• Digital culture is characterized by the way an organization uses digital tools and insights to create positive impact across a business.
  • Strong digital cultures are created by leaders who work collaboratively to enable innovation.
  • Here are nine key actions to help leaders on their transformational journey.

When the pandemic hit there was no playbook for “black swan events” all happening at the same time: COVID-19, economic, social injustice and geopolitical polarization. This moment in time is introducing the opportunity for exponential social innovation – to test and try brand new ways of leading – in weeks, not years.

But why is it that in challenging times like these, many companies struggle, while others are successful? What do they do differently? A key factor is their digital culture – by which we mean a culture that is most suitable for the digital world: organizations with a strong digital culture use digital tools and data-powered insights to drive decisions and customer centricity while innovating and collaborating across the organization.

The four pillars of digital culture – open/collaborative, data-driven, innovative, and customer centric – create the conditions for companies to have strong positive impact across all stakeholders, including employees, customers, shareholders, communities, and society at large.

Digital culture is about being flexible and having a workforce that can respond to new challenges. It is “the new normal” to anticipate and live with constant change, but also to provide supporting structures and psychological safety to sustain employee resilience and reduce added stress.

What can leaders do to promote digital culture?

Leaders can do a lot to foster digital culture. At its core, every leader needs to start with him/herself if they expect to see a shift in others; leaders should be radically honest about where they stand on a desired culture, and how they are role modeling the change they want to see in the organization (e.g. empathy and compassion). Here are nine ways to foster digital culture:

1. Acknowledge you are human

Be open to showing vulnerability and be honest about your development areas, but do so in the right context. This demonstration of self-awareness will help others connect with you. As you ask others to change, show them that you are also willing to do so.

2. Review your communication style

Communication is a subtle part of company culture. Through choice of words you can help to foster an open, collaborative culture, make your people feel included and address your customers effectively.

3. Communicate the vision and direction

Share your vision and the direction for the organization widely and transparently. This will help people to understand the broader picture and to connect their day-to-day work with that vision and their own values. This will boost morale and motivation for undertaking change.

4. Create a sense of empowerment

Many of the pillars of digital culture work best when people have the autonomy to make decisions and take actions that drive positive changes and outcomes for customers and shareholders. To promote this healthy functioning, foster an inclusive, safe environment where individuals are empowered to use their initiative, insight, skills and experience.

5. Launch an ambassador network

Similar to the “influencer” model of social media, you can leverage specific people in your organization to drive cultural change. Ambassadors help to spread the message and get others on board with the new behaviours and mindsets you want to promote. They are particularly useful for creating engagement around a discrete topic or programme: a new software systems rollout (e.g. SAP) or a new organization/department-wide initiative.

6. Initiate reverse mentoring

Reverse mentoring pairs senior leaders in an organization with less experienced workers to mentor each other on various topics of strategic and cultural relevance and ways of working. It helps leaders adopt new skills and understand the perspectives of those at junior levels, who are often closest to customers and stakeholders, and fosters collaboration across levels.

7. Create an exchange circle

An exchange circle is a small group of colleagues (8-12 members) that meets regularly to learn from one another, build their skills, and provide input. Peer feedback provides guidance and helps to make employees more open to changing their behaviours.

8. Set up behavioural experiments

Behavioural experiments are individually designed challenges that target a specific behaviour or goal. They help to de-risk the idea of doing something differently and help individuals to feel they are part of the change rather than having it forced upon them. Sharing stories of success can create a sense of envy, which is a very powerful tool in driving change.

9. Start a 30-day challenge

A 30-day challenge can help kick-start change and embed new habits. Based on the principles of neuroscience and behavioural psychology, a series of daily micro challenges for 30 days can nudge new desirable behaviours, which become habits over time. Ultimately, these new habits can shape our mindsets.

Supporting leaders on their journey

Leaders should focus on helping their teams to understand the overlap between personal and organizational values to increase motivation and create the space for deeper conversations about commitments to stakeholder impact. Impactful leaders create psychological safety so their people can take risks, feel empowered and bring “their whole self” to work.

The Digital Transformation Community at the World Economic Forum has developed a guide Digital Culture: The Driving Force of Digital Transformation to support leaders on this transformation journey. It provides self-assessment and, as outlined above, it suggests nine key actions to create change right away. Moreover, it includes examples of leaders and companies on similar digital transformation journeys and what has worked for them.

Ultimately, processes and policies must be aligned with organizational values and strategic goals, while also fostering the desired behaviors and mindsets to achieve far reaching and sustainable impact.