How CIOs Can Lead Culture Transformations

To foster long-term resiliency and workplace innovation, Chief Information Officers and IT leaders must invest in employees’ skills and create an open and inclusive environment where people feel valued.

If 2020 taught us anything, perhaps it’s that company culture is more critical than ever. It’s now recognized as being directly tied to performance, productivity, and business results. And what’s clear is that exceptional organizations are thinking about their business as a two-sided ledger: strategy and culture.

In fact, according to research by Deloitte in years prior to 2020, 94% of executives and 88% of employees believe a distinct workplace culture is important to business success. When considering which factors substantially contribute to a company’s success, relatively equal percentages of employees cite these factors as contributors: “a clearly defined business strategy” (57%) and “clearly defined and communicated values and beliefs” (55%). 

And because people are an organization’s power source — 2020, most certainly, taught us that — exceptional organizations create and sustain a culture that engages and motivates their employees, demonstrated by the 83% of executives who rank having engaged and motivated employees as the top factor that substantially contributes to a company’s success.

Nurturing a Culture of Digital Transformation

This became especially true as digital transformation initiatives accelerated in order to help businesses reinvent the ways they serve customers. Yet, culture is often identified as a leading barrier to digital transformation for business leaders. That means CIOs are being tasked with steering cultural change in their organizations in order to drive the digital transformation efforts that are necessary to support innovation and implement customer-centric strategies. In fact, in 2019, Gartner predicted that by 2021, CIOs would be as responsible for culture change in their companies just as much as Chief HR Officers.

As chief information officers rethink how to drive innovation amid uncertainty, many are realizing that effective digital transformation requires much more than just implementing new technologies or processes. In a recent study from Harvard Business Review, having “an organizational culture that doesn’t easily adapt to changing business conditions” was named by the surveyed IT leaders as the top reason why digital transformation efforts fail, beating out IT budget constraints and operations backlogs. It makes sense that CIOs are taking the lead as culture change agents.


To enact digital transformation that not only secures enterprise adoption but is also embraced by employees at all levels, IT leaders and CIOs need to promote an empowered culture of innovation that enables agility, improved data management, as well as dynamic workflows and communication among different workgroups. Businesses need broad, deep, and sustained behavioral change, and who better to lead sustained behavioral change and culture transformation than those who have traditionally led innovation changes across the enterprise!


“Organizational culture is the expression of our combined daily behaviors that are constantly changing and interacting,” according to Suzanne Adnams, Vice President Analyst at Gartner. “Each behavior is guided by a unique combination of values, mindsets and practices.”


According to Adnams, in 2021, CIOs will be just as responsible for leading workplace culture as their peers in HR. But to do that, CIOs must understand how these values, mindsets and practices intersect. Leaders have direct influence over how these three facets affect behaviors to shape the culture. They must also put a tactical strategy into place so that positive behaviors are identified, modeled, encouraged, and rewarded.


IT at the forefront of supporting 2020’s new normal

Businesses in most industries have been able to stabilize operations after the onslaught of last year’s pandemic, but the dust has far from settled. Some companies continue to struggle with business continuity and, really, the complete reorganization of all their growth strategies. As a result, executive leaders who grappled with the uncertainties of 2020 and into 2021, including having to reduce their workforces, are now experiencing staggered workflows and cultural fragmentation — both of which are negatively impacting productivity.


Market volatility and uncertainty are defining features of the new ‘business as usual’ — leaving companies no choice but to adapt or fail. As business strategies and roadmaps continue to be disrupted, today’s most successful business leaders are searching for new opportunities to optimize processes and solving challenges as quickly as possible, with solutions to address the most pressing challenges in days or weeks, not months.


For example, in a recent poll of more than 200 webinar attendees, Humantelligence found that nearly 50 percent of attendees think that optimizing collaboration among distributed teams will be harder as workforce models shift or transition. And nearly 55 percent of attendees then said they think it would take 1 or more months to implement a solution for better team communication and collaboration. Yet in today’s context, multi-month timelines are no longer an option.  


Leaders must rely heavily on new, innovative technology to support productivity and business continuity initiatives and bring them to life. For many CIOs, this means that their role as a strategic partner to the business becomes more essential than ever before. To maintain resilience and agility during these uncertain times, CIOs must become more digitally advanced and malleable while preparing for any further disruption that lays ahead and can do so when they prioritize the following actions.


