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An Activist’s Guide to Steering Organizational Culture in a Digital Direction


Digital flourishes only in a relevant business culture. But it’s not enough to cross your fingers and hope people adapt to the radical shifts to advance how work gets done. Here’s our six-part blueprint for activating culture change.

We’re all familiar with the traditional work culture: hierarchical, departmentalized, bureaucratic, slow to change. Such cultures, however, won’t cut it in the digital economy, which requires innovation, speed and agility. According to recent research we conducted with HfS Research, companies that intentionally focus on culture realize greater success, both revenue-wise and in accelerating their digital initiatives.

Culture change, however, doesn’t come easily. We’ve identified six levers businesses can pull to nurture the flexible and malleable culture needed to accommodate the changing nature of work (see figure below). Together, these levers provide a blueprint for a corporate culture that encour­ages organizations to adapt to the changes in how people work.

Figure 1

Business leaders need to motivate workers to embrace change, manage its execution and fuse the learning into the organization. A few ways to do that include:

  • Embrace and evangelize platform thinking. The starting point for business model innova­tion begins with the platform, and with platforms come new codes of behavior. Leaders need to model an appetite for risk and an intolerance for siloed mindsets and behaviors. 

  • Codify new company behaviors. Amazon’s leadership principles (among them, invent and simplify, learn and be curious, hire and develop the best) motivate its employees. Spotify’s leaders organize teams into squads, chapters and guilds that can rapidly swarm around a task. These are positive cultures that encourage everyone to roll up their sleeves.

  • Increase the frequency and quality of communication. People need to hear from their leaders regularly on matters of vision, strategy, direction and progress. Salesforce founder and CEO Marc Benioff sends out daily messages to employees, which encourages employees to communicate and collaborate. 

In our recent report “Space Matters,” we demonstrated how redesign­ing the workplace can increase productivity, agility and innovation. To achieve these results:

  • Create a cultural epicenter. Devise new places that showcase an effective work culture. GE’s digital headquarters in California for example, with its maker space, helps staff envision how innovation gets done. (Watch this video to see for yourself.)

  • Model innovative behavior. The social nature of innovation needs to be signaled to the wider workforce. Businesses should curate programs, held in a highly visible space, to showcase a co-created solution or any­thing they consider to be the “next big thing.” 

New ideas bubble up at the organization’s edge. To harness them, businesses need to reset the dynamics of power and decision making:

  • Empower teams at the edge. A solid first step is to build an internal company accelerator around a specific problem or challenge, allowing internal stakeholders and their teams to coalesce around it. Give it a mandate and funds to experiment. Consider investing in a lab as a “playspace” to facilitate breakthrough thinking and ongoing experimentation. 

  • Rethink the seating plan. Colocate business functions such as sales, marketing, service, prod­uct development, production and technology staff together on a single floor (or in a node), and focus the team’s efforts on a specific segment or platform niche. 

  • Learn where talent is and how to access it. The start-up movement has fostered regional “talent clusters” throughout the world. Many organizations are opening up new spaces in these locations, or they’re temporarily locating an innovation team in a coworking space like WeWork. (Read “The Future-Proof City” for additional insights.) 

We are well past the automation “theory” phase, and intelligent bots are now recalibrating work­flows. Intelli­gent automation is shifting previous job roles into new tasks and activities, which will create new types of jobs and require new ways of thinking about how work gets done: 

  • Build bots into people management. Managing a mixture of humans, AI systems, algorithms and process automation tools will increasingly be the norm. Businesses will need to develop new methods to delegate roles between robots and humans in a shared business process. 

  • Retrain managers around people-to-machine workflows. New managerial skills will be required, such as process automation specialists and automation metrics managers. Leaders will increasingly direct work using cognitive systems, algorithms and robots rather than gut instinct. 

  • Catalyze AI enthusiasm. Some workforce members will be ner­vous about the increased use of intelligent automation; others will be excited by the prospects of the new opportunities. Businesses need to identify high-impact employees who can catalyze enthusiasm around AI throughout the workforce. 

The employee experience can be instrumented using the streams of data surrounding workers. Intelligent workplaces offer sophisticated engagement programs that personal­ize employee growth and well-being in the following ways: 

  • Use data and analytics to power employee experiences. Harnessing the power of data surrounding employees will be the key to unlocking authentic experiences and managing an increasingly complex workforce. Build an infrastructure of data and analytics for talent management, and don’t use data privacy fears as a scapegoat for inaction. (For more, read our report “Privacy in the Age of the Algorithm.”)

  • Invite employees into decision making. The modern workforce must be an integral part of organizational decision making, so businesses need to ensure the mechanisms are in place not only to harness workers’ voices in a controlled environment but to also act on the information received in order to build trust, brand reputation and employee loyalty. 

With new skills and capabilities needed to support rapid business change, shifting labor dynamics and the influx of intelligent machines, new approaches are required to manage employee dynamics.

  • Create and share “one source of truth.” A company’s values must be visible to everyone, from the 20-something freelancer, to the 65-year-old who has worked there her whole career. Build a knowledge base that adapts to the ways prospective and connected employees share. 

  • Develop tools that support modern work. The explosive growth of work café culture is only matched by the growth of shared workspaces. Flexible work options provide people with the tools to work from any location, while also ensuring employees are available for collaborative teamwork. 

  • Redefine behavior with an upskilling program. Infuse current workers with the digital skills and mindset that the era of the algorithm demands. Evangelize a “depth chart” to manage and identify talent and rotate workers between digital and legacy projects. Morale will grow as employees see where they fit in the organization’s development plans. 

Many work cultures tend to “just happen.” By selecting a lever from our six-point plan, leaders can begin shaping new cultural norms to support enterprise-wide digitization.

For the full report, see “The Culture Cure for Digital: How to Fix What’s Ailing Business,” visit our Cognizant Center for the Future of Work, or the Cognizant Digital Business section of our website, or contact us

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