How an employee-first culture can drive digital transformation

02 April 2019 7 min. read
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While C-suites may be wowed by the latest technologies and their promise of transformation and opportunity, a lack of cultural acceptance within the organisation is creating a barrier to progressive digital change. To generate a company-wide uptick in the adoption of these new technologies, it’s time for companies to axe their legacy-driven mindsets and implement an employee-first ethos. Glen Duncan, a director at experience design studio 383 shares his insight on how a culture of bravery, fearlessness and action is vital for digital transformation success. 

According to Capgemini, the most challenging part of a company’s digital transformation journey is, in fact, getting everyone on-board. Similarly, PwC research highlights that 75% of change initiatives fail due to a lack of digital culture. It may seem a steep figure, but it’s really not that hard to understand why…

Imagine a company that is made up entirely of employees who are satisfied in their four-wall environment, who are comfortable to just do their job and go home, who are waiting for someone else to transform the business. With an ecosystem like this, it’s almost certain that company will stagnate. 

To pull a business back into the competitive space, top-tier managers will often jump on the digital transformation bandwagon, investing in new technologies and evolving practices and processes to make sure the transformation is executed. But taking a tech-first approach doesn’t automatically engender engagement across the team. And without engagement, the transformation journey is going to go nowhere fast.

An employee-first culture can drive digital transformation

Make your employees your allies

Trading in your tech-first outlook for an employee-first approach is one of the most important steps you can take to inspire engagement. Assess your employee experience and identify areas for improvement along the journey, from on-boarding right through to off-boarding. Clichéd as it sounds, happy employees make happy customers – and this is just as relevant for digital transformation too. The employee experience has to be on point – genuinely wicked. Turn them into capable and empowered allies through engagement, education and motivation. 

For new businesses and startups, it’s much easier to establish this type of culture that cultivates a digitally capable and engaged workforce. You can set your expectations from the outset and relay your employee-first ethos right from the start of the recruitment journey. But for established companies with existing teams, it’s a much harder problem to overcome. The good news is, it’s not an impossible task. 

To encourage the right culture that will get the wheels of your digital transformation in motion, education should be your primary focus. It’s vital for every employee to understand why things are the way they are; why changes are happening within the business; what type of behaviours will be needed to make the changes effective. Without this basic transparency, you’ll never get your team behind your mission. 

It’s equally important for each employee to be aware of where they can be of value. All too often in large organisations, employees don’t fully understand the levers they can pull to help a company becomes as profitable as possible. By walking them through the business model or running commercial awareness exercises, it’s possible to help them see past the departmental silos, and instead, view the business through a more holistic lens. In doing so, they will have more clarity around the wider challenges in the business and understand those areas that have commercial impact. It can get them thinking about efficiencies, how they can make an impact, and importantly, how digital can be used to improve them. 

It’s all in the action

It is, of course, one thing to get the team ‘thinking’ and another to get them ‘doing’. Traditional business models are largely risk averse, and it goes against the grain to risk failure. But in a digital transformation world, creative fast failure has to happen. It’s hard to adapt to this entrepreneurial way of thinking, but doing something is better than doing nothing. Therefore, it’s vital to encourage action-oriented behaviour in your organisation’s culture. 

It’s not enough, however, to send one message down the line. To drive a change in culture and behaviour, communication needs to be sharp, clear and frequent. Crucially, it needs to come from the top. Leaders need to be visible, continuously reiterating the message of ‘why we’re doing this’. And they need disciples of their own to continue spreading the message. This isn’t to be mistaken for micro-managing: it’s about zoning in on those areas that need addressing until you have the confidence that the behaviour is changing and the message is being adhered to. 

“It’s not just about creating a digital transformation culture and then sitting back. A culture must match the changing rhythms and momentum of the business.”
– Glen Duncan, Director at 383

Large-scale organisations have power, and it’s exciting to get behind them and feel the forward momentum on projects that will shake up the business and the world. But if the communications are inconsistent then behaviours won’t change the way you need them to, agility will be lacking, and you’ll effectively set your entire digital transformation programme up for failure. 

Without a culture that’s built for change, digital transformation won’t be progressive or long-lasting. Big organisations won’t stand a chance next to digital natives like Google or Amazon, who are already equipped digitally, technically and culturally. In plain terms, shit doesn’t happen unless you make it happen. Build an employee-first culture that is brave, fearless and action-oriented, and you’ll be able to stand shoulder to shoulder with the digital giants. 

Today’s top talent in the digital transformation space is necessarily action-oriented, and so those companies which fail to adjust will likely miss out on accessing tomorrow’s sharpest innovators and achievers. However, for those who do succeed, there’s a caveat: it’s not just about creating a culture and then sitting back. Much like digital transformation itself, your culture must be in a state of constant revolution, matching the changing rhythms and momentum of the business.

What culture looks like

If you’re seeking to shape an organisational culture that will help drive digital innovation across your company’s ecosystem, we’ve put together a checklist of some things you should and shouldn’t consider:

  • Don’t always rely on multi-stage interviews and psyche tests that assess competency and fit
  • Do pay closer attention to chemistry, and ask the questions that will help you understand if someone is a genuine achiever.
  • Don’t set out to find the ‘right job candidate’. Someone comfortable in their ‘4-wall’ environment is less likely to get behind your mission and drive transformation.
  • Do look for candidates with cross-functional skills: attitudinal traits that match your own mission which help make change achievable.
  • Don’t take a ‘tech-first’ approach. Even though technology does so much, and digital innovation is the destination you’re heading for, it’s humans who make it happen.
  • Do consistently remind your employees that they are the catalysts for change. To quote Thomas Edison, "Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration"
  • Don’t feed into the ‘departments are silos’ thinking.
  • Do encourage cross-functional working.
  • Don’t cave in to historic aversions towards risk.
  • Do encourage creative and fast failure. It’s better to do something rather than nothing.
  • Don’t assume in-house talent is the only answer.
  • Do widen your network of expertise – freelance talent, especially in the digital skills arena, comes ready-made with a culture that’s fit for transformation. 

Related: Majority of digital transformations fall short of achieving topline growth.