20 Sep 2018

Digital transformation: How culture drives companies in times of disruption

At the GCB German Convention Bureau, we not only talk a lot about the digital transformation process and what it means for our industry. We also (try to) live and breathe it because, faced with the disruptive forces of our time, we realised that, as an organisation, we need to change how we work and think. In this context, we have identified six areas that are crucial for a successful digital transformation process. Over the next few months, I will discuss each of these aspects in a series of articles on digital transformation, kicking off today with a piece on culture.

Why culture

Why am I starting with culture? Because, as Simon Sagmeister writes in his book Business Culture Design, "many companies see that their tried and tested organisational concepts have reached their limits. They are not suitable anymore for the complexities that have developed in and around organisations." Which does not mean that strategy is not important, just the opposite, and I will take a close look at the importance of a sound strategy in my last article of this series. It is more about the fact that, faced with the digital transformation process, a strong and empowering culture is indispensable for the success of any organisation. It forms the basis for change to happen because if your people are not willing to adapt to and adopt "Work 4.0", the digital transformation process will fail. And for them to embrace a digital mindset, providing the appropriate corporate environment is key. 

Theoretical backbone

Before highlighting some GCB examples of how we are working on changing our culture, let me start by mentioning a few key learnings from the above mentioned Business Culture Design that I find very helpful as a theoretical backbone:

  • Culture is essential for companies to survive. Leaving it to chance, would therefore be reckless.
  • Culture can be actively shaped and it is down to the management to provide an appropriate framework for the right kind of culture.
  • Work with "culture maps" to visualise company values: Sagmeister uses them to describe seven different types of cultures that partly consist of individualistic, dynamic values and partly of group-oriented, stabilising values. It is never a case of "either or" but always a mix.
  • Culture is always about "survival of the fittest", in the sense of "which culture is the most apt". This also requires ongoing development and adaptation.
  • How a culture develops or a management behaves depends on many different factors. Hence, business cultures are a very complex issue.
  • In our changed world, business success now largely depends on many people rather than individuals as knowledge and skills are distributed among a variety of employees within one organisation.
  • People shape the culture and vice versa.

Transforming our culture at the GCB

Many organisations, in particular legacy businesses and those within industries where things "have always been a certain way", still operate with cultures that reflect the way we worked before the digital transformation: People think in silos, hierarchical structures prevail and homogenous decision-making bodies direct the business. Our industry is no exception and we all need to take a long and hard look at where and how we need to change in order to reap the benefits of the digital transformation.

Culture keywords: collaboration, decentralisation, flexibility

At the GCB, we are embracing a more collaborative and decentralised way of working. We have become more flexible in our approach and operate with dynamic teams based on the skills and know-how needed in any given context, irrespective of formal departments. This also requires a change in leadership, including taking on the role of a coach, favouring a peer-to-peer approach and taking a step back where necessary.

Putting it into action

To put ourselves in the right frame of mind, the whole team decamped to the Lufthansa Seeheim Conference Hotel outside Frankfurt for our 2018 kick-off session in January. Working with the World Café method as an effective and flexible format to facilitate group dialogue, we focussed on changing perspectives and trying new ways of doing things, including team members taking on roles that are different to the ones they usually have in their everyday working life.

In this context, I very much took on the role of an observer, rather than trying to steer and manage things, which included interviewing the GCB's team members to get their opinion on different topics related to the digital transformation. A reverse mentor session at this year's IMEX in Frankfurt turned out to be another very useful exercise in role changing.

The impact of creative methods

Using new, creative methods proved to be very beneficial for the GCB in our culture change process. They not only enable us to collaborate better but also facilitate better outcomes for our stakeholders. Design thinking, for example, which is all about focussing on your customer, was an incredibly helpful tool when developing the programme for our yearly "Digital and Innovation Day" (Digiday) for event professionals. And regular peer learning sessions are a great way to spread know-how within the team, on anything from "how to do social media" to "video production".

Individual ownership and engagement

All these initiatives and particularly the fact that we now work in project teams, breaking up silos, has led to a considerably increased employee engagement. If everyone is involved in creating something, the results are much more accepted. People feel more responsible which is vital. The pace of the digital transformation means sitting back and waiting for instructions will not be enough anymore. Everyone needs to take individual ownership and everyone's passion and engagement are necessary. Apart from enabling your people, e.g. by giving them the right tools and enhance their skills, this also means encouraging a culture of trying and making mistakes without stigmatising. Otherwise, any kind of innovative spirit will be stifled.

On the way to getting it right

These are only a few examples where we have changed the way we do things within the GCB. No doubt, more needs to be done and not everything works at first try. Changing our behaviour is one of the hardest things to do. However, based on our experiences we can only encourage everyone in the meeting industry to take a look at their organisation's culture and ask themselves questions such as "How fit are we for the digital transformation?". Research (Capgemini 2017) suggests that corporate culture is the number one hurdle for a successful digital transformation process. The good news is that it does not need to be your downfall, as long as you commit yourself to the necessary change process. One thing that applies to everyone involved, no matter if leader or team member is: be the change you want to see.

Coming up: My next "Digital Transformation" article will discuss communication channels and how the GCB engages with its stakeholders.