by Sarah K. White

6 steps to getting digital culture right

Jun 22, 2018
Digital TransformationIT LeadershipStaff Management

Digital transformation is a vital undertaking in today’s competitive landscape. But first you need to redefine your corporate culture, challenge your traditions and overhaul your hiring practices.

Define your organization's culture
Credit: Thinkstock

Technology is fast becoming one of the most important tools for modern businesses, and digital transformation is the means by which your organization can leverage technology to its full potential. But not every company that undertakes a digital transformation is set up for success. To truly transition, your organization must overhaul its culture first.

How companies can create and drive digital culture was a hot topic at MIT’s CIO Symposium 2018 conference — a one-day event where industry thought leaders, vendors and educators joined to discuss evolving trends in IT and for CIOs. In two sessions, “Creating a Digital Culture” and “Articulating Your Digital Vision,” MIT researchers and industry leaders shared advice and firsthand experience on building a successful digital strategy. Here are six steps that will help smooth your digital transformation by first establishing a strong digital culture.

Start on the same page

Digital transformation requires significant organizational change. But that change can’t happen overnight. Before you can build a digital culture, you need to define what that means for your organization and industry.

“The convergence of these technologies is fundamentally changing how business is done. It is changing the opportunities for our customer value propositions. And if we don’t get our heads around that, we’re going to continue to compete as if we were living in the 20th century, while other companies are living in the 21st,” said Jeanne W. Ross, principal research scientist at MIT Sloan Center for Information Systems Research, at the conference.

Before you take on a new digital strategy or implement a new technology, you want to ensure that the organization is on the same page. It’s easy to get lost in the technical weeds when determining what technologies your business should focus on, especially as it’s likely that every department will have its own needs to consider.

Companies get “bombarded” with technology, but Ross says it won’t mean anything if your department or company is poorly managed or scattered. “You can collect data — no question, you can analyze it and you can get insights — but if you’re not well run, you can’t take advantage of that,” says Ross.  

Understand how to take advantage of technology

Companies used to worry about avoiding the “Kodak moment,” or “not being aware that some new product is coming along,” Ross argues. But now, she says, businesses are looking out for their “Uber moment.” According to Ross, your company’s “Uber moment” is when you realize you’ve missed out on taking full advantage of available technology and a new competitor beats you to the punch.

She argues that this is what happened to most Taxi companies. “Uber understood that in a digital economy, they could give rides, they could tell you who your driver was, when the driver was arriving, how much it will cost, when you’ll get to your destination and it could take out all hassles with payment,” says Ross.

CIOs can no longer focus just on enabling digital strategies — now it’s about inspiring your company with technology, not just enabling it, says Ross. Your digital culture can’t be defined until you have narrowed down the technology you want to focus on and have explored all the opportunities that technical stack can bring to the organization.

Develop a cultural theme

Culture is personal to every organization, but Melissa Swift, global leader for digital solutions at Korn Ferry Hay Group, suggests discovering your company’s cultural “theme,” or framework.  You don’t have to throw your current culture out the window — you can “connect the past of the organization to the future,” she said at the conference.

But there are undeniable differences in the modern work place compared to ten or fifteen years ago — technology has increased connectivity and that’s bred multiple subcultures, which Swift calls “speed boat cultures,” within organizations. It’s no longer as straight forward as the “CEO sits at the end of the hallway,” she says.

“What we see successful organizations doing on the digital journey, is actually figuring out how to power some of those speed boat cultures and saying it doesn’t have to be this one big overarching, overall machine,” she says.

If you can define a cultural theme, it will allow people to operate freely in subcultures within that framework. To develop a more flexible framework, you’ll have to look at what doesn’t work in your current culture. Find the things that are preventing change from taking place or road blocks that slow down the shift.

Shift your hiring perception

Culture is crucial during the hiring process, as you want to find people who will fit right in with where the company is headed on its journey. However, when it comes to finding tech talent, Swift says that the “wrong people look right” and that the people you should be hiring probably won’t fit into the company’s image of an ideal hire.

To break down these stereotypes in hiring, Swift asks executives to write down a list of reasons why they wouldn’t hire someone and then go back and change each one into a reason why they would hire a candidate.

For example, if you come across a candidate who has a spotty history and who jumps around between organizations, the natural reaction might be to assume they “can’t commit” or that they’re “flaky,” but by instead looking at them as “curious and adaptable, which are two of the traits in our research that are very predictive of success in digital talent,” says Swift, you can find a great hire.

She notes that oftentimes to change your organizational culture you need to bring in people who will help create that shift. If you keep hiring the same way you always have, you’ll just continue to bring in employees who fit into the culture you’re trying to change. The organization and its leaders need to change the perception of hiring in order to stop “hiring in their own image.”

Embrace change

If your organization operates in an industry like finance, you’ll have to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. Industries like finance involve compliance, security and have more traditional corporate cultures. It might be hard for some people to accept hiring a new employee who will push that tradition.

But to find the best tech talent, you might have to hire someone part-time, who has another side job, only comes into the office occasionally and doesn’t fit the typical dress code. It’s likely that the people who will change your culture will also be the ones who push the boundaries of your traditional culture, added Dave Gledhill Dave, group CIO and head of group technology and Operations at DBS Bank, during the “Creating a Digital Culture” panel.

“It’s hard to kind of accept that it’s okay behavior because the other things that person brings to the table are very valuable — but the other side of that is you can’t expect those kinds of people to come in and operate in — for us — a traditional banking environment. It just doesn’t work. You have to create your environment to fit the person just as much as bringing a new person in. Some of the rules have to change and governance things have to change — you have to set people free much more than you’re used to doing,” he says.

Replace conventional hierarchy with purpose

When you take away the “conventional structure” in your organization and move to a modern framework that embraces digital transformation, you’ll need to find a way to reinforce your new, flexible digital culture. Swift says the companies that have been the most successful at embracing this change and instilling this cultural shift have found ways to inject purpose into the business.

Through that purpose, employees become more self-sufficient, and it “becomes the thread that comes from within the employee, rather than guiding from the outside,” she says.