5 Keys to Building a Strong Digital Culture

Digital Culture - garage band

Just about every business we know is on some kind of journey towards digital transformation – whether it’s enhancing the customer journey, improving digital culture, automating processes, introducing collaboration platforms or a full-scale, top-to-bottom digital re-tooling. Adoption is often uneven. Digital tools appear to solve some problems and cause new ones. It all seems to take so much more time than anyone had anticipated.

But one thing all the experts agree on, whether they’re in technology (like Microsoft) or transformation (like McKinsey), is that culture makes the difference.

Remember the time when the go-to metaphor for a well-run, engaged organisation was an orchestra, with all the musicians and their instruments perfectly arranged and in tune, calmly waiting for the stroke of the conductor’s baton? Employees, each with their distinct part to play, would stick closely to the score, and following the ‘conductor’ on when to play louder and when to slow down.

Digital culture is more like a garage band…

Digital culture is more like a garage band, improvising, putting ideas together and playing each other quick phrases to see where they go. Sure, there might be a charismatic lead but the songs can be written by anyone and the band’s character is a function of the people in it and what they create together.

What’s our role in this, as communicators? Isn’t this a systems or organisational problem? Should we just do the change communications, and leave others to do the heavy lifting?

I got interested in digital culture through working with a global professional services organisation where I was doing change communications for a digital finance platform and delivering an all-colleague culture change programme – two huge programmes which at the start weren’t in sync at all. At the same time, the organisation was reviewing its customer journey, focusing on data and digital as service lines and delivery mechanisms, and rolling out Office 365 to all staff. It was an impressive change portfolio.

Thecla Schreuders
Thecla Schreuders, Culture Change Expert

A highly dispersed organisation, my client had offices in towns and cities I’d never heard of. Colleagues came from many different national backgrounds, with different workstyles, and it was a strong example of four generations in the workplace. The technical complexities were vast; I was grateful not to be responsible for delivering the whole transformation agenda, and sympathetic to those who were. As you can imagine, like so many big organisations ‘doing transformation’, progress was uneven and success, to begin with, was mixed.

At one time this business had conformed to the ‘organisation as orchestra’ archetype and it became clear that this model just wasn’t doing it any favours. It got in the way of how people worked together, what they expected of their leaders and what their leaders expected of them. It prevented them from being more dynamic, responsive and ambitious. It even prevented them from being properly accountable, in spite of the culture change programme intended to instil new ways of thinking and doing.

But there were promising signs. The organisation had taken well to Yammer, which gave colleagues an insight into each others’ worlds, projects and lives. It allowed colleagues to signal commercial opportunities, share successes and congratulate each other; it nurtured enthusiasm about new initiatives and importantly, gave colleagues in different parts of the world the chance to show each other how something new worked and how to make sense of it. More than anything else, it got people talking and it helped them to change, without them even realising it.

. . . we learn by doing, and we help by showing

For me, what makes the difference, and what builds a digital culture is when we go back to the basics of communication. When people started using Yammer to show (not just tell) colleagues how a change could work for them, they achieved something important: they helped each other.

  • So let’s start with cooperation. Where people help each other to figure out problems and show the way, not as all-conquering heroes but through their own trials and errors, that’s the beginning. One of the big obstacles with change adoption is a range of abilities with new tools and processes. Training is often patchy, or poorly designed. So we learn by doing, and we help by showing.
  • Plain English is vital. Giving colleagues the means to express themselves in language that’s easy to understand and follow is where ‘show don’t tell’ comes into its own.
  • Next, storytelling. Bottom-up communication, everyday heroes, tales from the frontline – call it what you will. It’s not the just helping leaders to shape and then share their vision of a new world and how to get there. It’s observing, paying attention and going out to find the good things that people are doing and spreading the word.
  • Which brings me to characters – that is, people. For digital transformation to feel real and attainable it has to be about people – about customers and colleagues, what it means to them and how they benefit, and the specific, tangible difference new tools and processes actually make.
  • Curiosity is another big one. Being open to new ideas and seeking them out. Being interested in what other people think and doa nd trying it for yourself before pre-judging. Asking thoughtful questions and listening to the answers.


Digital Culture is the garage band, not the orchestra

Swoop, the social network analytics provider, has a neat little card to promote better conversations. They suggest that for each update you post, you also make two replies and offer three ‘likes’. I’d add one more to this: listen first.

For me, digital culture is horizontal not vertical; it’s in sync not instructed; cooperative not competitive, and collective not individual; it’s exploratory not fixed; and it’s open and interested not closed. It’s the garage band, not the orchestra.


Guest post by Thecla Schreuders, Culture Change Expert

Thecla Schreuders is running her workshop on 5 keys to building a strong digital culture – and how communicators can help at smileexpo on May 13th