Organisations are currently undergoing a fundamental shift, away from how they were traditionally structured towards a structure that embraces digital transformation.

But the question for many organisations is: how can they adapt to the changing nature of organisational culture and new processes? There seems to be a growing need to attract diversity in the hiring of employees that can challenge existing company structures, provide leadership, and continue to champion the “voice of the customer”.

However, as much as organisations like to think they are becoming more customer-focused, recent research conducted by Marketing Week only found just over 5% are set up this way. To help accelerate the path to customer centricity, organisations are opting to recruit chief customer officers – but this misses the point.

What organisations need to be addressing is the need for organisation-wide collaboration, breaking down siloes, driving cross-office working, and initiating internal workshops, presentations and initiatives that help to drive the awareness of the customer and the changing external market across the organisation.

This is not a task that can or should be siloed to a specific department; it needs buy-in and understanding right across the organisation. This type of initiative  requires change agents to build and drive momentum – crucially not being led by the C-Suite, but rather sponsored or supported by it.

So, what do I mean by “change agents”, and what role do they have to play in the organisation of the future?

What are change agents, and why are they crucial?

The change agent is a movement that is slowly gathering pace; a role that has surfaced through the flux of changing organisational culture, and seems to be the solution to bridging the gaps within changing organisational hierarchies.

Rather than talent acquisition or HR departments identifying this need, it is usually led by individuals that are operating within organisations and have the commercial and customer acumen of realising what work needs to be done, no matter where they are positioned (senior or junior).

The skills required to make someone a change agent are best summarised in the Digital Change Agent’s Manifesto, published by author and digital analyst Brian Solis. According to Solis, a change agent “can rise from anywhere in the organization….anyone who builds digital programs, infrastructure and capabilities as a part of their work or because they are passionate about digital can become a digital change agent.”

The manifesto also outlines four critical roles that change agents tend to assume some or all of within their organisations:

  • Data gatherer and storyteller
  • Influencer
  • Relationship builder
  • Champion

All of these are functions that, in Solis’ words, “actively foster agility, instill confidence, and promote communication and collaboration”.

In the book Building the Agile Business Through Digital Transformation, authors Neil Perkin and Peter Abraham similarly recognise the importance of change agents to scaling agility within organisations. The first stage of organisational agility, dubbed “Dispersed Mavericks”, is described as follows:

“Restless change agents in dispersed areas of the business recognise the need for different approaches and start to question the status quo and agitate for change. This may initiate pilot projects or minor revisions in local areas [where] efforts are not joined-up and substantive change is difficult in the face of lack of senior support, and wider organisational complacency.”

Examples of organisational change enacted through change agents

What kinds of initiatives can change agents help to enact? Here are some recent examples of organisational initiatives that are driving change and new ways of working.

Disney set out to “change thinking at the top [of the organisation]”, as their CMO Anna Hill explained to Marketing Week. The company has built an in-house initiative to upskill hundreds of its employees, taken from across marketing, sales, HR and finance to educate them in the digital space.

The National Health Service, too, launched a Digital Academy set up to develop a new generation of digital leaders who can drive information and technology transformation.

The need for the NHS Academy was first identified in 2016 in an independent report, which recognised that creating a fully digitised NHS was vital to the organisation’s future – but also that achieving this was not just about technology, but about people.

Embracing change agents

Similar to the marketing profession, which requires a deep understanding of the market an organisation operates within, and the needs and requirements of its external audience, a change agent needs the discipline to understand their internal audience – the decision makers, the internal business goals, worries and concerns of the C-Suite – and use these insights as a diagnosis to help plan.

It is the blending of skills in adopting a more generalist approach across many disciplines, as well as the ability to communicate and collaborate across a number of organisational departments, that allows change agents to tie together and provide leadership and lead by intuition.

A recent tweet by Matt Holt, Head of Experience Strategy summarised it this way:

Organisations large and small are beginning to identify the need to embrace and, more importantly, retain their change agents: people that are motivated by wanting to do the best and have a deep passion and purpose and can view the organisation both from the needs of the external audience (customers) and the vision and objectives of the business.

It falls to the C-Suite to support change agents in their role. Senior support buy-in can be perhaps the biggest hurdle to the success of change agents and the position they have in influencing organisational change – but is critical to helping drive the momentum they create.

Best Practice Report: Building a Digital Culture