Volkswagon: Code or Culture?

By Sara Brown

To be candid, I have been studiously avoiding addressing the emissions software debacle at Volkswagon for weeks now. But with today’s coverage in the Wall Street Journal of yesterday’s congressional hearing on the matter, I think there is an important lesson hidden in the subtext, which has the potential to impact the larger Internet of Things marketplace and the many talented people behind it.

Here’s what the Head of Volkswagon Group of Americas, Michael Horn told the congressional panel:

“To my understanding this was not a corporate decision. This was something individuals did.”

While there is little doubt that individuals were involved — in fact three from VW’s engineering team have already been dismissed — I suspect something bigger is at play: corporate culture.

My experience with many companies across the M2M and IoT space, as well as the larger technology marketplace, has exposed me to all kinds of corporate cultures — from the buttoned up formality of IBM in the 90s to the a ADHD-like agility of startups both then and today. I’ve seen cultures that encouraged shirking and those that encouraged innovation. I’ve seen cultures that foster an almost unhealthy devotion and those that leave employees emotionally battered. One thing I’ve learned along the way — corporate culture drives the behavior of individuals inside the company, good or bad.

Mr. Horn later responded to questions by conceding that the actions of the aforementioned individuals may have been prompted by, “pressure in the system to get resolutions and also in conjunction with cost pressure as well.”

Those of you who know me, know I’m happy to endure pressure when it comes to doing what’s right; but I’m not shy to stand up to the kind of pressure Horn is describing when it means doing something unethical. Perhaps this is the true shortcoming of the individuals at whom Horn is pointing the finger.

The Internet of Things marketplace is moving fast. It encompasses countless mission and even life-critical applications. Here’s my challenge to the individuals with a stake in this growing ecosystem: focus on doing the next right thing, above the pressure. It may cost you something along the way — but it will likely save you being fed to the wolves when the s#*t hits the fan.