Overcoming the cultural challenges of transformation

Feb 18
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How do you overcome the cultural challenges of digital transformation? Why is it so hard? Why bother?

One of the most difficult leadership challenges is changing an organisation’s culture. Organisational culture consists of goals, roles, process, values, communication practices, attitudes and assumptions all mixed together. So how do you overcome the challenges associated with such a mix? And do you have to bother overcoming them?

We have found with delivering a new Digital Documents Management solution for the Department of Industry that the challenge is hard, but worth the effort. If we unpacked what we have done that we “didn’t have to” – we would find the crucial aspects of what made the implementation such a success. The top five tips to assist with overcoming the cultural challenges associated with digital transformation:

1. Know your ‘Why’

You must evaluate and understand the current situation, why we are where we are today? What is the problem we are trying to solve? Why are we bothering to do this? This will drive the creation of the Vision for the change. 

In order to achieve this, the team and I undertook consultation with staff from across the organisation. Level and location were irrelevant. The consultations were short workshops which asked three questions: what are your current document management practices, what would you like to see in a solution and what are the barriers to take-up of a new solution?  These three questions led us to know the current situation, what our upcoming challenges would be and the ‘Why’ for the end user. 

2. Start from the top

Begin with top level leadership and ensure that they know and support the ‘why’.  With so many challenges ahead you need to have top cover for when the times get tough, and they will get tough. 

The ‘Why’ for the executive might be different to the ‘Why’ for the end user.  For the Digital Documents Management Project, the senior executives were interested in meeting their obligations under the National Archives of Australia’s Digital Continuity 2020 policy. The end user wanted to meet their obligations but was looking for something intuitive, with document collaboration features, version control and record keeping. 

Given all the elements combined to make an organisation’s culture, top cover is not enough. 

3. Communicate, communicate, communicate 

Lots and at all levels, early and often, different channels, never enough. Don’t rely only on top down. Peer accountability is very powerful in both the negative and the positive. The vision or story for the future must be clear and it must be promulgated rapidly and forcefully, through all levels.

Develop detailed communication and change management plans. Workshop these with trusted people who understand the culture of the organisation and challenges that may be faced. Follow through. 

4. Resilient leadership

Be flexible and willing to wear some risk that comes with the unknown. Don’t worry about potential road blocks, keep going until you get to one and then work out if or how to push through. Be prepared to challenge the norm, ask questions, and push the barriers. Subject Matter Experts are your friends when it comes to maintaining your own resilience, but they can also be the weak link in a project if they cannot see outside the box and how things could be done differently. You need to challenge and be prepared to make the hard calls at the end of the day.

5. What’s in it for me? Carrot or the stick….carrot first, stick last resort 

When communicating with people about the change, ensure you are focusing on ‘what’s in it for me?’. People are more willing to accept change if they are engaged by highlighting the ‘what’s in it for me?’. You must identify and build relationships with impacted groups, and ensure those groups receive the appropriate level of training. Be willing to lose some battles to win the war. 

Through the journey (which is continuing) for transforming the way the organisation works, there are many battle scars and lessons that can be shared. It is a bumpy road but enjoyable and very rewarding. Enjoy the ride and keep an eye out for quick-wins and champions/good examples (we used the executive in our Pilot Project). 

Criterion’s series of Public Sector conferences cover topics including Digital Transformation, Cloud Computing, Data Analytics, Leadership Strategies, Communications and more. View upcoming events here.

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Submitted by Rebecca Lee

Rebecca Lee

Rebecca Lee is the Chief Information Officer Department of Industry, Innovation & Science.

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