CIO upfront: Culture as the foundation of technology transformation - a CTO's experience

Almost all companies that can smooth the growing pains have been successful at maintaining or evolving their internal cultureJohn Boesen, MNF Group

Digital transformation is a term that has dominated many boardroom conversations over the last few years - including ours - as businesses of all shapes and sizes have had to evolve to catch up with a post-digital world.

The evolution of conducting business in the digital age has been dramatic. It has created a pressing need for established companies to reinvent themselves at a pace and in a way that is foreign in order to compete with dynamic younger startups. They have had to disrupt themselves in order to have a fighting chance of catching up with the post-digital natives.

Having led the process of digital transformation at several companies, it has been my experience that no matter what type of business you are, “Culture Eats Strategy for Lunch” as Peter Drucker once said. When it comes to navigating successful technological change, not just any culture will do.

I have observed that behaviours that drive constructive experiences, such as promoting collaboration, being courageous and building a ‘better than yesterday’ mindset, all fuel companies to succeed at scale. Destructive experiences on the other hand, such as isolation, supremacy and exclusion, impede or even snuff out the change flame.

Even companies which start out with the right cultural values will suffer from growing pains as the business expands and the culture dilutes and morphs. Communication starts to become the greatest challenge, people begin to feel out of the loop and it is easy for misunderstandings, resentment, inefficiencies and disenfranchisement to occur.

Almost all companies that can smooth the growing pains have been successful at maintaining or evolving their internal culture. From the businesses I’ve worked in, including my current one, the following strategies have worked well.

The art of letting go

During my career I have encountered two types of founders. First off, there are the ‘helicopter’ founders who just can’t let go and continue to believe they know best. This may be driven from passion or ego, but the net result is always the same – their organisations don’t fare so well.

MNF Group
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When it comes to navigating successful technological change, not just any culture will do John Boesen, MNF Group

Then there is the category of founders which I refer to as ‘self-aware’. They understand when the business is growing and that it has the potential to grow to a scale which will require new skill sets. These companies will invariably have a better chance at successfully transforming, because the will to change cascades from the top down.

Inclusion, inclusion, inclusion

While the mechanics of change for a growing business begins with buy-in and acceptance from the top, the transformation process is doomed to fail if there is no buy-in within the general ranks. This is why the next step – inclusion - is so critical. During this stage, organisations must find the best voice or platform for staff to feel included in the journey and be part of the process. This begins by collectively acknowledging that there is a problem to solve.

At MNF, we kicked off our tech transformation programme by asking our staff to express what was good and what wasn’t so good. It set our base change agenda, creating a shared and common dialogue we all owned from the outset.

Ease the cultural differences

Within the push for inclusion, it’s also worth remembering that today’s workplaces encompass staff from a number of ‘generations’both in terms of actual age and their tenure within the company.

I’ve found the initial communication about forthcoming changes can be received and perceived quite differently depending on the literal and metaphoric age of the team member.

Shared events level out the playing field and this is where the team starts to bond. It is a family made up of older and younger siblings. Putting the effort into getting to know each other reinforces that at the end of the day, everyone has a voice and a critical role to play.

If a company can get this right, then it is well placed to embark upon a successful transformation, or should I say, a continuous reinvention of self and business.

Experience has shown that you never get to the end of a transformation because markets and sectors continue to evolve and shift around you.

John Boesen is chief technology officer at MNF Group

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