1. Identify and communicate strategy-aligned organizational values

Workplace values guide decision making, relationships and behaviors. Organizational values must be consistent with organizational goals, and must be reflected in leaders’ daily decisions and behaviors. Missing or inconsistent leadership modeling of values undermines workplace culture and can harm broader strategic objectives. 


CIOs looking to influence culture should be first concerned with the values of the IT organization. If this group’s values are not clearly understood, then personal values could become the basis of individual decisions and actions. CIOs should objectively evaluate their own behaviors and practices, and those of their direct reports. 


Tactically, take advantage of psychometric assessments to accomplish that. Candid conversations with stakeholders across the workplace can help. Identify gaps and problem areas together, and share your concerns with functional leaders. Next, determine which values and behaviors map to the organization’s desired culture and broader goals. 


Most importantly, demonstrate the behaviors you want to see in others and socialize it when employee behavior meets or exceeds your expectations. As an organizational influencer, this will help you create broader buy-in for your initiatives, and taking action this way can help you align strategic digital transformation initiatives to the kind of behaviors and values you want the organization to support.


2. Empower and seek input from employees 

A business’s ability to respond swiftly and effectively to change — operational agility — is a top priority for forward-thinking executives. To achieve operational agility, transforming your operations once (and doing so reactively) is simply not enough. The best way to prepare for the unknown is to optimize the company’s approach to transformation. 


With so many new vulnerabilities to manage and fix, and an almost equally large number of vulnerability management tools available to security and IT operations teams, important, actionable remediation intelligence often gets lost in the fray.


Digital transformation projects have traditionally been grounded in the adoption of new business technologies that promise to unlock innovation by streamlining projects and enhancing workflows, but they typically work from the top down. This type of innovation is incapable of keeping up with drastically changing business needs, and it cannot compete with today’s rapidly evolving digital landscape.


CIOs should focus their attention on high-level initiatives that grow and unite the business. This means that business leaders must shift away from a one-dimensional approach to digital transformation in favor of a modern model — one that engages workers on the frontlines of the business to collaboratively identify lapses in business processes and develop innovative solutions. These are the folks that are closest to your clients and are best positioned to identify the problems they face day-to-day — providing you with the inputs you need to strategize the changes that need to take place.



The value these employees can bring to innovation initiatives can be ground breaking for the business, and in most companies, this potential remains largely untapped.


3. Foster a culture of collaboration through culture hacks first

Similar to the value that comes from seeking input and feedback from employees on problems, aligning IT leaders and employees to better drive digital transformation requires collaboration across and throughout the business. 


This means unifying decision-makers in strategy with the employees navigating these business processes day-to-day. Implementing a digital transformation strategy that engages employees on the frontlines and keeps the lines of communication open between employees and executive decision makers requires CIOs to deploy technologies that are both powerful and allow for operational agility. 


Brian Carlson at The National CIO Review calls it culture hacking. Cultural hacks are quick, agile things leaders can do to try and shift culture more quickly and support broader change initiatives. Hacks should be deployed within the larger initiative and be reinforced by strong supportive leadership. These hacks can help shift the company’s beliefs and mindset towards more desired behavioral change and help to foster digital transformation into a more agile positioning. Culture hacking allows companies to make small incremental changes that can resonate across an organization. 


As examples, these can take the form of small workgroups that integrate employees from different disciplines to take on targeted digital initiatives, or limiting traditional meetings that do not align towards digital-first strategies. Another forward-looking idea is to have any digital decision made in a 48 hour window. They can also include simple but impactful plug-in tools that enable greater and more inclusive communication


However, to foster a culture of long-term resiliency and workplace innovation, CIOs as culture change agents must also be ready to support and invest in employees’ skills and create an open and inclusive environment where people feel valued. This approach will ensure that people across all levels feel heard and understood, and have the tools and skills necessary to navigate uncertainty or disruption.


We help CIOs lead culture change. We’ll help you uncover the behaviors, motivators, and values of employees, and how you can leverage that data to empower more inclusive communication and more effective collaboration that aligns to your strategy — leading to improved performance. If you’re a CIO or IT leader interested in learning more, one click below let’s you schedule time to talk with us!

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