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ROI of Culture on IT Alignment

How Does One Measure the ROI of Culture on IT Alignment?

What does culture — that quality in groups of people that govern what we believe and how we behave — have to do with “getting things done”? And by extension, what does a company’s culture have to do with the probability of its reaching some sort of acceptable level of IT alignment?  We started to explore this question in the last post on this subject, Technology Alignment in a Global Context. For the purposes of this article, “ROI” is better understood as an acronym for “return on influence” rather than “return on investment” but both meanings are appropriate.

To illustrate the influence of culture on the success of distinct companies, let’s look back at Japan.


Starbucks entered Japan in 1996, firmly committed to selling its own kind of success as developed in the U.S.  This meant:

  • No smoking in any of its stores despite what its advisers suggested.
  • Stores that carried the same foods and drinks as in the U.S.
  • Larger stores – like those in the U.S. – that were considerably bigger than the 500 square foot norm for similar stores and shops in Japan.

In 2002, Starbucks CEO Howard Schulz stated that Starbucks “…has a long term view of its place in Japan.”  He must have meant what he said because Starbucks went on to survive some tough times to become a major player there.  Today, Starbucks is a nationally known brand in Japan.  It is present in every major city and in all prefectures, and has succeeded in creating in excess of 850 stores nationwide according to 2010 statistics.

7-Eleven Stores

Fresh foods at 7-eleven in Japan

Freshly packaged, affordable food at a 7-Eleven Store in Japan. Photo © AlignTech Solutions LLC. All rights reserved.

In contrast, 7-Eleven Stores in Japan are quite different from their U.S. counterparts in some fairly big ways.  The drinks Slurpee and Big Gulp, trademarks and longtime favorites of the 7-Eleven brand, are not available in Japan (they were offered early on but later discontinued).  At a typical 7-Eleven store in Japan:

  • Products are packaged in smaller portions and in many cases look like gifts in semi-translucent wrappers.
  • Local favorites including shrimp, squid and many types of sushi and sashimi are available – freshly made each day.
  • Popular music, movies and video games are available for purchase and/or rent.
  • Need a train pass?  Buy it here.
  • Traveling soon?  Bring your luggage to a local 7-Eleven and they will get it to the airport for you! Holy cow!

Getting Back to Technology

The theme of this article is IT alignment, so why are we spending so much time discussing cultural metaphors? It’s because almost any technology-related discussion – some examples of which include:

  • “PC or Mac?”
  • “Virtualization: What is it? Do we need it?”
  • SaaS, IaaS, PaaS, …;
  • Security: How much is “enough”?
  • Do we need a “social media policy”?

the list is long – evokes a deer-in-the-headlights response from many people, including C-level individuals who need to understand this “stuff”.  Stories and metaphors help us to place some of the complexities in life in their proper contexts.

Lessons Learned

  1. Culture can transform companies as seen in the 7-Eleven model.  Many years before Japanese company Ito-Yokado (now part of Seven and I Holdings) gained a controlling share of 7-Eleven it saw this type of franchise as a means to provide “what people want when they want it.”  This statement can really only be taken in a local sense and that’s exactly the model the new parent company used to further develop 7-Eleven in Japan.
  2. Companies can transform culture as seen in the Starbucks model.  Given enough time and resources, many products and services can be taken to other markets with success; even when, in our example, a coffee company proposes to sell coffee to a predominantly tea-drinking population.

In the same way, culture and IT alignment are a chicken-and-egg pair. One begets the other. Societies and businesses both “create culture” with policy, protocol, intention and action. All of these are activities or outcomes associated with alignment.

For a similar comparison that treats issues and outcomes of IT alignment specifically, see
Technology alignment under two strategic contexts (IEEE Xplore Digital Library). In this case the discussion focuses not on issues related to the relative size of companies undergoing alignment studies, but rather the sizes of their customers’ companies.

About Jeff Hayes

Jeff is an agile consultant, coach and trainer with a career spanning 30 years. He specializes in co-creating learning environments to help humans learn how to learn, become more curious and productive, and to build resilience.

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