Tom
15th October 2020 · 23 min read

Tech or culture, which came first?

Philosophical questions aside, it is fair to say they develop alongside each other, because of each other. If you look at any example of a culture shaping technology (china tea cups & paper houses in Japan) the same technology shaped the culture (no industrial glass production).

Culture needs to use technology and technology needs a culture to use it.

In this article we will look at why now is the time for digital transformation, ways to transform UK businesses and the people and mindsets you will (and won't) need for our inevitable, successful digital transformation.

Outpace Competitors

You might know the tricks of the trade - but you need a technology team beside you every step of the way.

Chapter 1
The Stages Of Transition - “Digital Darwinism”

Something that really held digital transformations back in the past was the way they were planned from the outset. Waterfall plans (figure 1.1) consisted largely of Development (Dev) teams handing over to Operational (Ops) teams and the resulting poor and fatigue-laden performance was a contributing factor to the high rate of digital transformation project failures.

two graphs should AI investments
Figure 1.1 - The Waterfall Method

But there is good news. Things have changed in time for normal companies, not just larger businesses or tech savvy startups, to engage with the benefits of a digital world. The shift towards Agile methodology (Fig. 1.2) and a Dev/Ops culture means that the previous described changeover never happens. Instead, Devs & Ops work together throughout the process. This not only allows for a better initial development but aids continuous redevelopment. An agile process is a loop or more correctly a series of loops.

two graphs should AI investments
Figure 1.2 - The Agile Method

An important factor when successfully transforming your business is understanding the overall direction and processes required, but then breaking down each transformation into more manageable phases or 'sprints'. Despite the fact both waterfall and agile methods take this into account the waterfall method consists of a fire-and-forget mentality, whereas the agile method’s repeating nature is a higher level of commitment to the project or business lacking in the waterfall method. DX is a journey, not an answer, so although a long-term plan needs to be formed, flexibility to go in different directions further down the line is key. This isn't possible if you handed the project over.

DevOps is a set of practices that combines software development (Dev) and IT operations (Ops). It aims to shorten the systems development lifecycle, ship better software and provide continuous delivery (CD). It is analogous to the agile methodology, borrowing several core principles, and ultimately DevOps' eventual aim is delivering higher value to customers via increased efficiency through close collaboration and accurate feedback.

But what does that mean in real terms?

According to PUPPET’S “State of Devops” report:

2,555 times faster lead times

200 times more deployments

24 times faster recovery from failure

3 times lower change failure rate

22% less time on rework

Additionally, DORA “2019 State of DevOps” report found that elite teams deploy 208 times more frequently and 106 times faster than low-performing teams.

And all of that is REALLY good.

But what does all that mean in an organisational sense? According to the 2020 DevOps Trends Survey, 99% of respondents said DevOps has had a positive impact on their organization by allowing them to “ship better work faster”, “streamline incident responses”, and “improve collaboration and communication across” teams.

Again, REALLY good.

The first things required to make a tech transformation in the UK possible are therefore in place. So what will have to change first?

The way we think.

Chapter 2
New Mindsets For A New Era Of Business

Digital Transformation requires a significant shift in attitude at the head of your business and a lack of commitment sees funding cut, creating failure and future resistance. Management will have to be open to reshaping the hierarchy. Will they want to? Maybe. Why should they? Because basing future success on 100 year-old business philosophies is the one thing that certainly will not work.

In order to progress, all levels of business will need restructuring and planning - and unless the bosses can be seen embracing the change, managers will be reticent and employees unengaged. In particular the way profit and success are measured needs reevaluation. In the modern, increasingly digital marketplace consumers are becoming ever more conscious of the effect of their consumerism. They also have much more choice. So retaining not only a client base but the right sort of customers has become very important. This is both a blessing and curse but whatever the outcome, the demands are clear: more overall transparency, employee welfare, environmental impact awareness and clear company values.

Take, for example, the greater need for responsibility for environmental impact. Moving a business to be more green is certainly not a money maker; and without creative solutions it is rarely going to be as cost-effective as ignoring environmental damage. But slowly, culturally, first through laws and then peer pressure, we have accepted at least some responsibility for the waste we produce and how we can minimise or dispose of it. We all accept it now, because why wouldn't you?

smartphone with recycling symbol on it
The environment and the economy should matter to your business.

And the more money businesses can make, in theory, the more the government can reap in taxation.

The UK economy is 12% smaller than at the start of 2020 and with no realistic end to the current global pandemic in sight, continued sustainable growth requires change. Technological advancements influence workplace culture by creating an environment within which change is possible. If Covid-19 brought us anything it is a requirement to evolve quickly but with relative freedom to experiment on how.

So if digital technology created the environment and a virus gave us the collective patience to allow experimenting with different digital options, it is down to us to face some facts about the workforce and the way it is currently assembled.

Deep breath, now...

