How to Build a Digital Culture | Straight Talk


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Tech Leaders’ Perspectives from 2018 MIT Sloan CIO Symposium

By Pragati Verma, Contributing Editor, Straight Talk

How can a large, traditional company create a digital culture and become as nimble and innovative as a digital-native company? The question — raised by George Westerman,

Principal Research Scientist with the MIT Sloan Initiative on the Digital Economy,

at the 2018 MIT CIO Symposium — triggered an intense discussion among a panel of leading technology practitioners and thought leaders, who shared first-hand experiences and advice on Creating a Digital Culture.

Challenge Everything

Andrei Oprisan, who joined Liberty Mutual Insurance last year to lead development of Boston tech hub development, said they challenged everything — from systems and processes to culture, brand and talent — to enable a “customer-centric agile transformation.”

That meant subjecting the organization to a number of “seismic shifts.” For example, they enabled digital teams to scale up quickly and deliver business results more quickly. “We made big changes in terms of who owns what across the organization. We are open to much smaller teams owning decisions end-to-end and being much closer to the customer,” he added.

The changes are critical because their competition is no longer limited to insurance companies. “We are seeing companies like Amazon and Google entering the insurance space,” he said. “We need to be able to compete with them and beat them at that game,” leveraging Liberty Mutual’s strengths. ”We do have those core competencies, we do have a lot of expertise in this area and we can build products much faster than they can,” he said.

In his opinion, they just need to “unlock talent and create business value.” His mantra to do so: Articulate a clear mission, hire the right people, and get out of the way. “We emphasize that we are going to give them very challenging, hard problems to solve, and that we are going to trust they know how to solve them," he said.

He added that they are infusing the organization with new talent and changing internal culture. His development teams work across the street from the company's Boston headquarters, and they favor T-shirts and flip-flops over the business suits and ties that are the norm at the company. "Whatever it takes to get the job done,” he quipped.

Becoming the D in Gandalf

At Singapore’s DBS Bank, the digital journey began with a question: What would it take to run the bank more like a tech company. David Gledhill, group CIO and head of group technology and operations at DBS, said they started studying how Google, Amazon, Netflix, Apple, LinkedIn and Facebook operate at a “technology level but also at a cultural level” in order to understand how to “run the bank more like a technology company.”

This exercise helped them figure out their mission: To become the D in GANDALF (short for Google, Amazon, Netflix, Apple, LinkedIn and Facebook). “It’s missing a D and fortunately DBS has a D. It sounds cheesy and we came up with the idea for a conference, but it resonated so well with people,” he explained.

This entire operation of becoming the D in Gandalf, he said, has created a “completely new set of aspirations” among the Bank’s employees. “It was really revolutionary. Just unlocking this inherent talent and desire in people has taken us to a completely new level of aspirations,” he said.

But mottos like ‘D in Gandalf’, he warned, “don’t get you very far.” According to Gledhill, the essence of their digital transformation boils down to five key things:

  1. Shifting from project to platform
  2. Becoming agile at scale
  3. Rethinking the organization
  4. Creating smaller systems for experimentation
  5. Automation

For each of these five tenets of their digital journey, they “identified five to ten discrete outputs that could be measured,” he said. “That’s the governance and KPI matrix that we used to drive Gandalf though the organization.” One objective of automating every system was to enable DBS to get products to market faster, Gledhill said. "We have increased our release cadence—the number of times we can push into a dev or production environment—by 7.5 times. That's a massive increase from where we started."

The Right People Can Look Wrong

Finding the right digital talent is key, according to Melissa Swift, global leader for digital solutions at the global consulting firm Korn Ferry Hay Group. The right people, she warned, often look wrong. "We actually do an exercise with executives where we have them list all the reasons they might not hire somebody. And they have to go back and change each of those into a reason to hire somebody," she said.

To illustrate her point, she used the example of a person who often jumped from one company to another. If a client says that such a person can’t commit and is flaky, she suggests that the consider an alternative view – “this person is curious and adaptable, which are two of the traits in our research, by the way, that pop as being very predictive of success in digital talent.”

Take software engineers in flip-flops. "It takes a massive effort for some of these large organizations to say, 'OK, I'm not going to hire in my own image anymore" They need to practice what she calls reverse onboarding — not just how we expect people to conform to the firm’s culture but what changes we expect the people to bring to the culture.

Swift’s best piece of advice: “Find your disruptors.” But she cautioned that people should not expect that digital culture can be created with a single Hackathon or a Silicon Valley trip. "Sometimes expectations from a single event are extreme,” she said. “We all talk about sprints, but we all have to think like marathoners.”

The Right Digital Culture

If there was one takeaway from this discussion, it was that changing an organization’s culture is probably the most complex part of a digital transformation. And as Westerman pointed out, the biggest question for traditional companies is not whether they can adopt a digital culture, but how they can create and embed in the organization the right digital culture, given their pre-digital legacy.


Pragati Verma is a writer, editor, and storyteller exploring new and emerging technologies. She started as a business journalist and managed technology sections of India’s The Economic Times and The Financial Express. Today, she is bringing the same editorial thinking to thought leadership marketing with content that engages and builds trust with target audience.