It’s not all about technology – the role of culture in digital transformation

Written by Tim Lancaster, AWS Practice Director, Arcus Global

On a very cold afternoon in Cambridge we enjoyed a quality and informed Salon focusing on the role of culture in digital transformation. The lead discussant was Tim Lancaster, AWS Practice Director at Arcus Global.  The Salon, chaired by Robin Knowles, had contributions from all attendees.

To start discussions, Tim shared his insights into the key cultural factors important to the successful implementation of digital transformation:

    1. The need for commitment.  
      Things get worse before they get better so transformation requires commitment. That can come from having no other option (‘the burning platform’) or by getting people to join a group whose success requires the transformation to be effective.
    2. Ownership.
      Most changes involve new technologies, ways of working or groups of people so there isn’t a manual and you can’t just issue a set of instructions. In this environment, you need people who are ready to take ownership of finding solutions to particular parts of the problem. Ownership doesn’t mean that you have to do it on your own or that the ideas have to be yours, just that you will coordinate efforts and persevere until you have a good answer. When interviewing for ownership, it is good to ask about cases where people solved problems and understand how tenacious they were and how ready they were to adopt ideas and take help.
    3. Have a go’ approach.
      Digital projects usually use Agile methodologies which champion ‘fail often and fail fast’. Like Edison’s lightbulb, things that don’t work help you to find solutions that do but most people feel uncomfortable with failing. At Arcus, we look for people who are prepared to ‘have a go’ and risk failure and we try to provide a ‘no blame’ culture and a relaxed working environment so that they feel OK with taking risks.
    4. Artisan approach.  
      My grandfather was an artisan who took pride in his work and created things that did the job and were made with care. Once you have a solution, it is important to get the detail right and to finish the job – people who take pride in their work do that naturally.
    5. Learning.  
      It’s my fiftieth birthday today and I’ve worked in the IT industry all my life but I love learning new techniques and technologies and I look for people who feel the same way. If you’re keen to learn you will try new approaches and that openness and willingness to experiment can really improve results. I gained a blackbelt in a martial art that requires you to teach what you have learned in order to improve your own understanding so I try to encourage people to both learn and teach each other – sharing what they have learned and improving their understanding in the process.
    6. People.
      It is really important that people engaged in digital transformation like people – if you like people you will want to listen to their needs and issues rather than assuming that you know the answer;  you will want to create things to help them and you will feel good when you solve their problems. However technical the role, the best candidates always care about people.

Our lively discussion broadly covered the following areas with the key area of focus being around the concept of change management.

It is a common view that digital transformation is about technology but crucially it’s about people, those implementing, those taking decisions and those affected by change, in short all stakeholders.  Organisations undergoing digital transformation have to appreciate, and be mindful of their current culture and how well it supports or undermines what is needed for digital transformation.

A lively discussion was held on the role of leadership and how organisations often take on the personality of a leader. It was also recognised that leaders or champions can exist at all levels in organisations and that lasting change cannot just be led from the top.

Crises can be great for gaining commitment to change but they can also undermine change because people under stress tend to get tunnel vision and not be open to new ideas and new ways of working. Public sector employees tend to look to the private sector for new ideas but shouldn’t feel disempowered by this – wherever you get your ideas it is implementing that makes the difference.

Radical thinking
Digital transformation is not about simply changing a paper form into a digital one.  It’s often about changing the whole focus and culture of an organisation: Airbnb did not arise from hoteliers, Uber doesn’t own cabs and in the public sector transformation is often about taking power and choice from within the organisation and giving it to the citizen. But be careful; being radical exposes yourself to failure, this is particularly true of those who are elected.

Effective communication is essential and can be particularly challenging in large organisations. Ensuring that key stakeholders understand and support digital transformation and other changes through good communication is fundamental.

Listening to issues
People worry when change is happening and it is not enough to push them to support it. Making the time to listen to concerns and to help people to realise that their reactions are often mixtures of emotions, some positive, some negative, can be really helpful in enabling them to feel more comfortable and adapt more readily.

The biggest block to digital transformation is having to implement radical change at the same time as continuing with the day job.  Change often evokes fear and one way to address fear is to start small and pilot change within a small area so that the people involved in the pilot can then reassure their colleagues and encourage them to change.

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