photo credit: Foundation by Paul Goyette

This article originally appeared on Forbes.com on Monday, November 30, 2015.

In their McKinsey article, “What ‘digital’ really means,” the authors Karel Dӧrner and David Edelman ask a simple question: Yes, companies are racing to become digital, but do they really know what that means?

The authors write: “. . .but to be meaningful and sustainable, we believe that digital should be seen less as a thing and more a way of doing things. “ They go on to cite three areas that companies must attend to in order to achieve this. Check out the other two, but the one that really caught my eye was the last: “building foundational capabilities that support the entire structure.”

Here’s where that relates to culture: In order to be a company that has a sense of contemporary culture deeply infused in its DNA, it’s critical to start thinking broadly about an organization’s approach to culture itself. Given that there’s much discussion about how companies manage their digital transformation, this article points us to useful ways to think about how companies can manage their cultural transformation, and become “culture-infused”. That is, how everyone in a company can help their organization keep track of new developments in contemporary culture–the sum total of shifts in economics, politics, values, consumer behaviors, cultural production, etc.–in a way that is actionable.

More to the point: If a deep understanding of contemporary culture is a competitive advantage, then it’s not enough to get individuals smarter about culture. The entire organization has to be smarter about it.

Simply put, culture has to be a company-wide process.

Take Intel, for example. The way it looks at the world is instructive. As cultural anthropologist Genevieve Bell pointed out in a recent Q&A, social science is embedded throughout the company. More importantly, what you come to understand is that it’s possible to both have an outside-in perspective AND focus on delivering excellent products and services. There’s no mutual exclusivity.

But in order to do that, a set of conditions must be met. I’m going to suggest that, at the most fundamental level, this involves two things:

  1. A mindset shift
  2. Systems to manage data

Building Blocks

The Mindset Shift

While it’s important to focus on key consumer and shopper segments, customer experiences and product quality, this can all lead to an internal focus. OUR shoppers; the experience users have with OUR site; OUR product quality. Again, there’s no disputing that these are important.

However, playing in culture—becoming part of (or shaping!) conversation—requires that companies be aware of a wider context. I’ve said this before: All brands exists in the context of culture. Being aware of this shifting context shouldn’t be the sole responsibility of one person or even a single department. If you believe your company is better when everyone works together, then it’s everyone’s job to be aware of what’s going on in the world outside its walls. Is it, as Droga5’s Matthew Gardner noted, being a company that explicitly “wants to make beautiful pieces of culture,” i.e., things from a comms or customer experience standpoint that you’d want to interact with even if you didn’t work for the company or agency?

That’s a great place to start, but a deeper imperative is needed.

Particularly for legacy companies, this focus on the world outside the company’s walls has to start at the top, as Intel’s Bell points out. It’s CEO, Brian Krzanich, who is adamant that the company maintain an outside-in perspective. As we all know, when a mandate comes from the very top of a company, it has a higher chance of being adopted and executed.

This is probably one the most critical shifts a company can make, emphasizing the importance of an outside-in perspective. Without it, a company can get too narrowly focused on optimization without context.

This mindset shift has to be led from the top of the company and come from the bottom. Meaning, companies will have to start hiring for people who “get” culture and are tapped into areas of emerging culture and empower them. And let’s acknowledge that there will most likely be a messy transition period as these people become embedded in the organization, which is another reason companies will need to bring in people who have the smarts, maturity and experience to thrive through such organizational change. But between a senior management mandate and an increasing number of people who bring an outside-in perspective inside the company, those two forces will “meet in the middle” and the company should be well on its way to being a culture-infused organization.

Put another way: Focusing on contemporary culture is another way to ensure that your company is customer-centric.

Systems to manage data

data.path Ryoji.Ikeda - 4

The challenge with contemporary culture is twofold: It’s everywhere and ever-changing.  How does an organization get its arms around contemporary culture in a way that doesn’t overwhelm?

It needs a systematic way of managing the data.

Let’s assume that culture has now become a company-wide effort. You’ve got everyone keeping their eyes peeled for interesting things. Now, what do they do with that? How do they make what they’re seeing, hearing, reading, accessible to the organization? It needs to go into some kind of container. I’m not sure what this container looks like, but it would probably need to have these capabilities:

  • It’s accessible by everyone and anywhere, i.e., on desktop, tablet, mobile
  • It would need to have a robust tagging system so that items could be categorized by category, brand, channel, target, etc., as well as proximity to the company or client’s business (directly impacts, slightly removed, an interesting phenomenon that deserves watching, etc)
  • Likewise, it would need a robust search capability. You’ve got to be able to find things, right?
  • It needs some interoperability with other sources of company data (media allocations, sales data, CRM systems, etc.)

The point is that to make this effort work, you’ll have to capture and institutionalize knowledge of contemporary culture as it relates to the company and its business(es). More importantly, that knowledge shouldn’t just walk out the door when a few people leave the company.

Taken together–senior management mandating an outside-in perspective and a robust system for cataloging and making sense of contemporary culture–companies could see some or all of the following benefits:

  • Culture embedded into company processes, not an afterthought or also-ran
  • Insights across businesses and categories
  • Richer strategy
  • Better informed creative
  • Improved counsel to offer clients and partners
  • Content to establish (and reinforce) a company’s thought leadership
  • Additional tools for new business development

At the end of the day, there are two goals of this effort: First, everyone in the company understanding that, in order to stay competitive, the organization has to be sensitive to and understand shifts in the context in which it operates. Second, you want this knowledge to be actionable–anticipating opportunities, enabling richer conversations with potential customers, smarter allocation of resources, etc. Otherwise, culture will remain a “nice to have” or something that’s revisited only around planning periods.

And the world is changing too quickly for this to be an option for any company that expects to be taken seriously in the marketplace.

Posted by Rob Fields

Observer. Curator. Marketer. Dot connector.