Way back in early 2016, in his predictions for the year to come, Econsultancy founder Ashley Friedlein attempted to define digital transformation.

This was his attempt: "The journey towards being a digital organisation where “digital” means two things: firstly, focusing on the customer experience irrespective of channel, and secondly, having a digital culture."

But what is a 'digital culture'? Friedlein suggests there are seven defining characteristics of a digital culture:

  1. Customer-centric
  2. Data-driven
  3. Makers and doers
  4. Transparent
  5. Collaborative
  6. Learning
  7. Agile

I thought it might be useful to highlight companies (10 in total) that each embody one of these characteristics. Here goes...

1. Customer-centric - Amazon

It may seem a hackneyed case study now, but that's because Amazon really does walk-the-walk when it comes to championing the customer.

Infamous examples of customer-centricity at Amazon include managers undertaking two days of call centre training each year, so they truly understand the customer perspective, and Jeff Bezos taking an empty chair to meetings, claiming it represents the customer's seat in the room.

This customer obsession has paid off in the long run. As Bezos puts it, "If you're competitor-focused, you have to wait until there is a competitor doing something. Being customer-focused allows you to be more pioneering."


The customer's seat in the room

2. Data-driven - Google

Okay, I'm getting all the easy answers out of the way early on. But let's use focus on one illuminating application of Google's data science acumen - HR.

Laszlo Bock, former SVP of People Operations at Google, has written about the HR department's ‘three thirds’ hiring model - recruiting some from traditional HR backgrounds, others from a consultancy background and, crucially, still more from academic fields such as science and mathematics.

Google uses ‘people analytics’ to look for patterns in recruitment and retention, employee wellbeing, performance and tenure, and ultimately to define job roles with more than just words.

Bock told The Wharton School in an interview that the only way to truly measure the effect of a manager’s performance on his or her team be to make people switch teams. It’s a case of taking “two..groups — it doesn’t matter if they’re five-person groups or 500-person groups … and say, ‘We’re going to treat them differently, and let’s see what happens.’”


3. Makers and doers - BuzzFeed & Hive

The makers invent and innovate, the doers are able to envision the big picture and point the company in that direction.

I always think of BuzzFeed as a company full of makers and doers. It started with a new approach to social publishing, including hugely successful visual content, has pioneered new forms of native advertising, but has also explored seemingly tangential product ideas (for a publisher), such as online retail, as the company spies ways to improve its proposition.

Another great example of this approach is the Tasty One Top. This is a hotplate designed to work alongside BuzzFeed's new Tasty app, a home for all its Tasty video recipes. The hotplate syncs with your phone, setting the right temperature for you and chiming to let you know when to move on to the next step. There are clearly makers and doers at work here.

Granted, the term 'makers and doers' can apply to more obvious companies, such as British Gas and its development of the Hive connected thermostat, but I wanted to tip my hat to BuzzFeed.


The One Top

4. Transparent - Buffer & Monzo

We have previously highlighted brands with a transparent company culture. My favourite is social media management platform Buffer which espouses a 'default to transparency' maxim.

This includes the publication of all emails sent internally within the company - a list is cc'ed which is accessible to others in that department, and ultimately to the whole organisation. The Buffer blog explains that this policy of transparent email gives workers the ability to work 'surprise free'.

Here is Buffer's 'default to transparency' policy in full:

  • You take pride in opportunities to share our beliefs, failures, strengths and decisions.
  • You use transparency as a tool to help others.
  • You always state your thoughts immediately and with honesty.
  • You share early in the decision process, to avoid 'big revelations'.

Transparency, of course, is external as well as internal. There are many other companies, notably Monzo, which are showing their inner workings to their customers and using honesty to enable them to fail gracefully.

monzo comms

An example of speedy Monzo comms

5. Collaborative - Basecamp

At face value, Basecamp not seem a good model for a collaborative company. For a start, each employee is free to live and work where they please, most doing so from home and from all over the world.

