Digital transformation is making CIOs culture custodians

Between budgets, digital transformation, compliance, cybersecurity, training, investment and more, the modern CIO is being given more hats to wear every day. And in between the technical and business, a new realm of responsibility is arising: culture.

By 2021, CIOs will be as responsible for culture as chief human resource officers, according to Kristin Moyer, distinguished VP analyst at Gartner, speaking in a keynote at the Gartner Symposium/ITxpo in Orlando, Florida last week.

Culture is frequently identified as a leading barrier to digital transformation for business leaders, and it’s increasingly up to CIOs to change that. But hacking culture can’t be accomplished in one meeting: It’s about small actions that are often overlooked and steadily shaping new mindsets, according to Moyer.

These changes can be something simpler, such as mandating all decisions be made in 48 hours, or as large as changing the rules for decision making. In the greater business context, it’s about creating an environment that promotes learning, change and growth.

The transition to the adaptive and dynamic digital age starts with culture.

Why CIOs are responsible for culture

The rapid pace of technology advancement has customers expecting more from their brands. But the customer experience can’t be enabled without the employee experience, according to Sam Tepper, business transformation and sales excellence leader at Salesforce, speaking at the conference.

The consumerization of business IT means CIOs have customers outside and inside their organization. CIOs should think of their culture as an “employee experience program,” according to Leigh McMullen, VP analyst at Gartner.

Despite the optimism and excitement surround digital transformation, many businesses fail to carry out their goals. The complex interplay of culture, technology and leadership is hard to balance.

Digital transformation currently looks a lot like the hype cycle: There’s a lot of energy out front, but not a lot of players make it out of the trough of disillusionment, according to McMullen. CIOs need to figure out how to flatten the curve and sustain a little energy over a long period of time.

While starting with a strategy is important, many experts hold culture as the most important factor for digital transformation success. As business management guru Peter Drucker famously put it, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”

To create a culture of action, businesses need collaborative work – because “the lone wolf is dead” – modern communication systems and connection of teams, metrics and experiences, according to Tepper.

The anatomy of culture

While every organization will define and approach culture differently, there is a base understanding that culture is “just the way we do stuff around here,” according to McMullen. IT is the automatic behaviors and habits that allow people to work together with minimal friction.

To change these ingrained habits, CIOs need to show employees more than what’s in it for them and focus on change at the right level. Changing core identities or intimate behaviors isn’t going to work, but focusing on formal and work behaviors and social behavior will change how employees work.

There are four “dials” leaders can change to affect culture, according to McMullen:

The brain loves making habits, so CIOs need to use this to their advantage and figure out how habits relate to each of these dials. Many businesses that have implemented Agile have already done this to some extent, he said.

In the anatomy of a habit – trigger, routine, reward – CIOs need to change the narrative of how individuals interpret a trigger to help them move to a new routine, according to McMullen. Conflict, for example, is a big trigger in an organization; by ritualizing the way disagreement is handled and overcoming resistance to reduce negativity in those situations, the business can shift.

The anticipation of reward, not the reward itself, is what drives execution of a routine; humans are wired to adapt to the group, and by focusing on culture at the group unit, social pressure will lead to change, he said. The leader sets the rules, but the tribe enforces.

By building new habits on existing ones, transferring habits from a narrow to wider business context and making the community responsible for establishment and enforcement, businesses can redefine success and culture.

Taking the conversation a step further

Even when businesses make culture a priority, the conversation often stops at diversity, De’Onn Griffin, senior director analyst at Gartner, said during a session at the conference.

After all, CIOs aren’t always the most diverse group: 80% are male and more than half are between the ages of 40-49.

There are several aspects of diversity to take into account in an organization, according to Griffin:

  • Legacy diversity: Physical attributes, race, gender, religion, etc.
  • Style diversity: How one performs, interacts
  • Thought diversity: How one creates ideas, solves problems

Each of these components is important for a diverse team. CIOs need to look at their “diversity debt” and assess how it affects their pipeline and hiring, Griffin said.

But just having a spread of these diversity characteristics isn’t enough: Inclusion also has to be a priority. Citing Verna Myers, Griffin said, “Diversity is being invited to the party; inclusion is being asked to dance.”

A collectivity identity that improves inclusivity and diversity, with goals and values at the top, can help business culture change. As a business moves from a services to solutions mindset, communication also has to change, she said.

Don’t forget to look in the mirror

CIOs shouldn’t just focus on changing the processes of their team; even the best leader can improve themselves.

Many technology leaders are spending 70% of their time in meetings and emails, according to Moyer. So cancel those meetings and send out an email update instead, and let the idea creators be the CEO of their own idea.

Setting time for oneself to develop and learn is also an important investment for future and larger leadership positions. More technical leadership is needed on company boards, and if CIOs and CTOs can demonstrate well-rounded thought and knowledge in areas outside of traditional business responsibilities, it can help present them as promising candidates.

Rewarding and fostering inclusive leadership is important to promote diversity and belonging in the workplace. As a team leader, more than half of one’s time should be spent on leadership skills – both for oneself and others, according to Griffin.


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