Dr. Eddie Obeng delivering a keynote at ReimagineHR in London (Gartner)
At the start of his keynote session at Gartner’s ReimagineHR summit in London last week, British organizational theorist, educator, and author Dr. Eddie Obeng offered a glimpse of the fast-arriving virtual workplace. A wearable mouse attached to his wrist, Obeng gave the audience a tour of a 3-D classroom projected on the screen, walking to different chalkboards and interacting with his colleagues present in the virtual room while actually participating from a remote office. In this way, Obeng illustrated the potential of flashy new technologies in shaping the future of work.
In our HR research practice at Gartner, however, we know from hundreds of calls with HR leaders and professionals that when many of them see this flashy technology, they say: “We’re not Google, we’re not Amazon; we simply can’t afford this level of digital enhancement.” They want to know what the future of work means for them: What can they actually do with the resources they have? When Obeng asked the audience to share some of their fears about the digitally-enabled presentation he was showing them, they said it would be “impractical,” “too techy,” and “too expensive” for them to implement.
But Obeng very quickly challenged the audience by telling them to forget about technology, that we’re using it all wrong. New technology, he asserted, is of limited value if we don’t rethink the processes by which people work. Technology may be changing around us, but our habits and behaviors have not. Our habits and practices are deeply ingrained, and as a result it is difficult to imagine what the future should look like; instead, as he put it, we “imagine the present, but shinier.”
Relating his topic back to HR, Obeng noted that everything about our organizational structure and talent processes, from compensation and benefits to learning and development to the hierarchical org chart, is designed for the world as it used to be, when organizations were able to see what was coming. Today, that’s impossible: Change happens faster than we and our processes can adapt. A senior leadership team making all decisions for an organization, Obeng said, can process about the same amount of data in an hour as our mobile phones can in a minute. Rather than trying to simply move faster, we need to reimagine the way we move.
At a recent meeting, a select few heads of HR at global companies were having a high-level discussion on digital business models when one participant from a big consumer products firm brought the conversation back down to earth: “On a practical level,” he asked, “what is the value of having a chief digital officer?” He went on to explain that he was the only executive in his C-suite who had experience in a digital company and was trying to figure out how to drive digital business transformation at his organization.
This is a question that many experts and pundits have weighed in on over the past several years, with some predicting the demise of the role, while others believe it can have tremendous value. Our own data at CEB, now Gartner, suggests that about 1 in 5 companies has a dedicated leadership position for digital business transformation. Just slightly more (1 in 4) have an overarching digital strategy for their entire enterprise. (CEB CIO Leadership Council members can read more about what we expect the digital enterprise to look like by 2020 and how organizations are getting there.)
Many organizations are asking this question: Do we need a chief data officer? The broader question, however, is what governance structure best enhances the focus, speed, and scale of your digital transformation initiative—and there’s no one right answer. This was an important takeaway from the discussion at our meeting: All participants seemed to agree that organizations need some sort of dedicated digital governance structure, but having a single leader (other than the CEO) in charge of it isn’t necessarily the right solution for all organizations.
The HR leaders whose organizations had decided against appointing chief digital officers said they had done so because they tended to be more centralized in both structure and leadership philosophy. They were more confident in being able to set a consistent tone throughout the organization that digital business transformation was every leader’s responsibility. That said, these chief HR officers were careful to note that they did have some governance structure in place to ensure that the right people were making the right digital strategy decisions at the right time. These structures ranged from having leaders who were digital champions across the organization, to a small committee reporting to the CEO on digital matters, to standalone digital business operations where there was a team incubating new digital business ideas.