The Chicago office is known to be very quiet, with reports of 'no-talk Thursdays', as well as four day weeks in the summer months.

But this is all part of co-founder Jason Fried's philosophy -  encapsulated in a TED talk titled “Why work doesn’t happen at work“). Fried believes technology has led to to much communication and co-dependency in the workplace - he experiments with self organization, where workers report to each other, rather than managers.

At the heart of this belief is the idea that hiring the right people is the most important part of collaboration, and those people should be treated in the right way (see Basecamps list of benefits). This includes week-long get-togethers a couple of times a year where they focus on relationships, rather than business as usual. 

Technology does help with collaboration, too, with workers using online chat platforms to solve problems amongst themselves. On the whole, Basecamp's committment to easy-to-use products and speedy customer service dictates an atmosphere where collaboration is just as efficient.


6. Learning - Co-Op & Fjord

There's a fair amount of theory behind 'learning organisations'. Harvard Business Review lists a number of prerequisites to build such an orgainsation - a supportive learning environment, concrete learning processes and practices and leadership that encourages learning.

Though learning organisations can seem like a bit of a nebulous concept, I like to focus on the idea of a company being open to new ideas (and failures), reflective about its current practices and appreciative of diversity.

There are plenty of companies aspiring to these values in 2017. Two companies that come to mind are Fjord and the UK's Co-Op. Fjord is investing heavily in design leadership, diversity, a global training program (Evolution) and peer learning.

Co-Op's digital blogs are a fantastic example of an open and reflective culture, and include many examples of learning processes and practices coming into being (e.g. What we've learnt in digital product research). In the video below, a software developer explains what it's like to work in this problem solving atmosphere at Co-Op.

7. Agile - Government Digital Service

As I write this, I see that the UK's GDS has announced it is now focusing on quarterly missions, rather than annual ones. Here's part of the statement from the GDS blog:

The scope of the mission is flexible but the length of the mission is fixed. No mission is longer than 11 weeks. It might be the case that a theme extends over the course of the year, but we want iterative and complete delivery every 11 weeks, in case we need to change direction or stop. This will also help us to continually deliver value.

GDS has pioneered an Agile approach in government since the start of GOV.UK, even producing a publicly available service manual for Agile delivery. The guide provides advice on an Agile working environment, tools and techniques, user stories and planning.

As the guide states, Government services need to be able to respond quickly to policy changes and the needs of the public. Agile is much better at this than Waterfall, especially when coping with changes to technology.

That's your lot. Which companies would you slot into these seven categories, and which have excellent digital cultures? Let us know below.

Ben Davis

Published 14 August, 2017 by Ben Davis @ Econsultancy

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

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Comments (9)

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Jim Clark

Jim Clark, Head of Interactive Research (UK) at Accenture

Great blog Ben, and nicely complements Econsultancy's Building a Digital Culture report: https://www.econsultancy.com/reports/building-a-digital-culture.

12 months ago

Ashley Friedlein

Ashley Friedlein, Founder, Econsultancy & President, Centaur Marketing at EconsultancyStaff

Thanks for pulling these together Ben. Plenty I could add. Off the top of my head taking the last element (agile) first these two come to mind:

1. Spotify
This read should be part of the agile canon: https://ucvox.files.wordpress.com/2012/11/113617905-scaling-agile-spotify-11.pdf

2. The Guardian
Lots of great agile stuff. A bit at https://www.theguardian.com/info/developer-blog/2016/jan/25/be-agile-in-being-agile but also some really interesting stuff around 'huddles' which are covered in Neil Perkin / Peter Abraham's recent book (Scaling the Agile Business through Digital Transformation) - see excerpt at https://www.theguardian.com/info/developer-blog/2016/jan/25/be-agile-in-being-agile

12 months ago

Ashley Friedlein

Ashley Friedlein, Founder, Econsultancy & President, Centaur Marketing at EconsultancyStaff

Also a hat tip to Capital One (as a very large financial services organisation) for their use of agile at scale (google it for case studies/articles).

