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Digital Change is Culture Change

Written by Anthony Zacharzewski, Director of The Democratic Society (Demsoc)

Digital change is culture change. In my organisation, we work to make government more participative and open, which is just as large a culture change, for both officials and citizens.

We already know that you can’t change cultures by using the same tools and structures that developed that culture. I once co-wrote a paper called “If it’s got a Change Management Board, it means it isn’t changing”, and the same could go for Change Strategies and Change Directives.

So if you can’t impose change from the top, what have we learned about leaders can bring it about? We don’t just need to sit and wait. In my experience, you need to join up four different elements.

First, permission. This is where leadership is most important. You have to show your team that they are allowed to experiment, allowed to take risks, and allowed to fail. To make that message convincing it needs to be repeated, and consistently delivered by all the leaders. It’s no good the Chief Executive saying “take risks” if the FD is standing behind him brandishing a baseball bat.

Second, skills. Letting your team take risks is not a smart move if they don’t know what they are doing. Show how they can use the skills they may have picked up in their out-of-work lives, particularly around social media. Create ways for people to peer-mentor – there is no better way to learn digital culture than face-to-face. A good model is Social Media Surgeries, where participants share knowledge and train each other on social media tools. We ran several of these during a project in our home city of Brighton, and found that after two or three sessions, former learners were turning up to show off their success and train others.

Third, opportunities. Find, or create, opportunities for your team to take digital initiatives. These can be internal events, or through participating in external events such as those run by Digital Leaders, or the UKGovCamp Network. From small innovations to large projects, try to enlist the internal entrepreneurs, the ones who are already acting in the way you want the organisation to move.

Fourth, incentives. In most organisations, there is a push to do things that will get you promoted. If you are clear that successful initiatives (or even brave quick failures) will be rewarded, it starts to align the organisation behind the new culture. Do it repeatedly and the out-of-line radical becomes the mainstream, while the old culture becomes out-of-line.

Connect these four initiatives, deliver them consistently across your organisation, and you will be supporting the culture change that digital needs – and unleashing all sorts of other ideas and initiatives from your team as well.

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