What the TV show can teach us about the wrong way to ’do’ digital culture
For a generation of techies, it all started with ‘The IT Crowd’. What ‘Mad Men’ is to advertising, ‘ER’ is to the medical profession and ‘Bojack Horseman’ is to washed-up, half-man/half-horse actors trying and failing to be a better person (or horse), The IT Crowd is to many of us working in Digital.
While increasingly bold and bleak shows like ‘Black Mirror’ and ‘Rick and Morty’ have since won the hearts of geeks the world over, the IT Crowd was in many ways ahead of its time, providing a light and loving satire of digital culture.
It’s also a phenomenal workplace comedy. Under the erratic leadership of Douglas Reynholm (and formerly his ‘affectionate father’ Mr Reynholm), Reynholm Industries veered from one disaster to the next, usually due to the hijinks of the titular IT department.
But along the way, there were some near misses. Ideas that threatened to work out. Innovations that were stifled by poor management and a lack of process.
It’s easy to laugh at the dismissiveness with which Reynholm Industries treat their IT department. But many organisations continue to marginalise the contributions of their Digital team – even if they don’t go as far as banishing them to the basement.
Here’s what the show can teach us about digital culture, and the mistakes that organisations make when attempting to ‘do digital’.
"All the way down to the basement."
- Denholm Reynholm
These are Reynholm’s famous words as he sentences Jen to life in the basement. The IT department are completely separated from the rest of the organisation. They are the perfect example of working in a silo.
While Reynholm Industries should be commended for recognising the valuable contributions of their custodial staff, the work of the IT department isn’t just unnoticed – it’s actively ignored.
There is a lack of understanding of digital throughout the organisation. This lack of understanding leads to dismissiveness and contempt of the Digital team’s work. As a result, the IT department is a vestigial part of Reynholm Industries.
Some of the blame for this must fall on Jen. As Relationship Manager, she does not do enough to make the contributions of her team visible. Her experiences of trying to explain their work to the CEO will be familiar to many of us in Digital. Often we will be met with a lack of understanding. It is important to explain why the work we do is beneficial and to provide evidence of success.
The lack of digital integration with other departments is both a symptom and a cause of a misunderstanding of digital culture. It stems from an attitude that is best summed up by one of our main pet peeves – the expression that an organisation needs to ‘do digital’.
Digital culture is not something that can be tacked on. It is not an external framework that can be applied to an organisation without changing existing processes. Rather it is an organic development of employees at all levels taking responsibility for small digital actions within their job function.
"You there, computer man. Fix my pants."
- Douglas Reynholm
Time and time again, the employees of Reynholm Industries marginalised the contributions of Jen, Moss and Roy, only calling on them to fulfil specific tasks before banishing them back to their basement.
Many of the show’s best jokes stem from the other employee’s complete lack of knowledge around digital. In reality, this can lead to a difficult situation where digital employees are both undervalued and completely relied upon. This is a recipe for disaster.
As we’ve already covered, a lack of visibility for the good work your digital team is doing will lead to a lack of buy-in from your organisation’s leadership.
Moss creates a number of impressive inventions, none of which are ever followed-up on. Someone who can build a stress machine in an afternoon should be supported to express their creativity within their organisation.
The team are never encouraged to take ownership of projects and develop new technologies. As a result, they are often demotivated. The IT department clearly don’t feel valued by their organisation, and because of this, they often skive off work, keep innovations from senior staff members and seek other employment or external projects. Reynholm Industries make a huge oversight by not harnessing the creativity and ingenuity of their digital team.