Top-down or bottom-up? How to cultivate a digital culture in your organization

(Credit: Unsplash)

This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Samanntha DuBridge, VP, Global Benefits, Culture & Engagement, HR Mergers and Acquisitions, Employee Mobility, Hewlett Packard Enterprise & Brian Tippens, VP, Chief Sustainability Officer, Hewlett Packard Enterprise


  • The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated the shift to a digital-first world which made businesses rethink the way they operate.
  • One key to business success in a post-Covid world is to embrace a digital culture.
  • For digital culture to be successful, it must be driven from the ground up.

The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated a shift to a digital-first world. This shift was undeniable, requiring businesses to find new ways to manage and support their workforce through a successful reinvention. Companies have had to rethink their business models, how they engage with customers, manage supply chains, and leverage data to transform every dimension of their enterprise. Digital transformation at this scale has required team members at every level to come along on the journey.

For any company that is going through rapid and disruptive transformation, a key success factor is to embrace a strong digital culture. Research on the barriers to successful transformation indicates that culture is often the biggest contributor.

According to business adviser Gartner, there are six barriers to the adaptation of any business to the digital model. Five of its six top barriers are culture related. And Capgemini, a company that provides consulting, digital transformation, technology and engineering services, found that 62% of respondents identified corporate culture as the biggest hurdle to digital transformation. A study by Accenture found that “the age-old siloes” can stall the success of companies embarking on a transformation journey.

Pillars of a successful digital culture

Partners of the World Economic Forum’s Accelerating Digital Transformation for Long Term Growth initiative came together to develop a guidebook – Digital Culture: The Driving Force of Digital Transformation – to consolidate leaders’ thinking and companies’ best practices around this important topic. It narrows on four critical pillars of digital culture:

  • Collaboration: putting “we” before “I” and breaking down the siloes of business units and functions.
  • Data-driven: making data-driven decisions and leveraging data to unlock new business value.
  • Customer-centricity: obsessing over customers and using data to accelerate our response to customer needs.
  • Innovation: making innovation part of the DNA of our company, with a “fail fast and learn” mentality integrated into the culture of everyone, not just the R&D organization.
  • Purpose: underpinning our culture with purpose—a keen focus on sustainability, ethics, inclusion, and equity.

Organizations that encompass a digital culture will be more flexible and agile, enabling their workforce to respond to challenges and keep up with the pace of digitalisation. It also helps businesses to stay competitive by adapting to rapidly changing environments, effectively using technology, and delivering stakeholder impact.

The journey to cultural transformation. Image: World Economic Forum

Leading from the top

Organizational culture needs to be led by the chief executive officer (CEO) with the full support of the executive team. Team members need to look at their leaders and see them walk the talk. If you experience a “frozen middle”, this must be unstuck by ensuring this important group of mid-level leaders feels that it has ownership of the transformation.

Hewlett Packard Enterprise (HPE) announced in 2019 that it would go through its own company transformation, transitioning from a legacy information technology (IT) enterprise to become the edge-to-cloud company. To accelerate this cloud services business evolution, and break down siloes in our own organization, HPE created the Transformation Office (TO) to bring disparate interests together towards one goal, focused on evaluating and helping to resolve misalignment and roadblocks along the way. The TO brings together the executive committee, communications, business units and human resources on the journey, and aligns all the business functions to their role in the transformation.

Innovation as a test-case for digital collaboration

Leadership from the top and middle is key, but how do you know when it takes and when a bottom-up movement is crystalizing?

In February 2021, HPE launched the Innovation Quest, a contest that challenged team members to use out-the-box thinking and submit their boldest ideas for innovation around five categories: products, processes, services, partnership, and user experience.

The intention of the Innovation Quest was to challenge team members to craft innovative and collaborative ideas that break down the organizational siloes and advance our company priorities. When innovation is at the heart of company DNA, individuals feel inspired to develop an out-the-box, agile mindset which ultimately drives performance. The contest also presented the opportunity for team members to create ideas to drive on the areas of utmost importance to them.

Participation exceeded expectations as we received nearly 1100 submissions globally. What was most striking was the number of submissions that reflect the key dimensions of digital culture. For example:

  • 65% of submissions offered innovative ways to extract greater insights or new value from data. Over a third of these, related to our pivot to the edge-to-cloud company.
  • 80% of all ideas leveraged technology as a key enabler.
  • Nearly 75% broke the mould by offering out-of-the-box solutions.

While the judging criteria didn’t specifically ask for ideas to be purpose-driven, it was inspirational to see just how many were designed with purpose in mind. An impressive 25% of the ideas were intentionally crafted to drive, at once, business, and environmental, social, and governance (ESG) goals.

This reiterated the utmost importance of this issue to our team members. Some of the proposals included embedding environmental sustainability into our pivot to the edge-to-cloud company and helping customers and partners reach their own digital and environmental goals. Others looked to move the needle on the ‘S’ pillar of ESG by advancing diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I), closing the digital exclusion gap, and upholding human rights by using technology to support the relationships with suppliers.

These results illustrate that while leaders can adopt the key pillars in a top-down approach, it’s up to team members to execute the digital culture through their own behaviours and actions.

Seeding innovation into company DNA

Digital transformation is an imperative, and the last two years have shown this to be axiomatic. Antonio Neri, President and CEO of Hewlett Packard Enterprise has asked every team member how they are contributing to the company pivot, one that can only succeed by the adoption of a digital culture. As other leaders embark on their own transformation journeys, implementing a ground-up digital culture should be a number one priority. Ultimately, we depend on all team members to execute the digital culture through their own behaviours and actions.

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