by Bard Papegaaij

‘CIOs must clearly demonstrate their own ability to change’

Nov 12, 2015
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Bard Papegaaij: ‘Most of the assumptions and behaviours of the existing business culture are tested by digital business.’

Cultural issues are at the root of many failed business transformations, yet most organisations do not assign explicit responsibility for culture. Since the CIO role is unique in having to work with people across the enterprise, you are a prime candidate for being an agent of cultural change.

To help your enterprise reap all the benefits of digital business, it is important to take a “culture-first” approach to business transformation.

Evolving the culture

Enterprise culture determines how well an organisation senses opportunities and threats, as well as how well it responds to both. The digital industrial economy is accelerating the pace at which opportunities and threats present themselves, requiring enterprises to transform more rapidly and more often.

Traditional approaches to enterprise change, such as organisational change management, take a process, role and measurement view that is not suitable for large enterprise-wide transformation. A more effective approach, the humanist view, roots change in people and in creating an environment that encourages new behaviours.

Culture encapsulates people’s collective understanding of how things work and what behaviours are appropriate — in other words, “how things are done around here”.

The only way to start changing people’s behaviours and transform the business for the digital era, is to address the collective understanding and unspoken ground rules that drove the culturally defined behavioural patterns and habits of the past – this is cultural change leadership.

Digitalisation demands an agile culture

Digitalisation is far more expansive than just more IT, with digital business fundamentally different from traditional ways of operating by breaking down barriers between the business and its environment, business silos and business functions. It challenges traditional relationships between the business and its customers, employees, business partners and competitors.

Most of the assumptions and behaviours of the existing business culture are tested by digital business. To survive and ultimately thrive in this new environment, enterprises need to respond to all the changes by embracing disruption, innovation and agility.

Business transformationcan only succeed by changing many of the beliefs and assumptions people rely on to guide their behaviour when doing their work. As the cultural change leader, you must reassure that the whole world and the group itself are not falling apart — that a core of stability exists. When things don’t make sense and every task seems too difficult, the cultural change leader must be a source of meaning and coherence.

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CIOs need to inspire people to change themselves. This requires courage.Bard Papegaaij, Gartner

As the modern enterprise increasingly relies on IT, the effects of digitalisation will reach far beyond traditional IT boundaries. Yet all the enablers of digitalisation will remain based on, and amplified by, technology.

The role of the CIO is to ensure that the enterprise makes the most of IT offered opportunities, especially as IT becomes the forum for creating new business opportunities and solving existing business problems. The digital era dramatically increases the opportunities, but also the threats, associated with IT. For the enterprise to respond effectively to both, you must address, support and influence cultural change.

Becoming a cultural change agent

Cultural change is about influencing the learned constructs that drive people’s automatic behaviours. Effective CIOs understand the levers of cultural change and have the ability to move the ones that will produce desired behaviours.

Rather than change people, CIOs need to inspire people to change themselves. This requires courage — CIOs must examine themselves critically, and clearly demonstrate their own ability to change.

When you take on the role of cultural change agent, transparency and integrity are especially important. To ensure that people accurately and confidently infer what you believe in, and what is important to you, your words and actions must consistently reflect what you want to stand for — the same belief system you want to inspire in others.

The closer your words and actions are to what you truly believe in, the less likely inadvertent lapses will seriously damage how people perceive you. This means that your communications and actions can be more spontaneous and authentic, which has a strong positive effect on people’s perception of your integrity.

Changing a culture can be dangerously easy; getting the culture you want is a lot harder.

Being a true leader in the digital era

Culture is the most important factor in organisational change. It can drive change and energise people, or it can become a major obstacle, causing any organisational change initiative to fail.

As executives whose responsibilities touch all areas of the business, CIOs are perfectly suited to the role of cultural change agent. This is a demanding role that requires personal commitment and considerable time and effort, but when done well, it positions the organisation to survive and even thrive in times of upheaval and uncertainty.

Bard Papegaaij is a research director for Gartner’s Office of the CIO group. With 29 years of experience in the IT industry, including CIO, CTO and IT management roles, Mr Papegaaij delivers IT advice and guidance to help CIOs and IT leaders improve their personal and professional success in delivering exceptional business results, while building their personal, interpersonal and leadership skills and capabilities.

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