Culture is the most important element of a digital transformation journey – here’s why

By José Pinto, - Employee experienceFuture Workplace

Digital transformation is a profound change that’s set to impact all aspects of our society. That’s not an over-exaggeration: the shift to online platforms will bring about new mind-sets, different behaviours, new ways of living, and hopefully more intelligent and sustainable consumption habits, leading to a different social and economic system.

Survival will depend on fitting into this new economy. Businesses will have to develop ways to harness the technology driving the change.

But you can’t push new technology into an organization if the culture isn’t ready to adapt to it. The base of any technology or tools is limited by the boundaries of culture and knowledge.

And this is where the problem lies. Today most organizations’ efforts are 90% focused on technology, processes and innovation. Less than 10% is invested in shaping the base culture.

This is why so many organizations are slow to adapt and use digital models efficiently. And in the hyper-dynamic world of today, being slow to transform means you’ll get left behind.

You have to start with the culture – and in this blog post, I’ll explain why.

Cultural change takes time – but it’s worth it

Currently most businesses look at digital transformation as an innovation challenge related to technology and/or business models and processes.

Almost all efforts are centred in those directions, disregarding base culture and the experiences of people inside the organization.

This is risky. While technology, knowledge and business models can be bought or copied, organizational culture takes time to forge. It’s a slow process to create change, and see that change assimilated in new values and rationalization.

Agility is a good example of this. When a business leader decides to introduce agile working practices in their company, he tends to buy a load of mobile technology (laptops, tablets, mobile connectivity) and initiate training for all their employees. A process is drawn up, and usually what it does is “format” people to perform according to a pre-defined set of rules.

But agility is all about creating and recreating the rules and processes on a real-time basis. It requires employees to be flexible, adapt quickly, be comfortable with risk, and feel comfortable with permanent learning and discovery.

In essence, it requires you to build a different culture – a culture of agility.

Being given agility training in a process-driven way actually prevents agile working from happening. Culture is the basis of everything, and it’s where you need to start if you want to make change stick.

Focus on the human value in work

An organization’s ability to transform depends on one thing: its employees.

Keeping employees inspired and excited about what they do is not only a question of salary or fringe benefits. In a world where technology is abundant and more and more of a commodity, talent needs to be attracted and retained by offering a rewarding human experience.

This is where culture becomes hugely important. If you want to find success in your digital transformation journey, you need to find the right people to steer you through it. And you’ll only attract them with the right workplace culture.

70% of professionals in the U.S. today would not work at a leading company if it meant they had to tolerate a bad workplace culture.

A strong culture that delivers high job satisfaction is something that younger generations crave in particular.

And this is vitally important, since millennials and the upcoming Gen Z are digital natives, meaning they are ideally placed to show you how to bring digital technology into your business.

Understanding the relationship between culture and tech

Tech influences, informs and shapes a culture.

This is obvious when you see people using great tech in the wrong way. They aren’t rationalising how they use the tech, which creates a huge number of problems. This is why organisations struggle to meet adoption levels.

They can’t convince their employees to use the programme or device that will drive efficiencies and improve performance. This has a serious business impact, and eventually they end up disappearing or downsizing – all because they didn’t adapt in terms of culture.

Big industry players that we think of as natural digital natives are coming from different incubation environments. They still tend to approach situations by plugging in tech first, thinking that tech influences the culture, when it should be the other way around.

Start-ups are typically very good at this. Most are digital by nature, and because their worker base is so small they are already in tune with the culture of employees. They share all of the assets and factors that we see in the younger gen and from a digital, agile, innovative culture.

Experience, executing, learning – this is the process they follow intuitively. Risk handling, change, adapt, fun are part of their DNA and it often brings them to great success.

The human experience matters

Cultural change is the most difficult part of digital transformation to address. It’s counter-intuitive to say that we need to start with the way we experience tech, and then make changes, especially as most of the IT industry believes in doing things the opposite way round.

But change only works if it is embedded in culture first. And cultural change is related to the human learning process.

You get to a point where you say ‘I’m happy with this because I’ve tried it and feel it is right’. If someone asks me a question I will answer from my own experience.

Ultimately, a culture that’s capable of transforming will keep always be able to keep up with the currents of change – into the digital age, and beyond.

Look out for the second part in this series on digital transformation, where we’ll be discussing how to create a digital culture in your organization.

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