves will not stay in order to maintain the same website day in and day out. Which means that the ones that remain are the ones that are looking for a stable position that will lull them into a comfort zone and will be happy to maintain the same product no matter how old and rusty it will become. I apologize for making such a blanket statement, of course not all employees of large corporations fit the above description but unfortunately most do.

This mediocrity is further perpetuated when busy employees don’t have the time to upgrade their skills and/or the inexperienced managers – remember the Witt brothers? – don’t give them the opportunity.

Solution: Two words – Research & Development. This is lacking in big corporations and it is amazing the results that it can produce. It is not a coincidence that companies like Google are so successful,  allowing the employees one day to work on personal projects is liberating for employees and rewarding for the employer (yes that’s right the EMPLOYER!!) and employees. Even if the project has nothing to do with the core business the fact that there is a ‘outside of the box’ thinking (the paradigm most of those bland management books promote) is priceless. Maybe the architectural governing body can sponsor and encourage team exercises/conferences/seminars to promote this type of behavior.

Don’t take away the free coffee

In one the companies I worked, initially when I started we had free perks throughout the day, free coffee in the morning, fruit and soda throughout the day, pool table, and fooseball table area for relaxation. From my understanding, this was done to attract the employees to the company during the dot.com boom era of the mid 90s to early 00s.

After working there for six months, slowly the perks were taken away (at this point, we were beyond the boom era and we were in the decline phase). The sad part was that the company did not make the effort to notify the employees that these perks will be taken away, the approach was a much more cowardly one.

Everyday one of the perks were slowly taken away. One day it was the apples, the next it was the skittles, and on and on. I am not sure what the reasoning behind this approach was but did someone actually think that it will go unnoticed. I am not sure what is worst, that they thought it would go unnoticed or that even if it was noticed they did not care.

I agree that the spending of the dot-com era was frivolous however there were some good ideas that came out of that era. Some good ideas that companies like Google, Facebook, and countless other companies did decide to keep.

What is the cost of a free lunch or morning coffee compared to a happy and satisfied employee? It doesn’t take much to turn a frown upside down (sorry been watching too many kids shows).

I recall that after leaving one of my large corporate jobs, one where I had to dress business casual everyday; my next job was one with a more lax environment where shorts and sandals were welcome. It was amazing to me how much happier and more relaxed I was.

Solution: dont’ take away the free coffee!! A lot of companies spent most of their energy keeping the customer/client happy sometimes at the expense of their employees. I may be naive, but in my opinion there is only one group that needs to be satisfied and that group is the employees. Subsequently, a happy employee will do everything in their  power to promote the company that they love and eventually try to prove their loyalty by keeping the customer/client happy.

I understand that I may have taken a simplistic view to an over-arching problem; nevertheless sometimes the best answer is the simplest one. I don’t claim that my solutions will resolve the issues but maybe they are a step in the right direction.

Not sure if I have all the answers but here is my $0.02.