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Developing a Digital Culture

HEC Paris’s Kristine de Valck stresses the importance of training and life-long learning in preparing for our digital future


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As digital technologies dramatically change the way we work, employees at every level must prepare to deal with all the new information and new digital tools that will be coming their way. Organizations also need to create digital-friendly cultures to support them.

A first priority is for business leaders to engage everyone in their teams in the digital transformation process. They should help people experience change in a positive way by establishing a dialogue and providing relevant training.

Kristine de Valck“Providing digital culture training to your employees and giving them greater autonomy allows them to become more creative in their daily tasks. Identifying and mapping internal skills will encourage the development of a shared culture and greater team synergy,” says Kristine de Valck, Associate Dean and Director of the PhD Program at HEC Paris.

Engaging everyone in the digital transformation process means giving people the opportunity to find tools or solutions that work best for them, yet can be successfully used in a corporate context, rather than sending top down instructions. As De Valck suggests “A lot of companies need to ask themselves, not so much how can we make our employees more digitally able, because they are already. But, how can we find the best digital tools? And what can we do to help people adopt these tools?"

One issue which leaders need to address concerns the tension between the digital experience we have in our personal lives and our experience at work. It is not only younger people that are digitally savvy, today most of us use highly sophisticated digital tools – 4G phones, WhatsApp, Dropbox, etc. Whereas at work we may be limited to legacy corporate systems, often by organizations that have been too slow to adopt new tools.

There is an understandable tendency for employees to use digital tools they are familiar with, such as WhatsApp, rather than engage with tools provided by the company. “Many companies facing this tension and are still trying to enforce, ‘We need to use these corporate social media tools and corporate networks’ – but their people are not using them.” comments De Valck. “There are no easy answers,” she says, “but if people are to move to another tool, there needs to be much more story-telling and evangelising around it.”


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The human dimension to digital culture is critical. Organizations need leaders with the social and change management skills to get their people on board, and they need fully engaged employees who can think independently, learn, adapt and reinvent procedures and practices. In this time of rapid, unpredictable, and disruptive change, it is essential that employees are able to fully contribute to the debate without fear of failure and organizations are able to channel their innovative ideas.

Everything is changing so fast, we cannot rely only on a couple of top executives giving the direction of where we need to go. Everybody needs to put in his or her ideas.”

She suggests “One symbolic thing to signal that everybody's opinion is important is to have fewer titles.” Psychologically, when there are ‘managers’ and ‘others’, the others will just wait to be told what to do. “That's human, nature. We like other people to make decisions for us.” Moving to a culture where people are asked to be responsible and accountable can create tension. Although welcomed by some who see this adding meaning to their work it will disturb others who think why should they take extra responsibility they are not being paid for. Creating project teams can help.

Companies need to create teams saying that everybody's opinion is expected, that everybody's opinion is listened to, and that we will act on their ideas.” 

In considering the human dimension it is important to realise how much people’s social media literacy varies. De Valck cites her MBA students as an example. One would assume these millennials all to be ‘digital natives’ but in fact she finds there are big differences across the group in digital literacy. So, age is not a definite measure and in a diverse global workforce there will also be big differences due to cultural background.

Carrying out a skills gap analysis is the best way to clearly identify the areas – both hard technical skills and soft skills – that need to be developed and improved. “It is, however important to proceed carefully and methodically to avoid disrupting the team’s emotional stability” says De Valck. “Every skill should be seen as a stepping-stone towards the next one. In many respects, we need to learn how to learn again in order to continually update our skills.”

As blockchain technologies, machine learning and AI tools are introduced, the concrete skills that need to be learnt will vary over time. However, several personal and social skills will always be essential – for example understanding how to exerting influence, or how and when to participate effectively in debates to get ideas across, or understanding how to communicate appropriately on social media where so often the debate can be too highly-charged and sentiments hard to read.

One skill that is essential, and one that De Valck says is not sufficiently stressed in universities, is ‘critical thinking’. We may be able to employ machine learning tools and collect ‘big data’, but the ability to analyse and interpret the data and use critical thinking to make good decisions based on the analysis will be the basis for future business success.

Critical thinking...that is something that I think all of us will need to step up a number of levels.”

De Valck sees promoting lifelong learning as central to creating a digital culture in organizations. The speed of change today and the need to reinvent everything they do can leave people overwhelmed; in the panic zone, just surviving not learning. “Learning happens when you're a bit out of your comfort zone,” she says. “But people that are in the panic zone will not learn. They're just surviving."

I do believe that companies have a big role to play in making learning truly valued.”

Companies have a role in creating space and incentives that empower people to learn. Encouraging the implementation of personalized learning programs, is a win-win approach that benefits both the organization and the employees. ‘Learning communities’ are also important. De Valck quotes, a company which provided a guest speaker to one of HEC Paris's custom programs. does A/B testing all the time to improve its platform. Every day, or multiple times per day, time is made to step back and reflect, what happened? What decision were made? What was the result? Was the result a consequence of the decision, or was it arbitrary? “All the time there is reflection on the decisions that they make and on the way they make the decisions together as a team, and that is part of their complete culture. I think, it is an excellent example for learning organizations,” says De Valck.

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