'DevOps' has been around for quite a while in the tech function but I believe/predict that "Marketing Ops" is needed now in marketing. Just as marketing is starting to borrow agile from the world of tech, we should also take the idea of devops as we need it in marketing.

For a great insight into what 'marketing ops' is/should be (and it is about culture as much as anything) have a look at: https://www.slideshare.net/MarTechConf/marketing-ops-is-a-philosophy-not-a-department-by-justin-dunham

12 months ago

Neil Perkin

Neil Perkin, Founder at Only Dead FishEnterprise

Thanks for the book mention Ashley - there's some good examples here. I think digital culture is something that is talked about a lot yet pretty poorly defined. We talk a lot about it in the book of-course but I had my own go at defining it here:
Similarities with your attributes but I think the point is that (as the post notes) culture can be a significant barrier to change (I hear this all the time in client work). If we're serious about changing culture then we need to not simply focus on the visible, obvious stuff, but the fundamental assumptions and less visible but very very powerful habits and behaviours. Anyone interested in the book, it's here:

12 months ago

Gail Lyon

Gail Lyon, Head of Digital Engagement at Co-op Digital

Thank you Ben for featuring Co-op Digital. It's great for the hard work of the team to be shared. Feel free to come and see what we're doing any time. Thanks, Gail

12 months ago

Ben Barrass

Ben Barrass, Head of Data and Analytics at Econsultancy / Centaur MediaStaff

Further to your comments @Ashley, Marketing Ops should be a critical role/focus for a number of reasons - most notably I believe due to the interoperability of tools, ever increasing "niche-ness" of their purpose, and lack of requirement to engage with tech/IT to implement means many marketers struggle to deal with the demands and specific skills that properly managing operations entails - focusing primarily on their tech stack and losing the ability to properly co-ordinate data flows or understand the impact across the business etc. This is the real danger, it becomes very easy for companies to put in lots of 'digital' kit, but struggle to realise the value that should flow from it.

12 months ago


Pallav Gogoi, Corporation Communication Officer at Isgec Heavy Engineering Ltd.

Digital culture adds more transparency to any company hence most companies are using social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter to interact with customers directly. The world is going Digital hence it's becoming crucial for every company to take up Digital Culture. Well written article though. I also write about Digital Culture here: http://www.dejavublog.in/

12 months ago


Kayla Wilson, eCommerce Manager at Gardiner Haskins

I love how so many companies are finally realising that flexible working and working from home (or anywhere else) can be a huge benefit to the company and the employees. For me it's interesting because I've taken a 'backwards' step into a less digital company who want to be more digital, so a lot of these things listed aren't in place...yet!

I remember reading about a gaming company (can't remember who now!) who don't assign jobs to individuals but allow them to work on any project they want. The idea is that staff tend to gravitate towards ideas they think are good and work together on it, so naturally the best projects are developed in an unspoken way. Great way of promoting a meritocracy, reducing staff management and growing new ideas.

12 months ago

Hilton Barbour

Hilton Barbour, Marketing Provocateur at Hilton Barbour Inc

I adore that Culture is (finally) getting the attention it deserves as an enabler or inhibitor of Digital Transformation. A topic I've written on frequently.

My concern is that, as outsiders, we can only presume that these organization's cultures genuinely operate in the way they say in blogs, on websites and in interviews. There are numerous organization's whose espoused values are actually NOT how the organization actually makes decisions and genuinely acts. That is the BASIC ASSUMPTIONS level that @neilperkins refers to in this comments.

Outsiders don't see the internal workings of a company. The way decisions are actually made and the way employees interact across teams, departments, geographies, levels of seniority. I would encourage all eConsultancy readers to spend time reading Edgar Schein, the godfather of organizational culture.

Shameless plug but if you're interested in interviews on Digital Transformation & Culture with leaders at Coca-Cola, Nestle, L'Oreal, Starbucks and others, you can find them on a free ebook I recently published. Find it here: http://www.hiltonbarbour.com/culture-ebook-1/

12 months ago

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