Culture is a curious corporate asset; often the scapegoat when a company fails, but rarely able to be clearly articulated and ‘bottled’ to drive success. Yet we all know companies who seem to have struck upon a secret cultural recipe, for instance Atlassian, GE, Google, Seek, and Apple. These companies have patterns of behaviour, deeply held values, organisational structure, communication style, and space and time for staff to engage in ritual activities that give their culture a self-sustaining life.

Leadership and culture work together, but culture sticks around

There is no doubt that leaders with a human touch, who appreciate the value of the talent housed within their employee community, can harness the power of an innovation culture to consistently deliver new products, services and customer experiences. However, the fact is, that the average tenure of a CEO in OECD countries is down to a little more 4 years. Good, strong leadership is necessary but insufficient in and of itself to build an innovation culture that can endure for decades.

The renowned culture specialist Carolyn Taylor tells us that organisational culture is created by the messages we receive about what is valued. These messages are transmitted, in particular, through the behaviour of leaders, the symbols of how the company’s time and money is spent, and the systems that govern decision-making and operations.

Technology as a cultural enabler

The good news is that technology can help join the missing link between leadership and culture, and in doing so, drive corporate growth and renewal.

However, in my experience of leading innovation and business transformation across companies, industries and continents, I have learned:

  • We can't do technology change successfully without considering the cultural context of the organisation. If the technology is not culturally compatible, it will simply be defeated by the organisation's ‘immune system’ response.
  • We can't do cultural change successfully without considering the technology framework in which the organisation operates. Exhorting people to change their mindsets and behaviour, but leaving them to fight with systems that force them to do otherwise, is merely wishful thinking.
  • We can accelerate desired cultural change through intelligently harnessing technology, using it to attune behaviour, symbols and systems in line with our chosen business strategy.
  • We can leverage culture as a powerful driver of technological innovation.

Harvard Business School Professor John Kotter has described culture as the most powerful lever with which to drive performance. I think it is equally powerful in driving change and innovation. Only culturally astute leaders are likely to deliver the typical transformation agenda being asked of them by their staff, customers and shareholders. Rather than rely solely on their ability to connect with people personally, leaders of large organisations need to intelligently leverage a wide range of technology to make a lasting cultural impact.

Cultural technology: more than just hardware and software

Leadership today requires a demanding mix of IQ, EQ and CQ; creative intelligence. This is no mean feat, but I see it as exactly the opportunity leaders need to harness technology and create a culture that drives business innovation and performance. Over the past decade, I have worked with a range of powerful ‘cultural technology’ tools:

  • Storytelling: In the narrative form or via graphic recording and visualisation, now even more potent with animation, film and gamification possibilities, amplified by online sharing tools.
  • Design thinking: In the spirit of business and technology incubation, using design labs and agile approaches for technology and service offering development.
  • Social networks: Chatter, Yammer, Slack and other online tools enable immediate sharing of ideas, interests and information on a massive scale.
  • Closed-loop feedback: Reflecting back to people in near real-time the impacts of their behaviour. This has been very successful in reducing energy consumption, and can now enable quick ‘pulse checks’ around culture and engagement that can be holding a mirror up for leaders every day.
  • Experiential learning: Simultaneously building skills, developing change plans and learning while doing, as I have done with the ‘Walking the Talk’ culture management framework and the ‘Shackleton’s Way’ leadership development program in Antarctica.

Leaders must aim to leave a lasting cultural impact

Leaders have a golden opportunity to leverage these powerful tools of ‘cultural technology’, and to apply them across larger internal and external audiences, more frequently and with greater precision. It’s the ability to deal with the cultural bedrock of organisations—the ruling mindsets and attitudes that govern why people do what they do—that is the key to unlocking the value of technology and building a lasting leadership legacy.