Overwhelmingly, companies in the UK employ staff on an individual basis to do, mostly, a single job or task. The response “that’s not my department/job” became as synonymous with the workplace as the watercooler. Individuals hired as individuals are expected to function as part of a team that will need to work together in theory, but on a kind of expected-but-not-actually-expected basis in reality. As a result, teams of individuals are more common than teams of players. Whatever your experience of teamwork is, even the most jaded individualists will accept that a team of mediocre people playing together will almost always beat a team of incredibly talented individuals playing apart.

Chapter 3
Bringing Teamwork Back To The Workplace

But how do you make individuals play as a team?

Understanding how an organisation needs to change to provide a better experience for both customers and employees means you can then implement technological changes that will provide benefits and deliver results employees can see for themselves.

In environments with people of varying skill and education levels, levelling the communication-field, for example, is an especially important early step. Traditionally, interdepartmental communication across different pay grades overwhelmingly creates friction. This will only be exacerbated by the implementation of what might be seen by uninvolved team members as unnecessary and complicated technological processes.

two employees write a presentation on a whiteboard
Follow their lead.

With 93% of all communication being non-verbal, implementing emerging technologies for business like chat tools removes a potential obstacle and emboldens the employee to embrace other changes.

The traditional email system can be overwhelming for lower-tiered employees, especially if they are “out in the field” and discourages quick requests, idea sharing and other factors key to creating a culture of collaboration. Being able to use emoticons or video calling not only encourages communication but also creates relationships and strengthens morale.

All of this and more is necessary for employees to accept that the “testing, feedback, optimization” process is vital for innovation, that it will play a major role in their working day and that they have the support from above to do so.

The fact people are not employed for their team skills despite it being what every business needs to make this leap is a cultural issue that needs to be addressed before any significant progress is going to be made. It is in direct opposition to the ethos of digital innovation. Over the last 15 years companies have enjoyed the pick of the litter when it comes to employees, with not only an ever-increasing pool and ever-decreasing opportunities in the physical world, but also an incentive to employ along whatever the current politically-motivated route is.

That isn’t to say not everyone should have the same opportunity, they obviously should, but the ability to use employees to reflect overall ethos quickly went from “anyone can work here” to “we have one of everyone working here” and that isn’t how you build a good team, environment of acceptance or create a viable long-term business ethos.

Chapter 4
Toxic Employees - Nowhere Left To Hide?

One of the main issues that holds back technological and cultural workplace evolution is the fact that there will always be different elements of people at work, at different places in lifecycles and development, and with differing aspirations. Some people want to be there and others don’t. Some people want to be part of change so they can advance through it, whereas others want to maintain the status quo. One thing technology will bring is performance data and for anyone not good at their job or not doing much work this is going to be a problem.

Technology is a double-edged sword where depending on your mindset you can only see the dangers of one side and never the benefits. On the one hand you have company-wide transparency, devolved working hierarchy/feeling of workplace equality, flexible working hours and increased communication. But in order to achieve these things every aspect of an individual needs to be recorded, collated and uploaded to a central point for sharing. This loss of identity is seen by many as overt surveillance and profiling, whereas to many others it just makes sense in the evolving digitally-based society we already live in.

employees on work call over laptop
From the executives to the employees, all must be held accountable

Unfortunately, from a business perspective, this dichotomy is unresolvable and a big part of technological transformation is identifying elements of resistance and either isolating, re-educating (if possible/desirable) or removing them. This is especially relevant for toxic employees. How do you identify toxic employees? Although every employee and business is different, there are some basic and common types and they are incompatible with DX. We have all worked with gatekeepers, knowledge hoarders, passive aggressives, weak links...

The morale crushing nature of this kind of behaviour aside, high employee performance is impossible as most of their time and resources are spent actively trying to block progress. This will sabotage a DX transition where collaboration, transparency, shared-knowledge/resources and open dialogue flowing in both directions are paramount.

There are ways to discourage this kind of behaviour - a central knowledge base, peer document/work reviews, rewarding collaboration - but realistically it is better off eliminated. When dealing with something as fluid as DX constant negativity and resistance will cause fatigue, and in a process where experimentation will yield various results, a collective positive mental attitude is vital. An Everest Group study in 2019 found 73 percent of enterprises failed to provide any business value whatsoever from their digital transformation efforts and the main reasons provided were employee fatigue and lack of later-stage commitment from management.

Conclusion

Digital transformation may be new to industries but that doesn't mean there is a chance of it not being adopted. Whether Developer or Operations, staff that are going to be part of this brave new world are going to need to be put together to stay together.

In many cases this may necessitate change in staff structure and in terms of leadership has seen the creation of a relatively new position - Chief Transformation Officer - with a significant number of business leaders seeking to appoint people to this role over the last 18 months. In the real world this has seen several large companies exploring organizational change to drive new growth, commercialize ideas and lubricate the change management process; including logistics group UPS and general retailer JC Penney.

The acceleration of digital disruption across even the most analog of industries has left everyone from sole traders to company executives feeling the pressure to secure new revenue streams and new working processes. According to the Global Center for Digital Business Transformation (DBT) over 75 percent of executives now believe that the impact of disruption on their industries is major or transformative, up from 27% in 2015.

Digital Transformation is increasing exponentially.

And we’d all best get used to it.