What does it really mean to have a Digital Culture, and is it so different from a culture of innovation, creativity and customer-focus?


I had a wonderful time at the AUA Annual Conference on 15th and 16th April 2019! With insightful plenaries and informative working sessions, the event covered a wide range of interests and catered for different learning and engagement styles.

I was privileged to have a really engaged group attend the working session that I facilitated on Day 2 of the event. Titled ‘Digital Transformation: A Change Management Perspective’ the aim of the session was to demonstrate that Digital Transformation is about much more than ‘Technology’.

The session emphasised that Digital Transformation is about bringing digital thinking to the heart of the organisation – not just bolted on to the side (as a technology project, or – as is often the case, several disjointed technology projects).

For the Higher Education Sector, in particular, we noted that Digital Transformation is about:

  • ‘disruption’ to traditional ways of working (for both academics and professional services);
  • embracing change; and
  • finding solutions that meet the needs of students, and that help Universities to work efficiently and address (the numerous) external challenges.

One of our many discussion points at this interactive workshop was responding to the question “What does it mean to foster a culture where, as a workforce, we are inspired to ‘think digitally?”  I phrased the discussion point in this way specifically because I wanted the group to focus on key attributes of a culture – rather than think about what it means to have a ‘Digital Culture’.

After all, what does it really mean to have a Digital Culture, and is it so different from a culture of innovation, creativity and customer-focus?  To the latter part of that question, I would say probably not – and as to the former, let’s go into this in a bit more detail below.

Culture and Digital Transformation

As we know, there are many definitions of Culture! The most popular ones are:

  • The way we do things around here
  • The identity of an organisation which is enduring, stable and difficult to influence
  • Based on basic assumptions that are taken for granted and below the level of consciousness
  • And so on, and so on!

Some elements of an organisation’s culture may evolve organically over time as leaders and other stakeholders learn to cope with problems or adapt to internal or external stimuli. However, generally speaking, the foundation of a culture that enables Digital Transformation needs to be planned, nurtured and cultivated.

Is there a concept of a Digital Culture per se? While some may differ, on reflection, I would say – probably not. However, an organisation’s culture can either facilitate or get in the way of digital transformation.

Below are some insights of specific enabling attributes (from the engaged group that I mentioned at the start of this blog – many thanks!) as well as subsequent discussions that I have had since the AUA Conference.

The Question was: “What does it mean to foster a culture where, as a workforce, we are inspired to ‘think digitally?”

It’s a culture that:

  • Enables and encourages creativity – where people are encouraged to think creatively and come up with ideas, recognising that not all ideas will yield results but where all ideas are valued.
  • Provides space for learning – where training and development opportunities on concepts linked to ‘embracing a digital world’ are actively promoted and encouraged across the workforce.
  • Demonstrates awareness of everyone’s abilities in the use of digital technology and supports people through change – considering each stakeholder’s wants and needs, and where necessary, building confidence in the use of digital technology (without judgement).
  • Encourages people to take up opportunities to get involved in digital change initiatives and values their input (big or small).
  • Thinks about the big picture.
  • Is results oriented and purpose driven with a strong focus on benefits and benefits realisation – not technology for the sake of it.
  • Is ambitious, open and honest – where leaders look to assign responsibility and accountability for ambitious, yet realistic digital change initiatives demonstrating trust in their people.
  • Is focused on sustainability – developing tools that add value and are future proof, based on an understanding of user needs.
  • Values and recognises the importance of Data and Data Quality – with strategies, systems, staff and skills in place to ensure a robust approach to the creation, use, updating and deletion of data (I intentionally left this one until last – not everyone loves data!)

If you agree with these attributes as a basis for fostering digital thinking, I am sure you will also agree that these are not unique to ‘A Digital Culture’.

So my parting shot is this: “If we truly want to bring digital thinking to the heart of our Universities, let’s not think about embracing a ‘Digital culture’. Instead, let’s seek to develop and nurture the cultural attributes that will help provide a firm foundation on which to build a sustainable approach to digital transformation – as a basis for developing student (and staff) focused digital capabilities that are fit for the future.

Where is your University in demonstrating these attributes?

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