I was asked to attend a CIO conference in Sweden this week where the delegate chatter centered on culture. And no, it wasn’t about ABBA or the sad premature demise of Avici; it was about people and how they need to work today and in the future. Listening to this, and other snippets from around the conference and it’s clear that the penny’s well and truly dropped about digital (organize around platforms, automate, hyper innovate, etc.) but now, many organizations are struggling with the execution because it involves people. The adage rings true: technology IS the easy part.
The challenge is getting people to change how they think and do work. Getting a workforce match fit for the trials of work in the 21st century is difficult with a workforce (ahem) from a different era/generation and a working culture far away from where it needs to be. Here is my thinking: Work culture is breaking down, and has been breaking down for about a decade. It’s breaking down as the shift into software accelerates. This whole digital “thang” is really about software (data) and how you control software (data) and who can move and marshal software (data) around their value chain and open it up for experimentation versus how well your competitor can do this.
Once you get why this is happening then we can begin to correct it. Culture is under siege from the 1) The top-down pressure on business models reshaping the type of work that needs doing; And the 2) bottom-up people issues that modern ways of working generate. So the business model pressure focuses on virtualizing assets whatever they are (products/services/experiences/processes). Work needs to pivot on platforms and mine algorithms for meaning if firms are to capture new revenue flows, participate in co-creation/consortia initiatives or exploit a new technology that can radically shift a stubborn cost base. At the same time, there is a range of bottom-up dynamics swirling around the way people increasingly work: the rapid pace of technology change driving gigs, different working styles, and the growth of core versus flex employees. Moreover, compounding the pressures, is a new generation of people that firms need—talent—which can work anywhere and anytime. This isn’t about age however. My take is that there is an army of us that refuse to believe that age is the problem; we can work anytime and anywhere, core versus flex, whatever you need. The issue really is one of mindset and our work culture needs to address that.
Done well, and culture creates an intuitive sense of belonging and is the difference between” I am” and “we are.” It extends beyond social engagement to a kindred of mission, culture, values, and the customers/stakeholders that your firm serves. Remember, your employees are increasingly connected, and they view work as a special place to be (wherever that is). Team members form a brotherhood who have each other’s backs without hesitation. But work culture has to address the fact that firms need to be open/outward rather than inward/ closed. It matters because the inspiration/energy/insight teams need is now found at the edge of the organization, rather than at its center. That idea, that concept, that technology that could superpower a customer experience is happening somewhere and its happening now (I can guarantee it). There is a wave of entrepreneurial energy washing through our economies unleashed from the building blocks of digital services with their ubiquitous connectivity, incredibly cheap data storage and computing processing power that needs meshing somehow into your processes or experiences. Rigid approaches to organizational management typified as the 1980s value chain mania must now give away to something much more fluid and connected. And this is totally about culture: command and control structures, long decision cycles and silo-based mentalities simply won’t work in the software age typified by the explosion of start-ups and a talent bank that is increasingly global. Your workforce is going hybrid.
I will be exploring culture in the next few months at the Center for the Future of Work. Why? Because it is all too easy to underestimate institutional inertia as the great shift into software accelerates. Cultures that have grown up over decades can be large, unwieldy and complicated – even, at times, paranoid and complacent. I call them zombie organizations, and they must be fought at every turn. The speed of change in many industries is now measured in months, not years. I am looking to find new ways to think about people and work and to create a cultural blueprint for a company, irrespective of legacy, background or industry.
PS. So back to my conference, there are Swedish examples that shine a light on cultural best practice. Sweden’s digital star Spotify is a case in point. Spotify uses much more dynamic structures and collaborative approaches to accessing talent and getting work done. Smaller functional teams increasingly cut across business lines and market segments, and they thrive when complexity is removed. Therein lies the clue.