What is open culture?

It was around this time, a year ago, that my period of employment with a small Midlands-based software company came to an end.

This company prided itself on its “open culture”. And it was open, for a certain value of openness… In other ways it was very closed, amounting to what felt, at times, more like a cult than a culture.

Where this company excelled in the openness stakes, was in encouraging employees to blog, tweet and otherwise discuss the interesting projects they were working on. There certainly was some interesting work going on, particularly in developments around open data and the semantic web.

However, the openness only appeared to extend to expressing enthusiasm about what was exciting at the company. When it came to the deep misgivings about the direction in which the company was being taken, the quality of leadership, or the treatment of the workforce, the culture was closed. If someone fitted in with the culture, they would get on well. If not, they would quietly disappear.

And this is what happened to me in the end. The job I was offered was at a higher technical level than the one for which I had applied. I found I was being relied on to resolve support issues where more experience colleagues were flummoxed. More than this, I was moving into system builds and upgrades, with barely adequate documentation or personal development time. The first time I used each new skill, would be on a live customer system. I was learning rapidly, and I was succeeding in the work I was doing, though not without difficulty and stress. But every time I succeeded at one level, I would be handed a task at the next.

I admit, I should have called halt much earlier, and challenged my manager to actually manage. But, this wasn’t a company that recognised individual needs. My downfall came in two ways – firstly, I told my manager that I needed either to be in the support team (doing the work of a Technical Support Analyst), or to be doing the semi-consultancy work that my immediate colleagues were doing, but that I couldn’t manage both at the same time. Secondly, I was struggling with an upcoming system migration.

At that point, I hadn’t yet completed my first system migration. This second one would have required me to project-manage as well as completing the technical work. It also had a number of non-standard requirements. When I raised my concerns with my manager, he sent me to the consultancy manager. The consultancy manager said that the non-standard parts should be a separate project, but sent me to the sales manager. The sales manager said the non-standard requirements were part of the same project and sent me back to my manager.

Shortly after this, and after taking a day off due to stress, I was called in to a meeting with my manager and the HR officer. There I was told that things were not working out, and offered a deal to leave. I was given no opportunity to complete the piece of work that I was on at that point, or to give any form of handover to colleagues. I was out. Several months later, I got a phone call from a former colleague, asking me if I could remember the passwords for one of the new systems I had been working on.

Before working for this company, I had had spent many years in Local Government. There was little rhetoric about an open culture, but in many ways it was present. I encountered management that acknowledged that different people have different styles of working and different management needs. I attended meetings with senior management, where there was opportunity to speak frankly about the needs of the service, the issues we were facing, and suggest changes. Sometimes, these suggestions were even accepted. And, except in cases of gross misconduct, a member of staff would be given the opportunity to improve their performance rather than facing summary dismissal.

A year later, I have finally found a job again that suits me, and I am leaving the bitterness behind. And of all the lessons I learned in that time, the most important probably was not to be taken in by a company’s glossy sales pitch or self-delusions.

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2 Responses to “What is open culture?”

  1. mauvedeity Says:

    I think I may know the software company of which you speak. I agree that what happened to you was very unfortunate. I obviously can’t comment on the details of what happened to you, other than to say as someone who worked with you, I regret what happened.

    I doubt it’s a consolation, but there was a long period of reflection on the issues that came up during and after your time there. I know that several changes were made to how people were hired, managed, and ultimately measured against performance criteria.

    I can understand how you’d feel aggrieved, and I sympathise, but I also wanted to briefly explain the perspective from another point of view.

    I wish you all the best with your current role and your future.

  2. robhogg Says:

    Not really a different perspective, as you haven’t re-framed anything I said. However, it is some consolation to know that my demise was not in vain, and others may be treated better in the future.

    One of the ironies is that I’ve recently spent the best part of eight months in a telephone support role that was far more the sort of thing K2 and MS didn’t believe I’d handle at my first interview. I think, if I’d been offered that far better defined job, I’d have coped fine and would probably now be employed by a large outsourcing company.

    Something positive must have rubbed off during my time there, though. My current manager was initially a little unsure when my report-back from a recent event was in the form of a public blog post, rather than a Word document circulated internally. Just part of my push to make our use of social media more social, and undermine the rumours that librarians just keep the books tidy.

    I hope your job search is going well, and wish you all the best for the future. I’ll think of you next time I’m partaking of some sushi.

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