Tackling “the messy stuff”: Lucy Kueng on what it takes to successfully go digital

In a conversation with FIPP CEO James Hewes, Professor Lucy Küng, Senior Research Associate at Oxford University and an expert on digital transformations in the media industry, talked through the major findings from her new report Hearts and Minds: Harnessing Leadership, Culture, and Talent to Really Go Digital.

See the webinar video here.

In this latest project, Kueng investigates the “gap between plan and reality” in most media companies’ attempts to implement their digital strategies—a slowness caused by “the messy internal stuff” that, she says, the media industry is not particularly interested in. But they should be. “If we’re going to stop moving really slowly through this digital transformation journey,” Kueng urged, “we need to really start focusing on that messy stuff in the middle.”

Digital Innovators’ Summit 2021

Meredith Corp’s Liz Vaccariello, Editor-in-Chief, Real Simple, and Dan Wakeford, Editor-in-Chief, People, will be in the first of the DIS 2021 online webinars (Tuesday 9 March) to discuss new demands on people, culture, and work. FIPP and VDZ members get free access. Learn more here.

This spans from leadership to diversity and inclusion to even the dreaded HR (we hear Kueng is still looking for better names for that department)—in other words, successfully going digital demands a cultural shift. Making real, lasting change in culture can seem daunting or even unimportant, at least compared to improving content. But, Kueng says “getting culture right is really not rocket science.”

She outlines the major culture change levers and addresses questions about potentially tricky areas. Is the “profound difference in mindset” between generations Y and Z a point of tension or a point of leverage? How do companies know what they don’t know when it comes to diversity and microaggressions and accessibility, especially following the murder of George Floyd? How can media companies stay competitive when recruiting against big tech? And what is a platypus?

For companies to successfully transition to digital, they need to understand the minds and values of their employees and they need to keep with the endeavour for the long haul. “Real change needs a really concerted program of effort throughout the whole organisation,” she notes, a meaningful, long-term investment in changing for the better from the top all the way down.

While Küng began her research prior to the pandemic, her findings are perhaps more important than ever in the age of Covid-19. Of the 100 interviews conducted over the course of her research, thirty were conducted after Covid-19 changed the way businesses run—and the way people consume media. This shift could spell failure or success, depending on how leaders respond, setting them back in their progress or propelling them into the digital future. “Culture is like a piece of elastic: the minute you stop pulling on it, it snaps back, and…there has been a lot of snapping back during Covid,” Küng warns.

But the picture isn’t all quite so bleak: “the positive thing in Covid,” Kueng says, “is that people are unfrozen—people are expecting things to be different, and…the toughest thing about culture change is actually that first stage where you have to unfreeze the organisation and make people open to doing things differently.” And if there’s one thing the past year has taught everyone, it’s how to be open to doing things differently. According to Kueng’s findings, doing things differently is just what the industry needs—hello, silver lining!

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