Making a start on digitalness Part 2 – digital culture

My loyal readers (perhaps both of you) will recall my threat to prepare a series of posts on the theme of becoming more digital in your work and organisation. The first post on digital behaviours received enough of a response to warrant the second in the series (i.e. there were no real insults and some modest applause, for which I am very grateful). So I am making good on my threat.

This second post will concentrate on digital culture. This is a laden and wobbly phrase in itself and needs some definition to be more useful. By ‘digital culture’, I mean the expectations, values and principles of the people and teams involved in making digital things. This does have a vital relationship to the broader definition of digital experiences in society, politics, media, the arts, education and other areas of society. The fundamental impact of digital change on how we all work is caused by our experiences as users of digital products and services. We bring the possibilities of making, communicating, collaborating, buying and selling as digital consumers into our working lives (or we try to) and inevitably our working life starts to change.

The pace of that change is set by organisations and teams that have actively embraced digital ways of working, consciously and unconsciously. They get valuable stuff done so much more quickly than any traditional form of organisation. In culture terms they look, sound and feel different as well. Different things are afforded importance and priorities look different too. This is the territory of this post.

None of this is to say that there are not problems with digital working culture. Many of us will recognize the fervour of the agile zealot and their liberal sprinkling of an arcane and alienating barrage of jargon. (Agile has reached such a level of maturity that it has become professionalised with the ring of accountancy and law in its education and specialist language). Like any evangelical fundamentalism, that approach is simply not helpful.

What follows are the elements of the culture of digital working that are most interesting and valuable. These are gathered from my own working experiences and observations – this is not a workplace survey. They overlap with behaviours a fair bit, of course.   These cultural imprints are signals of healthy and productive ways of working.

In no ranked order, a digital team will:

  • Put user needs and motivations above other concerns in their designing and making. A hallmark of many digital businesses is an argument between a product team and a sales team about protecting user experience from commercial imperatives. (A note for Enterprise Software vendors – customers and end users are not motivated by the same things).
  • Seek evidence in decision making and feel discomfort in a lack of evidence. Some digital teams will refuse to decide until data is available, insisting on testing to see value before acting. Great discomfort is felt in lack of evidence and acting without it is rash and risky. Judgement is important and well used, it is also honed and sharpened by the evidence of testing. (This is an excellent trait and to be applauded).
  • Have a focus on evidence and demonstrable evidence encourages honesty. This is not to say that digital fibs are never told. It is to say that evidence of the effectiveness of decisions tends to offer fewer hiding places and encourages a conversation about observed data rather than opinion and hope.
  • Be empowered and will probably expect empowerment. This is most likely to take the form of being to be able to run and manage a product or project with a good degree of latitude. Command and control is an unlikely success in a digital environment – those horror stories of managers signing-off social media posts is not fiction. It is not culturally digital either.
  • A digital culture will tend to be open – or tend towards openness, at least
    • Information is shared freely. Digital teams will often invest effort in tools to make information easily and readily available. It is not a surprise that the Wiki, Github and blogs were born of early stage digital activity.
    • Access to information is therefore expected by the workforce or by project team members – if a decision is taken, it should probably be available somewhere to been found and referenced
    • Expectations of sharing are prevalent – this is one of the reasons Slack has been successful. It allows the meeting of that expectation to happen in quick, simple manner when it is at its most useful
    • Product performance is open too: many digital teams will be located with a  screen in their eye line showing a live monitoring of a crucial metric for all to see. Everyone will know how things are going – what kind of a difference my effort is making.
  • This is important as it is relevant to a culture of accountability. A digital teams empowerment to take decisions is married to an accountability to deliver results. As an organisation matures, the metrics describing those results will become more discerning and probably more accurate. Digital businesses are data driven so, metrics are well thought through and will focus team effort.
  • An accountable team tends to be urgent and oriented to action. This is in part due to the goals being clearly set. I believe there is more than that alone. A good digital team, although not unique to the digital sphere, wants to have work to show for their efforts. They want to make something for their users to appreciate. Hence the focus on “shipping product”.
  • Another lens on urgency is a desire to act at speed. For many digital teams being slow (or feeling slow) is by nature a poor quality output.
    • “Good enough is great” is a well known rallying cry of the urgent. To be clear, this does not open the door to a compromise on quality. It centres on the idea that good enough for the user (by their definition) and in their browser to use is better than delayed polish. (I wholeheartedly agree with this – the L&D world has work to do).
  • Digital teams have a strong learning culture – perhaps the strongest. Coupled with the urgency to make and ship is the urgency to always improve what is shipped and how it is made. Hence the desire to learn.
    • Review and improve is an expectation of digital workplaces. The sprint retrospective has enshrined this in the flow of agile work. The team will know when things are working poorly and equally know that there is a regular and frequent opportunity to understand that and make changes. The result of the retrospective then becomes the plan for the next phase.
    • Test and improve equally drives the product focus. The question: “How well is our product/content/experience working?” is always ringing in the air. The reflex to seek evidence then creates user tests to gather that evidence and measure progress as changes are made. (Typing this out really does make it seem so obvious – it is quite strange that we don’t all do it all of the time).
    • Each one teach one. I am not aware of a profession that is as dedicated to the development of skills and knowledge as the world of software development. It is a very progressive approach to raising the tide of skills for all. (In quite stark contrast to cultural failings in other respects).  Stack Overflow is probably the greatest testament to this culture. It is a heavily relied on resource to help developers and related digital professionals move through problems, seek advice, request and gain instruction. The best contributions are voted up and the best advice rises to the top. There is much to learn for all of us from this model.
    • This learning culture does not rely on learning specialists, it is part of the fabric of the culture. Training courses are available and the excellent Pluralsight has become a fixture – I don’t sense that they are the foundation though.
  • All these cultural elements need a certain flavour of leadership to thrive. This also tends to be different from the traditional. It is:
    • Present and active – communication is frequent and easy to access. Social tools are used more readily and (hopefully) without the antiseptic filter of the internal comms group
    • All that empowerment and accountability is facilitated by an atmosphere of trust from leaders and managers who have clearly set expectations
    • I hesitate to use the ‘authentic’ word but there is a clear thread of personal and direct communication styles in digital leaders. Just as consumers have a sensitive nose for nonsense in the public sphere, employees can spot a line being spun from a great distance
    • Digital leadership needs to be simple, clear and focused – like a good product

Reflecting on the above points, I think there is much to learn for corporate functions here. A great deal of lip service can be paid to these cultural elements and little real progress is made. It is easy enough to find digital teams in our organisations or in supplier businesses and partners to spend a little time with them and see how they operate. The point about learning culture is worthy of focus.

Having spent some time in an amongst the L&D world, I believe there is much to learn here. Also much to test and improve, of course.

So, next will be, at some point, a post about digital organisation I think. Worthy of further word count?


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