As a digital transformation specialist, it’s amazing what you get to study over the course of your day job. One topic crops up time and again as we work with clients, large and small, on how they deliver true Digital Transformation - that of their culture and how it needs to change in order to support the digital roadmap they need to deliver. So over the last year or so I have become a student of Cultural Morphology. How do organisational cultures change over time and what role do senior leaders and grassroots staff have on that culture?
Let’s start by defining what we mean by Cultural Morphology:
- Relating to the ideas, customs, and social behaviour of a society such as "the cultural diversity of British society"
- The study of the forms of things
Time and again when conducting our research, workshops and interviews, we hear how the culture of our client is not conducive to dynamic and flexible change. Yet, to quote Stephen Wells (Fast and Future Publishing) during a talk I saw him at earlier this year:
“Through the explosion of science and technology developments, our world will change more in the next 20 years than in the previous 300.”
- Stephen Wells
To put that into context, that is 12 generations of change completed in the space of under one. What is clear then is that the traditional, legacy cultures and business models are not fit for purpose in dealing with this rapid rate of change.
As a result, I find myself increasingly a student of Cultural Morphology, because only by understanding how the form of a culture enables, or more prevalently, disables rapid change can I get to grips with how to engineer a rapid change in a world that, until now, has had generations to effect change. What is clear is that the old models are dead. Single line linear ‘command and control’ processes are slow, monotheistic, too narrow and often ill-informed.
Increasingly, I am of the opinion that we need to embrace an older cultural model that existed, possibly for aeons, before our more hierarchical EGO driven model arose. Across my work, the term “collaboration” is used constantly and consistently. There is even a BSi Standard for it. A study of tribal models from native cultures showcases a collaborative approach that is intuitive, powerful and flexible. The form of leadership morphs as the needs of the tribe change. For them, expertise is the deciding factor, not authority. As there is little to no formal authority.
It is expected that the expert will lead on their area and then hand over the reigns to the next person, almost as in a relay race, with everyone reliant on each other to build momentum, deliver success and collaborate to reach the finish line. This model allows them to morph rapidly, to test and learn, and where failure is not seen as a bad thing, it is simply part of the process of iterative success.
It is kind of “Agile” but also kind of not. It is kind of free thinking but also kind of governed by the group or tribe. It is a very natural and comfortable state of being, where the group mitigates the risk, controls the cost (emotional, intellectual and financial) and oversees the quality as no one person wants to let the team down.
It does though bring a number of challenges:
- There is no boss, so this undermines any autocratic, insecure and authoritarian “leader”.
- It requires everyone to accept accountability and authority. There is no room for shirkers and no capacity to carry dead weight.
- It is ultimately a challenging and change-oriented model that can be a scary place for those unaccustomed to leading and making decisions.
- It takes time for some to embrace the freedom not being told what to do brings.
- Some can’t make the transition.
As such, whilst this model is undoubtedly the way to scale up the rapid change in support of the technological capabilities that now exist, it must be done sensitively, with care and training and with clear outcomes and goals that focus activity.
The consulting team at After Digital has been developing just such a programme that wraps the tribal culture soft skills into the harder goals and objectives of any Digital Roadmap. We have used tried and tested methodologies for training, knowledge transfer and learning to ensure that the soft skills can be practised in safe environments, whilst still working on the goals any organisation needs to achieve the cultural and digital shift they need.
For any organisation to successfully deliver a change as pervasive as the digital culture shift that is required for a Digital Evolution programme, they need to focus on the cultural needs of their people. It is always the people that deliver the process and tools that will morph the organisation into the mould our 21st-century technology requires it to be in order to continually deliver success.
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