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Can digital disrupt culture?


The word ‘disrupt’ is mostly used to describe significant change. To disrupt is to the challenge the status quo, embrace change, take risk, innovate and collaborate effectively. This normally results in a radical departure from current ways of doing things. Digital inspires new ways of thinking, changes how people work and how product or services are offered. According to Carson (2017) during the past two decades, disruption has sped as digital technology firmly integrated itself into the workplace and fundamentally altered traditional work methods.

Culture is shared beliefs and understanding of how things work and appropriate behaviors. How things are done around here, for example, around here people share information; around here people are recognized for their hard work etc. Digital transcends workplace culture, domestic and international boundaries. In this blog, I will focus on the impact digital has on workplace culture. As most leaders know, success is accomplished through people. Digital technologies are helpful, however to succeed in the digital era requires more than just simply consuming the latest technological trends – to name a few trends: smart workspace, artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning, cloud, mobile, social media and big data & analytics. Digital foster a cultural paradigm shift; hence it’s disruptive in nature. The diagram below depicts and compares different attributes of digital and traditional culture.

Digital and traditional workplace culture attributes

Leading in the digital era requires leaders to have a change agent mind-set and to drive the digital vision within the organization. This means encouraging collaboration across the teams, new ways of working and breaking down communication barriers. This in turn will create a favorable environment that encourages openness, creativity and foster innovation.

How can these two cultures coexist? Instead of building the wall between the two cultures, organizations need to build a bridge and focus on extracting the best of both cultures (ways of working). For example governance and control is essential; however it should encourage a regimented agile approach on how value is created across the organization.

Does digital bridge the cultural divide? According to Myers (2016) organization needs to create an agile culture that encourages rapid experimentation with different applications of digital capabilities; using cross-functional working groups for ideation, design, and testing; and rapid implementation of those capabilities that are deemed applicable. To maintain the balance, I think digital transformation does allow organizations to enhance, sustain and extend its existing capabilities. In a rapidly changing business environment, the future is unpredictable. Therefore it is essential for leaders to use both data and intuition to make effective and informed decisions about the future.

The impact of digital change

According to Carson (2017) it’s estimated that digital technology will affect almost 50% of all jobs in the United States, leading many traditional work models to become irrelevant. The modern workers needs are shifting, and new capabilities in digital literacy, collaboration, leadership and critical thinking are required for them to successfully navigate this new era.

Continuous learning should be embedded in the fabric of the organization. Digital does alter traditional methods of learning and displaces some traditional skills. According to IT Web, Corporate IT Training guide for 2016, "ICT skills are playing an increasingly crucial role in the booming digital economy, and businesses that are not upskilling and training their staff accordingly, risk being left behind. It continues to say that, the dearth of ICT skills in South Africa remains an issue, compounded by poor education at school and tertiary levels, as well as the lack of infrastructure to help boost skills development.”

Culture and Strategy

The core business strategy should drive a healthy digital culture. Strategy according to Lorsch (1986) is the stream of decisions taken over time by top managers, which, when understood as a whole, reveal the goals they are seeking and the means used to reach these goals.

Digital culture can be a competitive advantage for organizations that embraces change in the digital era. When digital culture is not understood, not integrated into the core of the organization and not led. It can become destructive, thus leadership plays a key role in embedding digital culture into the fabric of the organization. If culture is left unattended, according to a phrase that originated from Peter Drucker and made famous by Mark Fields, President at Ford “Culture eats strategy for breakfast” (Rick, 2014). So it’s important that the two are intertwined and the hype about digital culture is well understood and managed. This however is not as easy as it sounds. According to Myatt (2014) “Apple was not an overnight success, nor was its culture. It took decades of purposed, intentional, and unyielding focus to create the Apple culture that exists today.” He continues to says, “Culture must be fought for on a daily basis, and it must continue to evolve in order to become better, stronger, and healthier.”

Organizations need to harness the benefits of digital technologies and use the attributes of digital culture as a competitive advantage. Strategy, not digital culture drives digital transformation.

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