Whole Foods Under Amazon is a fascinating recent case study (conducted by Harvard Business School professors Dennis Campbell and Tatiana Sandino and co-written with James Barnett and Christine Snively) which considers the cultural challenges inherent in the acquisition the e-commerce giant agreed with the high-end supermarket chain last year. Historically, the two companies had very different approaches to business, the authors tell Michael Blanding at HBS Working Knowledge, with Amazon focused on driving costs down through data-driven supply chain efficiency and Whole Foods’ decentralized model, in contrast, allowing for a distinctive personal touch from store to store, which in turn justified a higher price point. In the case study, based on secondhand reports in the media of how the acquisition is working out, Campbell and Sandino speculate on how culture clash could be making the integration of these companies more challenging:
The question that Campbell and Sandino ask in their case is: Given the pressures Amazon was facing to turn around Whole Foods’ slide, should they have approached the acquisition differently? While there are no easy answers, Campbell says that part of the issue is realizing the limits of standardization, even for a company that has perfected data-driven management.
“It’s not totally clear that data will be a perfect substitute for human judgment,” he says. “That might work in a digital platform, where you have tons of data on customer history you can use to drive a recommendation engine, but in a store environment, there is a lot of learning that takes place from employees interacting with customers that can be very localized and specific.”
Whole Foods is still in its early days as an Amazon property, so it’s too soon to say with any certainty how prepared Amazon was for this culture conflict and how well they are handling it, especially without having an inside view of the acquisition. However, we do know from our research at CEB, now Gartner, that culture fit is a huge concern for CEOs when thinking about mergers and acquisitions and discussing the topic with investors. Our research shows that 20 percent of the time, when CEOs bring up culture on earnings calls, they are doing so in the context of M&A. CEOs leading through M&A are increasingly under pressure to provide details on how they are integrating two distinct cultures to satisfy investors’ concerns. (CEB Corporate Leadership Council Members can learn more in our Inside View on Discussing Corporate Culture with the Street.)
In a recent Harvard Business Review article, Thomas H. Davenport and George Westerman, researchers with the MIT Initiative on the Digital Economy, consider several recent cases in which high-profile companies like GE, Ford, and Procter & Gamble made massive investments in digital transformations that ultimately failed to achieve their goals. “What can we learn from these examples of digital dreams deferred?” they ask. “How did these smart, experienced leaders make decisions that don’t look so smart in hindsight?”
The issue, the authors posit, is fundamental to the adoption of transformative business technologies. Very similar high-profile change failures happened with the rise of e-commerce and big data, they note. There’s something about digitalization that leads businesses to slip up in specific ways:
Several key lessons emerge when heavy commitments to digital capability development meet basic financial performance problems. A clear one is that there are many factors, such as the economy or the desirability of your products, that can affect a company’s success as much or more than its digital capabilities. Therefore, no managers should view digital — or any other major technological innovation — as their sure salvation.
Second, digital is not just a thing that you can you can buy and plug into the organization. It is multi-faceted and diffuse, and doesn’t just involve technology. Digital transformation is an ongoing process of changing the way you do business. It requires foundational investments in skills, projects, infrastructure, and, often, in cleaning up IT systems. It requires mixing people, machines, and business processes, with all of the messiness that entails. It also requires continuous monitoring and intervention, from the top, to ensure that both digital leaders and non-digital leaders are making good decisions about their transformation efforts.
From our research at CEB, now Gartner, we know that enterprise change is hard. Most change efforts fail either partly or completely, and in today’s business environment, change is happening faster than ever before. The CEB Corporate Leadership Council’s ongoing research on Creating a Talent Strategy for the Digital Age also points to the unique challenges Davenport and Westerman identify with digital transformations.
From our research at CEB, now Gartner, we know that most mergers and acquisitions are not clear successes. As with other forms of major enterprise change, there are many possible reasons why two companies might fail to integrate: culture clash, product mix-ups, stalled growth, complex technology integrations, and so on. According to INSEAD professor Quy Huy, another reason M&A can fail is because the communication plan is overly positive and too frequently impersonal.
Huy believes that part of the problem is what he calls the “trap of professionalism,” a symptom of modern corporate culture in which negative feelings are suppressed and politeness is overvalued relative to raising constructive tensions that can improve ideas. Additionally, once disagreements bubble to the surface, the response is often more rosy messaging rather than straightforward attempts to discuss and address any issues.
