3 Ways CIOs Can Drive Company-Wide Culture Change

IT leaders can spearhead cultural change by aligning tech investments, modeling new ways of working in IT, and building broad organizational support.

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Digital technologies are fundamentally changing the way we live and work. As organizations strive to keep pace with new innovations and evolving customer expectations, so too must their cultures. Cultures of the past that valued stability, consistency, and predictability are facing disruption at the hands of those that can tap into the power of new technologies to continuously sense and respond to changing conditions, and deliver experiences that delight their customers.

As leaders at the center of the digital initiatives driving this shift, CIOs are uniquely positioned to make a positive and lasting impact on company culture. In fact, Gartner has estimated that by 2021, CIOs will play as important a role in culture change as Chief HR Officers.

And it’s clear that CIOs recognize the importance of culture in laying the foundation for success. In a recent study, 46% of CIOs identified culture as the “largest barrier to realizing the promise of digital business.” By spearheading the adoption of new systems and tools and inspiring others to support new digital ways of working, CIOs can help to shape the cultures that modern companies need.

Here are three ways in which CIOs can influence company-wide culture change.

1. Invest in technologies that reinforce the desired culture 

It’s no secret that company culture weighs heavily on the outcome of enterprise technology and transformation initiatives. Organizations with nimble cultures where teams are open to trying new things tend to see shorter time to value and higher levels of change adoption.

While culture can and does influence technology initiative success, the reverse relationship--where technology influences culture—can also be true. Take, for example, the enterprise collaboration tools that have become commonplace across organizations of every size and industry. Cloud-based file-sharing solutions have created unprecedented levels of transparency, putting information that was once only accessible to executives into the hands of employees who are more empowered than ever before to use it to make data-driven decisions.

By making new behaviors easy to adopt, technologies like these have shown to not only deliver operational benefits like streamlined decision making and productivity, but also to weave new cultural characteristics into the fabric of the organizations.

As technology leaders, CIOs can make strategic technology investment decisions that reinforce the culture they want to build. Start by identifying the cultural characteristics that are most essential to achieving your organization’s strategic vision (e.g., purpose-driven, high-trust, innovative, nimble) and identify technology solutions that help shift behaviors to build that desired culture. Finally, prioritize the solutions that will make the greatest impact, and incorporate them into your technology investment strategy. 

2. Incubate new cultural characteristics within IT

Organizations often overlook what a great testing ground IT can be for corporate culture. After all, the same “test and learn” mindset that underpins modern technology development can be applied for building new cultural characteristics into an organization.

The CIO of a well-established financial services company put this idea to work as his organization faced competitive pressures from an influx of cloud-first FinTech start-ups. As the share of digitally-native consumers began to grow, leaders recognized that the operating model that served them so well in the past would not win the future. They needed a way to bring new innovations to market faster, and more flexibly deliver products and solutions to meet evolving customer needs.

For an organization whose identity was built on a reputation for consistency and dependability, making these changes would require a significant cultural shift.

Evolving a 100-year-old company’s culture was no small task, but the CIO saw an opportunity to take a leadership role in driving the shift.

He spun up small, cross-functional teams aligned around customer outcomes, rather than internal organizational constructs. He rolled out a new decision-making framework designed to push decision authority down to the lowest possible level. IT teams also had the opportunity to be the first to try an enterprise collaboration platform designed to make the sharing of best practices, ideas, and data easier than ever before.

The impact of these changes was significant. Organizational boundaries began to dissolve as cross-functional teams worked more seamlessly together. By empowering individuals to make more decisions, teams found that they were able to spend less time waiting for approvals and seeking out information, and more time moving work forward. Ultimately, IT saw significant improvement in their ability to respond to changes in the market and deliver customer value at more frequent, predictable intervals. The learnings from the CIO’s “cultural experiment” were applied throughout the organization to drive progress toward the nimble culture that the company sought to create.

For technology teams, it’s an opportunity to lead from the front—modeling the mindset and behaviors that will come to define modern organizations, and paving the way for other parts of the business to do the same. In making this shift, CIOs and their teams build credibility and trust with other parts of the business; they’re seen less as transactional IT suppliers, and more as strategic partners and thought leaders in shaping transformation strategy.

3. Rally support at all levels to scale culture change

For most companies today, digital initiatives rank near the top of executives’ enterprise strategies — which has given CIOs unprecedented access to the rest of the executive team, and a seat at the table when it comes to strategic decision-making. Additionally, the CIO’s close proximity to the technology initiatives driving their organizations’ business transformations gives them valuable perspective on how those technologies will impact other parts of the business, and what they’ll need to do—from both a technical and cultural perspective—to prepare for the change. The support and sponsorship of cross-functional leaders is key to creating any sort of lasting organizational change. 

And while top-level leadership support is essential, a top-down approach won’t generate the widespread interest and adoption needed for long-term sustainability. CIOs must rally and enlist the support of cross-functional stakeholders who will bring culture change to life in the organization’s day-to-day operations.

CIOs can start to build grass-roots momentum by modeling the behaviors they want to see company-wide. Communicating a compelling vision for the change is one thing, but taking actions that visibly demonstrate your commitment to the change is far more powerful—even if it means giving up time, budget, or other priorities to prove your commitment.

The bottom line: CIOs can help to propel the success of change initiatives and bring new cultural characteristics to life by aligning technology investments, modeling new ways of working in IT, and building broad organizational support.

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Copyright © 2020 IDG Communications, Inc.