Move over HR: Why tech is taking charge of company culture

As companies are engulfed by change, maybe techies can help staff make sense of it all.
Written by Mark Samuels, Contributor

Better known for managing hardware and software, CIOs are being given a new task — remaking company culture to cope with an era of massive, rapid change.

Tech chiefs could be key to establishing the right business culture for organisations during a period of continuous change, much of which has been created by the digital transformation projects already being spearheaded by the IT department.

Such is the influence of CIOs over people and processes now that tech analyst Gartner estimates digital leaders will be as responsible for culture change as HR bosses within two years.

The analyst suggests that CIOs have the means to create the right kind of business culture through the technology choices they make, and that CIOs have already picked up plenty of experience in leading cultural change as they've pushed through digital transformation.

What's more, it appears CIOs have acquired a bit of a taste for leading change. Elise Olding, research vice president at Gartner, says that many CIOs recognise that the right culture helps to accelerate digital transformation efforts.

That's something I've heard repeatedly through my conversations with CIOs, too. Julie Dodd, director of digital transformation and communication at charity Parkinson's UK, says successful digital transformation requires a cultural change and an awareness of how technology can be used to help the business meets its objectives quicker.

That doesn't mean that every CIO-led digital transformation project is a success, either: winning people over about the potential power of IT-led change is from easy. Successful digital transformation projects are really about tweaking the personality of a business — and changing that engrained character is tough.

SEE: 10 ways to communicate more effectively with customers and co-workers (free PDF)    

Gartner has also found that to be the case. The tech analyst says 50 percent of transformational initiatives are clear failures, with a culture of resistance to change the main barrier. The analyst's vice president Christie Struckman says CIOs should start with culture change when they embark on digital transformation, not wait to address it later.

Yet embracing digital change it is not without its challenges. Phil Armstrong, global CIO at finance firm Great-West Lifeco, says using technology as a strategic lever often means re-inventing processes that are working well and that are extremely profitable.

Armstrong says this process of reinvention — using technology like cloud computing and new ways of agile working — is crucial because it ensures the business starts to see the value of staying one step ahead of its competitors. "We're seeing tremendous change in the attitude towards technology in our organisation," he says.

"I believe strongly that technology is the business; the blur between tech and business is not just blurring, it's disappearing. If you don't recognise that, and start to embrace that change, through things like Agile, DevOps and cloud, then you will be left behind quickly."

So how to get started? Gartner suggests the best way to make cultural change stick is to start with a small, motivated user group and then showcase the results.

Phil Lewis, director of digital transformation at fashion retailer Boden, is another digital leader who has passed lessons learnt through his IT change programme to the wider business.

Lewis has worked hard at Boden to remove cultural differences between technology and digital. He has helped push agile working methods across the business and created scrum teams for new initiatives that include various elements from within the company, such as development, product and user experience.

SEE: Tech budgets 2019: A CXO's guide (ZDNet special report) | Download the report as a PDF (TechRepublic)

The key lesson, says Lewis, is that the broader organisation sees the plus-points that a new way of working brings and then demands similar benefits. "In the same way that it happened in the IT industry in terms of Scrum and Agile, I think people have started to realise that smaller, cross-functional teams can add value in other areas of the business," he says.

Lewis, therefore, posits a change in perception, one that holds non-IT executives are recognising that digital chiefs have broad expertise that can help change the business for the better. Board members who call on their CIOs for advice on people and processes find new ways to overcome the cultural challenges associated to transformation.

That view resonates with Brad Dowden, interim CIO and director at Intercor Transformations. He says the experience digital leaders have of running transformation programmes definitely leaves them well-placed to advise the rest of the organisation — including HR chiefs — about the best ways to pursue successful culture change initiatives.

"People might be keen on the idea of change, but when they see how the alterations impact their day-to-day roles, they can be less keen. And that's where CIOs really can help and use their experience to help deliver the right culture for digital transformation," says Dowden.

He recognises that getting organisations to adopt a forward-looking vision is the biggest challenge digital leaders face. "Technology change is tough but it's doable — the really hard part is getting people to buy into the cultural change that's required to deliver business transformation," says Dowden.

However, to succeed in the role of cultural change makers, CIOs might not want to look to channel the HR chief, but look instead to their marketing and sales peers. 

"Ultimately, technology is an enabler for people to succeed — winning hearts and minds is the key, not assuming the responsibility of the HR chief," says Dowden. "All CIOs need to become a bit more like sales people and have the capability to sell visions to people, including the relationship between technology implementation and cultural change."

It sometimes feels as if the remit for the CIO continues to expand exponentially. IT leaders who could once focus on buying and implementing systems must now extend their influence far beyond the technology department. 

The good news is this expectation to take on new areas —such as operations, procurement, innovation and now culture — means the business has more confidence in the abilities of the CIO than ever before. 

People used to joke that the initials CIO stood for 'Career Is Over'. In reality, the digital leadership role is entering a new period of growth and development. CIOs must embrace this opportunity — the question is how many CIOs are up to this challenge.


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