Perspectives

Culture and Digital: The Under-Explored & Unexplored Aspects (2)

In my previous article, I discussed the four views of culture- the Normative, Power, Symbol and Practice (read Culture and Digital- part 1).

Once we have defined culture as these four views, the task of understanding it from digital (or IT) perspective will not only be easier but also become specific and meaningful. Each of these four views presents a unique challenge and a unique opportunity for digital.

Culture’s impact on digital and digital’s impact on culture needs elaboration with respect to these four views.

Normative View of Culture and Digital

The normative view of a culture often poses challenge for digital, primarily because digital impacts the visible aspects of practices, power and symbols. The deeper norms, values and beliefs need to be appreciated and taken care of while rolling out digital initiatives. It takes time for digital to create its impact on the normative view of culture and it does so through the other three views. The way digital can impact the deeper aspects of norms, values and beliefs is discussed under each of the three other views of culture.

Power View of Culture and Digital

If the normative view of culture is a challenge and it takes time to be impacted by digital, that’s primarily due to the power view of culture. Individuals need and crave for power. They create power for themselves by using different power bases like authority to make key decision making, control over organizational resources, knowledge, proximity, access to information etc. Digital tends to make things transparent, needs new knowledge to participate and challenges the existing scheme of things. With the logic of decision making embedded digitally in the automated processes, decentralization of power becomes possible. It may unnerve some, especially those who have been enjoying the power without digitization.

How does one deal with it? There are two broad ways one can do that. One is to rally the higher power of the CEO or other CXOs around the initiative to deal with any resistance due to power shift. Two is to create conversations with those likely to be affected, understand their concern and help them deal with their concerns. It may involve taking smaller steps like starting with more willing participants, who are more positive; using some early adopters as spokespersons or make others feel they are in control of the change.

These micro strategies may take time and the change may evolve slowly, but they can be very effective in a participative change. For example earlier if the CEO himself decided on important aspects of financial control or internal aspects like appraisals, with digitization better tools shall be available to the operational teams (discussed next). The CEO may still control help of dashboards and embedding the control logic in the automated process with the necessary checks and balances. But the day to day decision making powers may shift to the larger organization.

As the users become comfortable with the new ways, new paradigm of decision making shall evolve and the normative aspects shall also shift.

Symbol View of Culture and Digital

Symbols are built, rituals are followed and folklores are created to reinforce and sustain the normative and the power view of the culture. Whose values and beliefs should be built and put into practice is determined by the relative power of the members. We see this in larger societies (who propagate certain views of history, promote certain institutions as compared to others) and also in organizations. The symbols, rituals and folklores are also the THINGS around which practices and processes emerge and evolve.

Digital can influence the symbol view of culture in two ways. One it can help reinforce and propagate the existing symbols, rituals and folklores, e.g. internal social platform to enhance sharing among the employees or performance appraisals with the same look and feel as the physical ones. Two it can create new symbols, rituals and folklores. So, a new browser based HR platform for the employees may be a new symbol or the CEO interacting with the employees using webcast can be new rituals or a completely new sharing of the best practices may create new folklores (which earlier were not getting a formal platform). Hence, digital has an opportunity vis-a-vis the symbols, rituals and folklores for both supporting and creating new ones.

Practice View of Culture and Digital

The existing ways of doing things poses resistance for digital is only a partial view. The inertia of habit is surely a source of resistance, but how digital can help the users in their work is also a source of opportunity. It also needs to be acknowledged and addressed seriously. Digital can create new ways of doing things, it can pave path for new (and may be better) practices to emerge and it can design new tools and methods to do work. I remember a media company in which digital designed new tools for the editors to manage the editorial process and enhanced the ease with which the journalists can create and transmit stories. This opened a lot of ways in which the journalists can create better stories; the editors can manage the process for fewer errors and faster transmission to the subscribers. The editorial practice was eased and deeply impacted by the digital.

Similarly in many distribution centred organizations, how digital can help the front line sales people to do their work better with the help of a mobility application or how distributors can manage their work better must be brought to fore. I know a manufacturing company where the enterprise application has been extended to the distributors to manage their work better, resulting into low inventory and faster payments. With a simple application on their tablets, the distributors are in control of their complex business.

Let me also bring in the element of normative dimension of culture. Organization culture is not a consistent phenomenon, it is subject to the way individual departments, functions, SBUs and locations behave and give importance to the core normative aspects. You may find in your organization that there is a variance in the culture in different groups determined by the local aspects of immediate societal reality, the group composition (north versus south India) and the local leaders’ values. This leads to inconsistency in the other three views of culture across groups and many a time these inconsistencies may create trouble. Digital can help bring consistency in the way the norms, values and beliefs are given importance and followed. One of the routes to bring this consistency is by designing ‘standard’ processes and practices through digitization. Hence, booking a customer is similar in terms of process, look, feel and methods across the world if it is digitized. The ability to bring in normative consistency through standard practices c an be a big outcome of digital.

This article on the relation between culture and digital may help the CEOs and other CXOs to understand and deal with the challenges and leverage the opportunities. They should not see it just through the partial aspects of resistance and one sided impact.

 

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