characteristics of digital culture

Digital Culture Series || Characteristics of Digital Culture

Digital Culture Series || Characteristics of Digital Culture

characteristics of digital culture


In Part 1 of the Digital Culture Series, we explained what Digital Culture means, how it is different from Digital Mindset, and five key reasons it should matter to organizations and leaders alike.

We have established that building a digital organization is not merely about adopting the technology. It is as much, if not more, about people’s capabilities to manage the technologies, and more importantly, about people’s mindsets and the cumulative organizational culture.

A cultural shift to digital-first can only be accomplished when the workforce adopts certain characteristics. We now dive deeper into understanding the characteristics of a strong digital culture.

Cultural digirati will all agree on the core characteristics of digital culture. They agree that the following characteristics are most important in establishing a truly digital-first culture:

  1. Customer-centric
  2. Data-driven
  3. Risk taking and innovative (Makers and doers)
  4. Collaborative
  5. Agile
  6. Transparent
  7. Lifelong learning

To determine just how important these characteristics are, eConsultancy undertook research that surveyed 245 respondents from around the world. The illustration below represents the responses:

digital culture characteristics

“If your target audience speaks digital, shouldn’t your organization speak digital too?”

Jerry Allocca, Founder & CEO, Connected Culture

The most aspirational companies in the world today, all of which are part of the Fortune 500 list are also digital companies, with great work cultures. The culture that exists within them embodies most, if not all, the characteristics of a strong digital culture.

Let’s understand what the characteristics of digital culture are:

1.   Customer Centricity

“Customer-centric companies live by a set of values that put the customer front and centre, and they reinforce those values through cultural elements, metrics and the right behavior.”

Erik Vermeulen, Global Behavioral Economic Strategist

Customer centricity is the single most important tool to winning in the Digital Age. Unfortunately, one of the biggest barriers to customer centricity is the lack of a customer-centric culture within the organization. The industrial age taught us to focus on creating a great product or service and the customers would come flocking. That is no longer the case.

Customers are well informed. At the very least, they know what they DON’T want. Organizations need to be almost fanatical in their customer-focus when building their portfolio of products and/or services. To do so, Amazon’s customer centricity policies form the perfect guide.

Amazon has always envisioned being “Earth’s most customer-centric company”. Many would agree that they have achieved this vision, as this is how the world sees Amazon. The company has always been obsessed with championing the customer, and they go to great lengths to make this happen:

  • Managers at Amazon would spend two days in the year at the Amazon Call Centre to truly understand the customer perspective
  • A ‘get out of the building’ policy is encouraged to understand the jobs of merchants as well as the experience of buying and selling online
  • Jeff Bezos infamously drags in an empty chair into meetings, claiming it represents the customer’s seat in the room.


2.   Data-driven Design

“What gets measured, gets managed.”

Peter Drucker, Author and Management Consultant

We cannot talk about a data-driven culture without mentioning Google. Analytics is at the core of Google’s operations. From Lazslo Bock’s ‘three-third hiring model’ for recruitment to Google Analytics for marketing and sales, Google has cracked the code for all things data.

In an age where everything is digitized and data is readily available at real-time and large volumes, organizations that place data at the core of their strategy and execution are a cut above the rest. However, organizations trying to figure out their data strategy have one question in mind – how to cut out all the clutter?

The answer is simple. Data does the job of answering questions. However, this is only possible if organizations ask the right questions, because without it, data is just a dump of uselessness. Organizations that have a strong data-driven culture know to ask the right questions.

In formulating questions, it also becomes apparent to organizations where data is available and where intuition becomes important to use. In his book, ‘The Intelligent Company’, author Bernard Marr outlines five steps to success with Evidence-based Management. While the world is taking leaves out of Google’s playbook, Marr claims that Google’s success in evidence-based management is tied closely to the steps illustrated in his book.

3.   Risk taking and Innovation

“If you’re not failing every now and again, it’s a sign you’re not doing anything innovative.”

Woody Allen, American Filmmaker

If you were asked to name companies you think are highly innovative, the most common answers would be Amazon, Uber, Airbnb, Google and the like. There is no doubt that these companies are high on innovation. But there is one that has placed innovation at the core of their culture since it’s inception in 1902. Any guesses?

It’s manufacturing giant 3M. Creators of over 55,000 products, the organization releases over 25 new products every week, and the organization only employs 90,00 people across 200 manufacturing plants and 86 labs who single-mindedly focus on the organization’s innovation agenda.

The key to 3M’s success is an innovation culture that encourages employees to take risks, experiment and fail. The organization believes that eliminating the feature of failure is key to encouraging innovative thinking.

Therefore, it is an organizational tradition to pass on stories of famous failures to new employees – the story of the Post-It being the most popular of them all:

“The post-it was an accidental creation. When he created it, 3M scientist Spencer Silver was working on creating an adhesive for plane manufacturing. But Silver found his creation too weak for his goal. Silver called his creation a “solution without a problem”. However, his colleague Art Fry realized that Silver’s invention was the solution to his trivial problem of losing his bookmark in his hymnbook at church. The post-it note was born, and in 2009, generated revenues of $3.47billion for one 3M division.”

4.   Collaboration

“Coming together is a beginning, staying together is progress, and working together is a success.”

Henry Ford, Car Manufacturer

The advent of the assembly line process initially sowed the seeds of collaboration. With time, however, with people performing high specialized roles, this effort diminished into teams for highly specific roles. This resulted in the silo effect – teams working within the scope of their own job descriptions.

We know now that this is a flawed system which curtails learning, limits the development of skill sets and results in a lot of duplication of effort. Over the years, organizations have found that this way of working has also restrained employees from voicing out doubts and accepting that they do not know something. As a result, employees are set up for failure when additional responsibilities are thrown their way.

Organizations with mature digital cultures have taken up interesting initiatives to combat these fears and liberate their workforce to collaborate with each other:

  • To empower people and create an atmosphere of comfort to collaborate, payroll startup Gusto believes in not having any employee titles. This allowed them a safe environment for people to work together without fear.
  • Several IT organizations such as Cisco leverage a collaboration environment to crowdsource issues and requests; these enables them to find the best and fastest solution which makes for better customer experience.


5.   Agility

“I concluded long ago that limits to innovation have less to do with technology or creativity than organizational agility. Inspired individuals can only do so much.”

Ray Stata, American Engineer

In the simplest sense, agile organizations are those that are quick to solve problems and problems are opportunities to learn. A methodology that was developed for continuous iteration in software development has made its way to an organizational level. This is perceived to be more complicated to execute, and it maybe so.

However, in the digital age, agility is non-negotiable for survival. It requires the entire workforce to:

  • Be adaptable
  • Accept failure as a part of the process and a learning opportunity
  • Seek constant improvements even when successful
  • Be accountable all around

The need for agility is so high, that the world is watching and awarding organization that effectively execute agile principles in their work; and we cannot talk about agility without mentioning Samsung Electronics. Since usurping Nokia as the world’s leading cellphone maker in 2012, Samsung has cemented its place through its agile innovations, despite heavier competition in recent years from newer cellphone makers like Oppo, Vivo and the like, due to its expansion into other hardware and software, making Samsung one of the largest producers of consumer goods.

While one can guess most of the other companies on the list of the most agile companies in the world, another organization that has truly made its mark through its differentiation is Disney. Despite their unparalleled creativity, innovative technology and global expansion, this mass media company continues to stand for imagination. With enchanting movies and its many theme parks, Disney continues to deliver its brand promise of creating magical family experience. Now, the organization is creating the ultimate “Disney Experience” through new technology and apps such as the wearable MagicBand and the MyMagic+ App.

6.   Transparency

“Today, power is gained by sharing information, not hoarding it.”

Dharmesh Shah, Founder & CTO, HubSpot Inc.

People are the most important assets to a company’s success. If every employee is not viewed as integral to the organization’s success, then the organization has no business retaining such employees. If, however, an organization views every employee as important and valuable, it is the responsibility of the organization to be transparent with its employees.

Unfortunately, this is an ideal state. Research shows that 42% of employees don’t even know the organization’s vision, mission and values, let alone deeper information valuable to business. To succeed in the digital age, an organization default setting must be transparency.


Transparency boosts trust, enhances employee engagement, builds relationships, increases productivity and improves innovation, to name only a few benefits.

The degree of transparency that an organization chooses to operate at is their prerogative to decide. There are scores of companies that have won through a culture of transparency, and they each have their own, unique transparency policy:

  • Social Media Management Platform Buffer believes in salary transparency. A publicly available spreadsheet lists the salaries of every employee, right from the CEO.
  • Online Retail company Zappos believes in building open and honest relationship with communication. To that effect, the company facilitates tours of their corporate headquarters, live training events and Q&A sessions with various departments within the organization.
  • Clothing company Patagonia believes in supply chain transparency. Through a project called “Footprint Chronicles”, the organization gives access to information about every step of the supply chain to the customers. Customers have the option of providing feedback at every step.


7.   Lifelong Learning

“An organization’s ability to learn, and translate that learning into action rapidly, is the ultimate competitive advantage.”

Jack Welch, Former CEO of General Electric

For decades, we have been talking about the need for learning and development to engage and retain high potential, high performing talent. Organizations have done their part in creating calendarized schedules to allow employees to learn as well. However, digital is disrupting every part of business, including learning and development.

Today, learning is not just about doing a few courses throughout the year that are relevant to your immediate role. The level of awareness that employees must have has grown multi-fold. As boundaries between roles, teams, organizations and industries blur away, employees must be extremely versatile in their knowledge and skill sets, to be productive and make a difference.

Once again Google takes the cake when it comes to building a strong learning culture. In his book ‘Work Rules’, former Senior Vice President – People at Google, Lazslo Bock shares three pieces of advice for organizations to cultivate a culture that emphasizes learning:

  • Engage in Deliberate practice
  • Have your best people teach
  • Invest in courses only when it’s absolutely necessary and if it changes behavior

In other words, Google places a lot of merit on informal, continuous learning through experiences, failures and peers. Very little priority (<25%) is given to formal, structured learning.

In short, a digital culture is one which propounds that we wear our badge of failure with honor, learn form it and use the learning to create something bigger and better.

How strongly does your workforce exhibit these characteristics? How do you ensure that you workforce embodies them confidently? In Part 3 of the Digital Culture series, we will explore how to cultivate a thriving digital culture.




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