Understanding Digital Culture; the New Core Curricula

If software is eating the world – and who am I to disagree with @pmarca? – then it stands to reason that your business is becoming a software business. You may nominally be in the forward distribution logistics business or the forex arbitrage business or the movie business but you’re really in the software business. Got it?

If you agree with Mr. Andreessen, then you’re probably losing sleep figuring out the new software landscape in which you’re operating; the customers, the value chain, the technology, the monetization plays. What you’re probably spending less time gnawing on though is the changing culture of your organization as the fabled digital natives become a larger and larger part of your employee work force (with luck).

While you may have social listening software up the wazoo and consultants crawling all over you trying to sell you tours of the new digital Serengeti http://bit.ly/1fkTb7H few folks (it appears to me from my trips into the jungle) are spending much time trying to tune into the frequency theirmillennial employees are on; they’re not trying to dig what they all say ...http://bit.ly/1dx5tpf

Maybe the staff canteen now serves up quinoa and kale as well as subs and hoagies and maybe some of your pigpens have been replaced with bean bags but cosmetics aside the “culture” of digital is still seen – by many –as the purview of freaks and geeks or some new marketing strategy the guys down in Brooklyn or Shoreditch are cooking up.

Before we go any further you might be questioning why this is even an issue? With a gazillion otherthings to cut into your zzzzs why should you be at all concerned with managing “culture” within your organization? Won’t that simply take care of itself as the make-up of the workforce changes naturally over time? The old-timers will ride off into the sunset and the young Turks, with their skinny jeans and Civil War era beards, will pick up the reins. Job done.

Well, with a fair wind that might be true. The trouble is, for most organizations, fair winds and calm sailing are not in the forecast right now. The disruptive force of new technology, pushed and pulled by changing demographics and social mores, means the 5Ws of business are changing faster than ever before. What you do, how you do it, who does it, where you do it, and why you do it are all in a state of flux in industry after industry, occupation after occupation, across points North, South, East, and West. At the heart of this fluxis change in culture; culture with a capital C (attitudes towards art and entertainment, religion, sexuality, money, etc.) and culture with a lower case C (how people behave individually, in teams, under stress, how excellence is achieved, measured and rewarded,etc). It surely goes without saying that understanding all of this change is a pre-requisite for anyone wanting to optimize and monetize the modern world. But there, I’ve said it. Simply put, if the average age of your customer or prospect is decreasing, and the average age of your employees is increasing, you’ve got a problem. If you’re not concerned with managing the culture within your organization – to ensure this ratio doesn’t get out of whack –you’re really not managing your organization at all. At Cognizant’s upcoming Community event in London http://cogniz.at/1LYp84m I’ll be moderating a panel on managing the culture of digital with senior leaders from KBC, Telefonica, and British Gas, where we’ll be discussing this great cultural change and swapping tips and tactics that can be deployed to, if not manage, then at least shepherd these long- term dynamics in the right direction.

Though for most companies the notion of a Chief Enterprise Anthropologist – such as Genevieve Bell at Intel – is probably a step too far, there are a number of more basic plays that can be run to provide a sense of which way the wind is blowing and how to harness it. Here’s a preview of some of the ideas we’ll be chewing on in London...

Step One:Think about what even “culture” means in the first place...

Culture, in most definitions, breaks down into four key elements; behaviors, beliefs, values, and symbols. When seen like this it quickly becomes clear how different the culture of digital is from pre-digital culture.

  • Behaviors:Listening to music while working, working 5pm to 9am, sitting in Starbucks all day, leaving the company provided laptop in the drawer, saying “cool” to the CEO, texting mom while talking to the boss, buying Slack (with PayPal) for your team, meeting a client unshaven, not checking email...
  • Beliefs:I’m going to change the world, profits are overrated, v3.0 will fix it, 24/7, I’m going to be a billionaire, lean (in/development), Steve Jobs...
  • Values:Code, hard-core, the team, disruption, the genius, traction, the outsider, paranoia...
  • Symbols:Banksy, wood juxtaposed against metal, Tesla, ink, UFC, #2 juxtaposed against product, robots, Apple...

Step Two:Acknowledge the nature of the change (or lack thereof) within your organization...

