Don’t just create a new website, create a new culture

Paul Boag

If your organisation wants to be successful in its use of digital it cannot stop at rolling out a fancy new website or mobile app. It needs to address the culture of the organisation.

Since Digital Adaptation came out in March, I have been doing a lot of consultancy. Consultancy for organisations struggling with digital adoption. Charities, universities, government, not for profits and the private sector. All are unsure how to adapt to the digital world we now live in.

Although keen to change, they are also hesitant. This manifests itself in the form of a question — “Can you point to an organisation who has made this kind of transformation?

This is a tough question because this kind of transformation will take years. That means the majority are still in the throws of the process. That said, I often refer to the Government Digital Service.

Not again. What makes them so good?

It seems that anybody talking about digital transformation are talking about the British Government. This often comes as a surprise to those I speak to. After all the British Government is not the normal candidate for progressive thinking. Also many have seen the site and dismissed it as “not pretty”.

But there are solid reasons for holding up as a good example of digital transformation. None of them have anything to do with the website.

Don’t get me wrong, the website is a masterpiece. Sure it is not pretty, but it is not meant to be. It is utilitarian, which is exactly what government design should be. In fact it is so good that it won the design of the year award. The first time a website has ever done so.

That said, building an effective website is not what digital transformation is about. Digital transformation is about transforming an organisation to better serve connected consumers. Based on that definition, the Government Digital Service have achieved three things:

  • They have built an exceptional team.
  • They have spread a new culture.
  • They have established strong leadership.

Other organisations can learn a lot from these three factors, especially the need to built an exceptional team.

Build an exceptional team

Changing the culture of an organisation often feels like warfare. It begins by establishing a bridgehead. A place from which to launch the attack. A foothold in enemy territory.

When it comes to digital transformation this bridgehead is the digital transformation team. This team does not conform to the culture of the rest of the organisation. They need to represent the new model that the organisation should be moving towards.

This means the team has to be sure of themselves; experts in their field. It also means bring in at least a proportion of that team in from the outside. People ‘untainted’ by the existing culture.

That is exactly how the Government Digital Service began. A small team of expert contractors were assembled to work on an alpha version of the website. They were oblivious to the culture of the British Government. Instead they drew on the working methodologies of the tech startup culture.

This ‘crack force’ of digital professionals established a bridgehead within the British government. A new user centric culture designed to spread across the organisation.

Spreading a new culture

A bridgehead is not enough on its own. It cannot continue to exist in isolation. The whole point is to push out from that starting point and conquer the rest of the organisation. It needs to spread its digital by default thinking until it becomes ubiquitous.

Again, the Government Digital Service handled this cleverly, although I suspect not entirely intentionally.

The Government Digital Service had no intention of being a service department. They didn’t exist to build the ideas of others within the organisation. They intended to lead the digital direction of the British Government. But they couldn’t do so alone.

They realised that to build digital services they needed business specialists in those services. But instead of ‘taking a brief’ from these specialists, they brought them into their team.

This was a stroke of genius. By embedding these business specialists in the team they became exposed to the new culture. They became more user centric, more agile, more digitally aware. Then they returned to their own teams taking that culture with them.

This new approach became so embedded in some departments that the GDS could return control to the department. The old culture was gone.

Not that the battle of digital transformation is a one way process. Entrenched cultures do not give up without a fight. That is where a strong leadership team is vital.

Establish a strong leadership team

People don’t like change. It makes them feel threatened. Change undermines their position. Threatens to take away what they have worked to gain.

Also many people don’t like digital because they don’t understand it. We fear what we do not understand. We feel threatened by it.

It is unsurprising that many people resist digital transformation. That is why digital professionals find resistance on all sides. Under such pressures many just surrender and assimilate into the existing culture, even though they no it is wrong.

The only way to stop this from happening is to have strong leadership. Leadership with the authority to say no. Authority to force through change.

This leadership exists on two levels. First their is the digital lead. The person who heads up the digital transformation team. That person has to provide the vision, direction and digital experience. They are the people who draw up the battle plans that get fought everyday.

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In the case of the Government Digital Service this is Mike Bracken. He used to be the director of digital development at the Guardian. An established digital leader, he has experience in navigating internal politics. He knows how to overcome an established culture.

The second aspect of digital leadership happens at the executive level. For the digital lead to overcome senior people resistant to change, they need executive support.

The lower the digital team sits in the organisation the more likely they will end up as just another service department. A department unable to impact the culture of the organisation. But, with high level support they are able to overcome resistance and bring about real change.

This executive sponsor doesn’t need to be an expert in digital. They just need to give the digital lead a mandate for change and the support to make it happen.

In the case of the British Government this executive sponsor is Francis Maude, Minister for the Cabinet Office. It was him who understood the need for change and had the foresight to appoint Mike Bracken.

The danger of failing to address culture

Any organisation can create an impressive new site by commissioning an outside agency. But, without addressing the underlying cultural legacy of the organisation, it will not flourish. Instead it will just perpetuate the redesign cycle that has haunted most organisations for years.

I would encourage you when next you come to redesign your website, not to stop there. Redesigning your website is not enough. You need to redesign your organisation too. Only then will you be equipped to serve the connected consumer in the new digital marketplace.