Corporate culture in digital change

Guest contribution by | 14.03.2019

We are currently undergoing a major social upheaval. Electronic devices that can process and exchange binary coded information are spreading rapidly. Five years ago, smartphones were still a dream of the future for many, but now they are a constant companion for most people. Whereas in 2006, the year of the German summer fairy tale, the Internet was only used by more than half of all Germans, almost nine out of ten now surf the Internet regularly.¹ Travelers book online and check in mobile. Shared households work together on the cleaning plan – in the cloud with Google Docs or similar offers. Even if it’s often nebulous what exactly happens to the data between input and output, and this causes a lot of huffing, digitization has come and is there to stay.

The digital challenges

Up and down the country, organisations are investing a lot of time and money to meet the digital challenges. As consultants for the public sector, we support public authorities throughout Germany in the automation of processes, in the development of digital channels for customer communication or in the further development of digital skills in the workforce. From an optimistic basic attitude, we would like to take advantage of the opportunities created by digitalisation with our clients: from the pressure to act to the desire to create, that is our credo.

This is not always easy: Many organisations experiment and try to take advantage of the new opportunities. They are redesigning offices and handing out laptops, programming apps and making working hours more flexible. Other organisations, on the other hand, are sceptical about what is happening: their desks remain the standard, smartphones cannot be used professionally, websites are not optimized for mobile devices, SSL certificates have expired, and working hours are still recorded with time cards.

Why? “Because I spend a lot of time at my desk and want to feel comfortable.” “For privacy reasons!” “Unfortunately, our staff council won’t be able to do that.” “Our customers aren’t ready yet.”

Such situations and statements express specific corporate cultures that are not good or bad per se, but simply there at first. Organisations that want to be or remain successful should consider their individual organisational culture when implementing digital projects. Because the ideas of an institution, how they are pursued and implemented – all this is strongly influenced by the culture of a company. Yes, digitisation has come to stay, but corporate culture was there before. Digitising oneself therefore always means working on and with one’s own organisational culture.

For example, the distribution of mobile work equipment and the slogan “we want to try out more flexible working time models from now on” create the possibility of working more independently of time and place. This is a decision that can be understood as the result of a very specific cultural setting. And at the same time, the more intensive use of the home office will have an impact on the organisation of work – among other things, it will influence the culture of leadership and responsibility – which in turn will have an effect on further decisions, etc. In change processes it is important to have these connections on the screen: a sound understanding of corporate culture helps.

The corporate culture

What do we mean when we say “corporate culture”?

  • Patterns of thinking, feeling and acting of people in an organisation.
  • Practiced, shared, mostly unconscious and self-evident bases for action.
  • The basis for action developed from experiences gained in the past with successful and unsuccessful solutions to problems.
  • The basis for action is disseminated and communicated in a socialisation process, based on symbols and artefacts.

Symbols and artefacts are the visible expression of an corporate culture. They are the tip of the iceberg and important for the orientation and socialisation of employees. Unlike, for example, business processes or administrative regulations, the corporate culture unfolds its strength in the implicit and informal. We mean the self-explanatory, which actually requires no explanation, and which invisibly guides all employees in their everyday lives. If digital projects are to be planned and implemented, there is a great danger that these organisational peculiarities will be overlooked. The philosopher and economist Peter Drucker, who is regarded as a pioneer of modern management theory, was right in his assertion: “Culture eats strategy for breakfast”.

The dimensions of corporate culture

In order to be able to plan and guide changes well, we always try to make the culture of an organisation explicit and adapt our approach accordingly. The external view and a differentiated observation grid help us to grasp the complex phenomenon of organisational culture. We distinguish six cultural dimensions:

  1. Responsibility culture: How do the members in an organisation position themselves with their individual contributions in relation to the holistic objectives of the organisation?
  2. Leadership culture: How do managers understand their tasks and their role within the social system?
  3. Communication culture: How and with which verbal and non-verbal forms is information shared within the organisation?
  4. Conflict culture: How is an organisation dealing with rule violations and differences of opinion?
  5. Culture of change: How does an organisation deal with adaptation and change and how does an organisation manage to integrate something new into the existing?
  6. Work organisation culture: How are tasks distributed within an organisation and how is the provision of services ensured within an organisation?

In all these dimensions corporate culture expresses itself as a specific pattern of thinking, feeling and acting. The subdivision into these cultural dimensions is an analytical separation that enables us to empirically grasp the culture of an organisation and to make it accessible to all participants.

The real world

We have broken down all six dimensions into observable and evaluable sub-aspects and converted them into a survey form in which we can classify the observed characteristics. If we sit in on the organisation that wants a cultural analysis, we collect impressions, observations and statements using this standardised survey instrument. In order to be able to record, analyse and evaluate the culture of an organisation, we also spend an appropriate period of time on site, rely on various sources (e.g. hospitations, individual and group interviews, documents) and proceed hypothesically. This means that after an exploration phase, preliminary results are often reflected upon in a workshop with the client in order to be finally recorded after a phase of verification.

For example, freeloading, i.e. a very different degree of responsibility, and an extremely directive management style of a department head would be discussed, as would excellent cooperation with the staff representatives. This means that the reflection and communication of (interim) results must be done with great care. From such a cultural analysis, important starting points and obstacles can be derived for project management and communicative project support (e.g. integration of the top performers, demanding of the freeriders and a special eye on the head of department). In addition, the cultural analysis also makes it possible to make the subject of culture itself the subject of explicit attempts at change – for example through a participatory model process.

Bottom line

Culture can be the engine or brake of organisational development. This applies all the more to the development of a digital organisation. Digital self-understanding cannot be prescribed, nor does it come along casually, quasi as a by-product. Whether you like it or not, if you want to take advantage of the opportunities offered by digitalisation, you cannot ignore your own corporate culture. Then it is better to consciously work with your own culture and begin a path that will make the digital normal.



[1] D21 Digital-Index 2018/2019, S. 12. [2] Vgl. Georg Schreyögg, Grundlagen der Organisation, 2016, S. 177 f.

Erik Schäfer & Friedemann Christ
Erik Schäfer & Friedemann Christ

Dr. Erik Schäfer holds a doctorate in organisational science and is a consultant at gfa | public. He primarily works for municipal clients in cross-sectional functions and in the labour market sector; in terms of content, he focuses on structural and organisational-cultural issues as well as processes of learning and barriers to change. Dr. Friedemann Christ holds a doctorate in political science and is one of two managing directors of gfa | public GmbH. For almost 20 years, he has accompanied clients at the federal, state and local levels in organisational and strategic development processes.