The pre-digital enterprise showed up at 8:30am, sat in its cubicle, loosened its tie (a little), and got down to working the phones, working the R/3, walking the floor, pressing the flesh, hitting the course, pushing the paperwork, and keeping its nose clean. With luck, 30 years later, a pot of gold, a 401k, or an Atmos clock would show up (with a lot of luck, all three) and Cape Cod beckoned.

The digital enterprise checks Twitter before getting out of bed, Face Timesthe client on the walk to work, finishes the Prezi in Shake Shack. At 7pm,it pours the first glass from the company provided beer tap before settling down for the night shift. The digital enterprise figures retirement will have gone the way of the Dodo by the time it gets into its eighties. And the Cape will be under water by then anyway.

Step Three: Grapple with the “shock of the new”...

For many organizations the emergence of the new culture is extremely unsettling; a lot of it seems trivial, silly. “Social” is focused on not-working – not networking. Being in the Cloud comes with lots of security and privacy turbulence. Multi-tasking is procrastination on steroids. The rules of the game seem different; seem very uncertain. The exit strategy for the digital corporation is entirely opaque.

The culture of digital is deliberately anti-corporate, yet corporations need to understand how to assimilate it, co-opt it, leverage it, mold it, refine it. What they most certainly must not do is ignore it.

Step Four:Know thyself...

As you look at your organization, how much of this culture do you see? How widespread is it? How much of it rubs you the wrong way? How much of it do you exhibit yourself? What positive impact is it having? What is the negative impact?

Changing the culture of an organization is a top-down and bottoms-up exercise; as a senior leader, are you personally becoming more “digital,” more “social”? Do you personally Tweet or blog?Are you active on LinkedIn? Do you run your board meetings through iPads (rather than paper, etc.)??? What are you learning from this? What are you trying to do more of in this realm? What don’t you like about it? Research conducted by my colleague Manish Bahl suggests that many senior leaders aren’t taking these steps. They’re talking digital while being analog. http://bit.ly/1HQKDRl Privately, they don’t like Twitter or Facebook. What message does this send? Both to digital natives and digital immigrants? How can you master something you don’t like? That sounds like hard work...

Do you – again as a (presumably!) middle-aged senior leader– have a digital/social “mentor?” Or is this a role filled by un-paid labor (i.e., your kids)?

Other questions you should be asking yourself (and your organization) are whether your digital native staff is being encouraged to step up and lead (in influence; in the “wirearchy”)? How many digital natives do we have in positions of authority, both in soft and hard forms? What special initiatives (if any) do we have in place to attract/retain digital natives? If we don’t have them,is there a proactive reason why not? What “non-digital” behaviors are we trying to discourage? What’s the danger of not becoming more digital over the next few years?

What sort of changes to management performance metrics are we putting in place to encourage a fail-fast type of mentality? (But ensure we don’t over course correct and create chaos, etc. ...)What approaches can we put in place to deal with the famous innovator’s dilemma?

What areas outside of the customer interface can we explore and double down on along the digital journey?What have we learned so far? What could we reasonably expect to learn in the near future?

Given that “Being Digital” is as much about people as it is about technology these cultural questions are at the core of the digital transformation opportunity (and threat). Ten years ago someone showing up for a job interview without a suit and tie would have been a no-hoper from the get-go. Infive years, someone with a visible tattoo may be the perfect person to run your sales function.

Step Five:Be digital-native employee-centric...

Today’s customers look different, have different behaviors, different wants and needs, different tools in hand, different expectations. Today’s employees do too; they are, after all, typically one and the same person. (A lesson Henry Ford taught us a long time ago that some people seem to have forgotten).
In the face of this great cultural shift – put most simply, the ascent of the digital native – organizations must amp up their ability to listen to, interpret, and act on the signals transmitted by the new digital culture, both within their customer base but, even more importantly, within their employee base. The alternative is akin to the record-store sales clerk trying to interest you in a subscription to Spotify...

As the great technological futurist (and historian) Thornton May puts it, the IT “tribe” is changing; growing, diffusing, ascending, but changing. Understanding how, and why, and where and when is absolutely crucial to remaining culturally relevant rather than becoming a cultural relic. The new culture of digital is the coming wave that will either swamp your business or provide the ride of your life. Hang Ten.

I hope you can join us at Cognizant Community – either in person or virtually – and share your thoughts on the transformation in your organization. Amorphous as it can seem, culture is the core of our organizations. Understanding digital culture is core curricula for us all.