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Culture and Strategy Drive Government Digital Transformation

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Bill Brantley
August 4, 2015

Peter Drucker observed that “culture eats strategy for breakfast” when explaining why organizational strategies fail or succeed. I was thinking of this quote when I read the 2015 study of digital businesses by MIT’s Sloan Management Review and Deloitte. Nearly 4,800 business executives, managers and analysts from 129 countries and 27 industries were surveyed about the challenges of using digital and social technologies in their organizations. The title of the 2015 research report captures the major finding of the study: “Strategy, Not Technology, Drives Digital Transformation.” The authors make good points about how to build an effective digital strategy to move an organization toward digital maturity.

change_ahead - Brantley

Digital maturity for an organization is defined as “where digital has transformed processes, talent engagement and business models.” The authors did not find an organization that is fully digital-mature, but they did find a small percentage of organizations that achieved a high level of digital maturity. All of the highly mature digital organizations had a “clear and coherent” digital strategy.

However, I think that the authors underemphasize the vital role of culture in supporting digital strategy. There are several valuable observations on how culture enabled successful digital strategy that apply to government agencies. In the next five sections, I will describe how the major findings of the report can support agency efforts to achieve digital maturity.

Focus on transforming the business and not the technology

Technology is necessary but not sufficient to becoming a digitally mature organization. As the authors found, digitally immature organizations focused too much on individual technologies and thus had purely operational strategies. The digitally mature organizations focused their strategy on transforming their business using digital technologies. It has been my experience that organizations often buy a software application without fully considering how it will aid in the transformation. The organization is attracted to the features of the software and then try to shape the transformation around the features. Very little attention is given to the cultural implications of technology-driven transformation.

Employee skill development is key to realizing the strategy

As the study authors found, a vital skill is the ability to understand how digital technologies will transform the business. This skill is important at all levels of the organization. Digitally mature organizations provide more training to help employees develop the necessary skills while most digitally immature organizations lack this training. Much of the resistance to change stems from people who do not feel that they are capable of performing successfully in the newly-transformed organization. Providing skill training will help employees better accept the digital transformation.

Being a digital leader is the best way to attract and retain talent

This finding encompasses all generations. All generations, from baby boomers to millennials, want to work in digitally mature organizations. This makes sense as digitally immature organizations often frustrate employees with ineffective technology and confusing processes. Digitally mature organizations have a clearer sense of mission and use digital technology effectively to support the mission.

Risk taking is a cultural norm

This is a common finding in many of the studies examining innovative modern organizations. What is new in this study is the realization that “employees may be just as risk-averse as their managers and will need support to become bolder.” Several of the digitally matures companies use “gamification” to encourage employees to take risks and learn from their failures. This may be the most difficult cultural shift for government agencies to adopt, as learning from failure seems counter to employees being accountable to the agency mission (and efficiently managing public funds). Maybe encouraging experimentation and prototyping with immediate and rich feedback can make government risk taking more palatable than calling it “learning from failure.”

Digital strategy comes from the top and requires digitally-fluent leaders

An interesting concept from this finding is that leaders do not have to be technically adept in the digital technologies. Rather, the more important skill understands how the digital technologies will change the organization or, digital fluency. The digitally fluent leader effectively communicates through stories which vividly describes how the organization will become digitally mature. Helping employees to see the new organizational future is a vital leadership skill in all change efforts.

Government becoming digitally mature

As I wrote about in my last column, President Obama’s administration is attempting to transform the digital infrastructure of the federal government. There have been several innovative and well-designed strategies focusing on open government, open data and enabling strategies such as modernizing government record management. However, to realize the promise of a digitally mature federal government, agency’s culture must also be transformed to enable the success of President Obama’s digital strategy.


Author: Bill Brantley teaches at the University of Maryland (College Park), George Mason University and the University of Louisville. He is also a former Federal government employee. All opinions are his own and do not reflect the opinions of his employers. He can be reached at  http://about.me/bbrantley.

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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