Huy discovered how this dynamic of productive disagreement plays out in the context of M&A by interviewing 73 managers across both organizations involved in an acquisition. At first, both sides were excited by the possibilities of their merger. The acquirer saw value in gaining specialized expertise within its walls and the acquired company was excited about having the resources to take on more ambitious projects. But tension quickly arose, initially due to differences in the philosophy of each organization’s sales strategy, and later due to challenges in IT integration.
The issue wasn’t that these tensions existed, but that they were never discussed or addressed.
Among the HR leaders we surveyed for our latest company culture research at CEB, now Gartner, only 31 percent said their organizations had the culture they needed to accomplish their strategic goals. What’s holding organizations back from getting the culture they need to drive performance? We identified three key reasons:
- Employees aren’t aware of the desired culture (knowledge gap).
- Employees don’t believe in the desired culture (mindset gap).
- Employee behaviors don’t align with the designed culture (behavior gap).
The more than 70 HRBPs, HR generalists, and other strategic HR professionals who attended our recent staff briefing in Chicago shared how these gaps affected their own culture change initiatives—and they drove home another key finding of our research: employees need to be empowered to help facilitate the change, and in a systemic way.
One of our members at the meeting said that despite promoting a culture of open and honest communication, employees at their organization could still end up getting reprimanded for speaking candidly.
Another attendee talked about what they called the “plumbing and wiring” of processes that underlie what culture really is and can lead to misalignments between what they communicate and the reality of how work actually gets done. (An organization where managers talk up a culture of efficiency but employees are regularly going through 100 steps to complete tasks or processes may not have the culture its leaders think it does.)
A third member pointed to the struggle of employees who, after multiple culture-change campaigns, have been inundated with so much messaging that they don’t know what to believe or how to behave. “How,” this attendee asked, “will they know what ‘true north’ is?”
Not since the term first emerged in the 1980s has there been so much discussion of organizational culture. Considering that discussions of culture on investor calls have increased 12 percent in the past year, it’s not surprising that heads of HR are keen to get this challenge right. When CEB, now Gartner, brought together 20 heads of HR in Melbourne earlier this month, there was a strong consensus in the room: It’s no longer enough to talk about your organization’s culture, you need to be able to walk the walk.
(Before we go further, it might be valuable to provide a shared definition of “culture” as it relates to organizations. As CEB defines it for the purposes of our research: culture is the set of behavioral norms and unwritten rules that shape the organizational environment and how individuals interact and get work done in that environment.)
Historically, a lot of the discussion about organizational culture has been focused on finding the “perfect” culture, with one side advising a “one-size-fits-all” approach and the other proposing different cultural approaches to suit different industries. However, as one head of HR in the room pointed out, we need to turn our focus away from finding the “perfect” culture and instead look at the systems and processes at work that are stopping us from achieving sustainable culture change. Even when business leaders in the C-suite are very effective role models, internal processes often stop employees from fully embracing the culture that the business needs to drive, creating disconnect between the organization and the people tasked with moving its strategy forward. This is one of the key findings of our latest study on culture change management, which CEB Corporate Leadership Council members can read more about here.
This disconnect leads to problems, because even though 70 percent of HR leaders are confident that their organizations can define the culture they need, few are seeing true results in making this culture a reality. When HR leaders fail to create the culture the business needs, such as a culture of innovation, safety, or cost-efficiency, it means that other, less desirable attributes make up the reality of their current culture and stand in the way of the organization’s progress. During our discussion in Melbourne, one of the HR leaders in the room even said that this struggle between desired culture and results had seen progress in some business units move backwards.
Even though we know where we want to go, we seem to be at a loss when it comes to how to actually get there. What our research discovered is that the heads of HR at organizations who have gotten this balance right needed to close three key gaps: