Changing company culture is difficult to do by definition.

Steve Denning, author of several leadership and management books, describes organisation culture as 'an interlocking set of goals, roles, processes, values, communications practices, attitudes and assumptions. 

The elements fit together as a mutually reinforcing system and combine to prevent any attempt to change it.'

But company cultural can change, right? This assumption is an integral part of many digital transformation programmes.

Back in 2013, I wrote a post on 12 simple decisions that could lead to cultural change.

Reflecting on that post I see that perhaps I was a little naive - apart from some thoughts around recruitment, my suggestions probably weren't bold enough to change something as deep rooted as company culture.

Remote working, for example, is something that could play against you in the early days of trying to engender a change (perhaps why Marissa Meyer wasn't keen on it when she took over at Yahoo!).

So, here are some more measured examples of how cultural change is brought about, garnered from academia and some digital and non-digital case studies.

1. Change at the top

As Mike Bracken said in a post about Government Digital Services, 'hire the head and the body will follow'. 

This is the most important part of cultural (and digital) change, having the right leader in place.

Ashley Friedlein has written about the two types of Chief Digital Officer (CDO), the ambassador and the transformer.

The organisation has to be prepared for change at board level if a transformer CDO is brought on board, someone who likely won't be able to coexist with a CMO and will be set on a trajectory to CEO at some point in the (successful) future.

The ambassador CDO, on the other hand, is more of an evangelist, an inspirational figure.

ambassador ferrero rocher

2. Recruitment

Zappos is perhaps the most famous example of a company that recruits with an emphasis on cultural fit. The online clothing company conducts a cultural review that counts 50% towards whether an applicant is hired.

Any company going through a transformation project is likely to lose staff and need to employee people in new roles. Defining the recruitment process well in advance is an important step.

Econsultancy has a range of job description templates with advice on how digital roles are changing as skills have diversified and capability is mapped across the organisation.

The focus shouldn't be all about culture, it's about the right mix of functional skills and creating a role that attracts by describing a person, rather than a to-do list.

3. Flattening the hierarchy

This has always been a fascinating idea in business and one that has gained Zappos, Buffer and Morning Star (a tomato processing company) column inches.

Practically, digital transformation may mean acquiring more leaders and this can lead to bloat, as can a merger or buyout. Dealing with this is important if communication is to improve, not deteriorate.

Flattening the hierarchy is not an end in itself, rather it may be needed to ensure that comms can effectively filter across, as well down the org structure.

Having a management layer that appears to be incommunicado, trying to enact change but not being fully involved in the process, can lead to pushback.

4. Communication and celebration

Communication applies both to planning change and delivering it. Changing processes and behaviours is made more difficult if the first employees hear of it is a dictat from HR.

That's why setting plans for change is ideally something that's done in collaboration with the employee base where appropriate, preventing the feeling of rules that filter down.

Communication may involve more regular contact between management and staff, monthly feedback cycles for example, rather than the dreaded six month review.

One of the most frustrating things for staff 'on the ground' can be a vision without a plan, so constantly updating employees of plans, progress and achievements is vital.

Of course, celebrating the achievements together will help, too.

5. Managing generation Y

Generation Y (21-32 year olds) is stereotyped as being opinionated, savvy and keen for personal development and progression.

Gen Y is, digitally savvy, too. This means that though it can be difficult 'taking them with you' on a cultural change because of their propensity to job hop, if you achieve it they could be the architects of your transformation.

What's required is creating an environment where employees feel they have a work-life balance, as well as opportunity.

To this end, Goldman Sachs has 'banned' executives from its offices from 9pm on Friday until 9am on a Monday.

This style of management leads us on to the next point...

the next generation

6. All the little bits

On their own, furniture and cake will not turn a company round, but the war of cultural attrition can still be fought in these areas.

Open plan offices are more conducive to healthy management. Perks such as food and drink are an expectation of a new generation of workforce.

Dress code, unfettered web access, exciting decor, tone of voice within internal comms, all these things add up to an important part of employee welfare.

Ben Davis

Published 19 October, 2015 by Ben Davis @ Econsultancy

Ben Davis is Editor at Econsultancy. He lives in Manchester, England. You can contact him at, follow at @herrhuld or connect via LinkedIn.

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Comments (4)

Pete Austin

Pete Austin, Founder and Author at Fresh Relevance

The classic example of changing corporate culture is the merger/takeover, where the takeover target is normally expected to adopt the corporate culture of its new owner. The data shows it has a very high failure rate.

The main problem in my experience is that culture changes at different rates across the company (it's easy to change sales and marketing but very hard to change the back office, and easy to change functions that are geographically close to HQ, but much harder to change remote sites). Ambitious senior managers only want to take on the low hanging fruit, so the change gets partly implemented and then stalls.

almost 3 years ago

Alice Morgan

Alice Morgan, Freelance digital marketing consultant at Freelance

Lots of useful stuff in this article, but it's too idealistic - I imagine anyway - for most companies, or at least for the ones I know. A little jaded? Maybe.

almost 3 years ago


Roger Alderson, Group Marketing at Aperius Consulting

Point #1 is very true. The senior leadership must embrace any cultural change. If this doesn't happen, nothing will change. But, there's an important point #2 that's missing from this article. The middle-management must also embrace the change, which can then permeate up and down. In my experience, if this is not the case, the change is doomed to failure - no matter how charismatic or dictatorial the senior leadership team is.

almost 3 years ago


Jim Hunter, Consultant at VersionUX

What we describe as company culture is an inferred set of generalisations based on observation and is therefore somewhat nebulous and holographic in nature. To change the hologram, you have to change the underlying image. To change a company culture, yes you can express aspirational values and have coffee and cake give aways and talk about comms (these things help) but fundamentally you have to have a sensible operating model and associated processes designed to reflect the strategic aspiration. This is not a job for HR but a job for COOs and very senior management because it will only make sense if they own and design it - albeit with help from HR and others. Organise the business around its aims successfully and you'll gave the foundations of a positive culture.

over 2 years ago

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