Process Review Blog

Logical, yes; but is it Culturally feasible?

Reverse_ambulance_with_Star_of_Life In 1992 there occurred one of the most high profile IT disasters in the history of computing. The London Ambulance Service attempted to introduce a computerised despatch system. There were many problems and it appears likely that a few tens of lives were lost, pretty much as a direct result. There was a public enquiry and there have been many analyses published since. These differ in their emphasis, but one thing is clear: this was not simply a technical failure. Indeed the public enquiry concluded:

“…Management clearly underestimated the difficulties involved in changing the deeply ingrained culture of LAS and misjudged the industrial relations climate so that staff were alienated to the changes rather than brought on board…” [emphasis mine]

Societies have cultural norms that are so deeply ingrained as to be almost invisible to members of that society: for example in the UK it would be considered normal to paint a car bright gloss red and the walls of a bedroom in eggshell magnolia: but very odd to paint the car magnolia and the room bright red. There is no very strong reason why this should be so: it is just what we regard as “normal”. There are a host of cultural norms of this kind governing everything from dress (“…should I wear a tie or not…”) to food (lamb may be served with mint sauce, but not sausages with chocolate sauce).

The same kind of assumptions about what is “normal” or “acceptable” occur in organisations or even organisational sub groups like departments. Process change which cuts across these assumptions without recognising and addressing them is likely to run into trouble.

The 1992 London Ambulance Service fiasco was followed in 1996 by a very successful implementation that substantially improved the effectiveness of the service. The 1996 system was more robust technically, but it is clear that much of the success of the 1996 system related to efforts to address soft issues so that staff were enthusiastic rather than “…alienated…”

The conclusion for us is that process improvement (whether or not it involves technology) cannot be driven solely by cold logic. A change may be logically desirable, but if it isn’t also culturally feasible then it may be best not to make it.

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