People & Culture

HR should be the digital transformation leader because, in reality, “digitalization challenges” are work culture challenges

…… Part of The Basics series. First published in October 2015 ……


HR is the function in most organizations that is the least advanced digitally speaking.

My findings over past years: HR is not very social, nor very collaborative.

In 2011, the data showed that HR was the least involved stakeholder in social media internally and externally. Here.

In 2013, based on my data, I observed that “HR professionals say their organizations have specific concerns around social collaboration and two of these concerns suggest a lack of trust in people: “wasting time” and “irresponsible behavior”. They are expressed more strongly by HR than by Communication and IT professionals.” Here.

When HR does run digital initiatives (rarely), things look much better

However, the same year, I found, among other observations, that when HR was in fact involved in leading digital initiatives, the digital workplace was more often positioned as part of an organizational transformation program. In these organizations, the employee voice was stronger (more communities, for example), interest in mobile was greater and crowdsourcing was more common. Here.

If there is one function in an organization that can help shape work culture, it is HR. Close to people, close to management, close to business. HR is (or should be) at the heart of organizations.

Data from the last two surveys (2013 and 2014) show that organizations share common obstacles, not specifically related to HR, but where I believe HR can play an influencing role. There are strong correlations between work cultures and the most common obstacles. I have described these correlations in my post on the Harvard Business Review Blog in The Company Cultures that Help (or Hinder) Digital Transformation.

My point in this article is that HR has a critical role to play, along with business managers, when it comes to establishing and strengthening positive work cultures.

Ask yourself how you would answer the following two questions:

How would you rate the following characteristics of your organization’s work culture and practices on a scale of 5 to 1?

  1.  Strong, shared sense of purpose vs. weak, inconsistent sense of purpose
  2.  Freedom to experiment vs. absolute compliance to rules and processes
  3.  Distributed decision-making vs. centralized, hierarchical decision-making
  4.  Open to the influence of the external world vs. internally focused and closed to the external world

Over 300 digital managers around the world answered the work culture question above, as well as the following question:

How would you describe the following challenges on the digital journey in your organization?

Answer options were: “We have already successfully dealt with that”, “Management concern that requires special effort”, “Serious concern that holds us back” or “Not relevant for us”.

  1. Slow or stalled decision-making caused by internal politics, competing priorities, or attempting to reach consensus.
  2. Inability to prove business value of digital through traditional ROI calculations, resulting in lack of senior management sponsorship.
  3. Too much focus on technology rather than willingness to address deep change and rethink how people work.
  4. Lack of understanding operational issues at the decision-making level and difficulties when going from theory to practice.
  5. Fear of losing control by management or central functions, and fears that employees will waste time on social platforms.

I then looked at the organizations that reported “Serious concern that holds us back” and looked at their answers on the work culture question.

The results show indications about how to approach what are supposedly “digitalization challenges” but are really deeper, workplace culture challenges.

Here are two examples:

A strong sense of purpose (culture characteristic A) alleviates internal political resistance (obstacle 1). People are moving in the same direction driven by shared values. A low sense of purpose makes it difficult for people to come to agreements and decisions. So if projects are held back by political battles at high levels, there needs to be work on purpose: “What are we trying to achieve overall?” HR can lead this initiative at high levels in the organization, where politics are at their worst.

Companies that are more open to the external world (culture characteristic D) are much less likely to face the challenge of management resisting new ways of work (obstacle 3). HR can organize briefings and exchanges among decision-makers from different companies, thereby exposing their senior management (where resistance is often the strongest) to what other companies are doing. Peer-to-peer works well at this level.

Correlations between other work culture characteristics and obstacles are developed in the HBR article so I will not repeat them here. You can see the data here on Digital Transformation and Work Cultures.