Organisational culture is key to digital success

By Neil Clapperton on 25th Oct 2016

Ahead of the SCVO 3rdsectordigicamp event on 2 November, Neil Clapperton, CEO of Grampian Housing, writes about the need to embrace digital change at all levels.

Digital gives us an opportunity to redesign how we interact with our customers. It’s not just about money, but also about quality of service. Where we want to be more commercial, people are used to digital. And underlying all of this is the opportunity to reboot our culture.

I see an opening for change in the way my organisation lives and breathes. The economist John Maynard Keynespredicted in the 1930’s that by now,the growth in productivity and GDP would result in everyone working a 15 hour week. Inequality got in the way and the UK now has some of the most horrendous working hours and one of the lowest productivity levels in the developed world.

Do you remember reading all those management text books promoting job enrichment and staff empowerment? Here I am sitting in a tightly layered bureaucracy where many start at 7am and can still be seen staring at screens at 6pm. I fear that despite 80 years of improvement we are still heavy on process, regulation and roles, and perversely light on human interaction. Is a digital world going to be any different?

Let’s start with attitudes towards risk. MIT reflects that:

If you look at the history of corporate culture, you see that it’s about improving efficiency, increasing margins, and eliminating risk, but none of this works in the world of the Internet, where things change so incredibly fast.”

It’s bracing to see companies like Skyscanner or Uber place such a strong emphasis on the creative. The ethos is clear. The culture demands that staff take a punt, test ideas and if they work, roll them out.

For me and other senior managers this means inspiring and supporting staff, with 360 degree honesty. Creativity is going to come from the frontline and middle management, not the CEO or the senior management team.

Great in theory, but how good are staff at not only working digitally but having those ideas for improvement? As a starting point those attitudes should be in our person specifications for all posts, including volunteers.

Secondly, we can find the enthusiasts, train them and give them free rein, let them sell the concept, convert the reluctant, evangelise. This is bottom up stuff.

Many digital companies have made thier organizations flatter and more fluid - is this something we need to consider too?

Culture change also needs examination of structure, command and control. We're a traditional hierarchy. Many digital companies have had to make their organisations flatter and more fluid, more agile (buzzword alert).

Is this something we need to consider now? And does that mean looking at terms and conditions, remuneration, and coming back to looking at a shorter working week? Probably.

Practically, the technology we are installing now can do amazing things. It can give staff dealing with tenants or other customers the information they need to make decisions on the spot, on an estate, at an interview, in sorting complaints.

For years, our call centre staff and their manager talked about achieving 95% resolution at first point of contact, but habits die hard and it's safer to forward the call to a professional member of staff. The excuses are legitimate enough: lack of knowledge, access to files, “not up to me to make the decision”, the fear of making a mistake. But the systems we have or are developing cut through all of that, so let's make it a point of pride for frontline staff to sort a problem without reference to others.

That's a bit scary for a bureaucracy. It's a bit scary for me, for managers, who have been brought up on traditional policies and rules. But doesn't it feel like a licence to do great things?