How to build a tech culture in a non-tech industry
Renowned for being agile and innovative, a ‘tech culture’ appeals far beyond traditional technology businesses. But what does the culture actually involve, and can you transfer its learnings to a non-tech industry?
Defining tech culture
First promoted by Silicon Valley heavyweights, the idea of a ‘tech culture’ was designed to solve a problem every industry faces - how to recruit and retain the best staff.
At the height of the tech boom, companies such as Google and Apple were competing for a small number of highly skilled talent. To secure their top targets, technology giants took a leaf out of the bestseller ‘Drive’ by Daniel H. Pink. The book outlines the need for humans to “direct our own lives, to learn and create new things, and to do better by ourselves and our world” as the real secret to job satisfaction and high performance.
Tech company manifestos seized the opportunity to highlight their vision and mission: Google sought “to organise the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful”. Amazon wanted to be the “earth’s most customer-centric company…,” while Apple - as early as the 1980s - existed “To make a contribution to the world by making tools for the mind that advance humankind.”
A clearly articulated, forward-thinking vision, expressed in the context of a wider worldview beyond the individual or even the company, created an aura of ‘greater good’ around the work technology companies did.
Evolving a workplace culture
Having the ‘right’ culture is a fundamental driving force behind a successful team or company. A tech culture is sought after by non-tech companies, but bringing any changes to workplace cultures can be tricky to manage. For any workplace culture to resonate and be effective, it needs to be clearly articulated and lived by all stakeholders - a commitment from the top down was arguably the real reason Apple blossomed under Steve Jobs, and Tesla sped ahead under (pre-Twitter) Elon Musk.
Ultimately, all departments - from tech to customer service and everything in between - need to be aligned so there is one harmonious company culture. Using elements of tech culture (such as its progressive nature, drive to succeed, and rewarding staff) should be considered more favourably than overrunning a corporate culture completely.
Building a manifesto for happy staff
Happy employees bring greater benefits than just low staff turnover. If people feel part of a wider cause and are recognised for their work, they are likely to be more productive and more motivated. There’s no doubt financial packages play a part (the median senior engineer salary in the UK increased 7% from 2021 to May 2023, with an even high increase of 18% for non-London roles) in recruiting and retaining talent, but having a cultural manifesto can help a company motivate their teams, and assist as a hiring guide to attract the right type of recruit.
There are three key values of a tech culture that non-technology companies can build into their manifesto:
1. Purpose: crafting an identity by understanding the purpose of work and its value, both to the wider world and the individual employee. It’s important for teams to understand their customer (whether internal stakeholders or external customers) and to want to solve problems. By considering the team’s well-being, a company will better enable success.
2. Autonomy: encourage staff to be decision-makers, aligning them around a problem and empowering them at all levels to be autonomous. Move away from a top-down decision matrix, allowing teams to decide what technology and other tools they use (guided by criteria as necessary), and focus on problem-solving and data decision-making. Employees with autonomy will feel empowered, supported and enabled.
3. Mastery: have strong competency frameworks which encourage individuals and teams to get better at their craft. Measure continuous improvement with clear metrics, encouraging knowledge sharing instead of knowledge silos. Providing opportunities for staff to progress in their careers is also important (whether through promotion or sideways moves into new departments and challenges), rather than relying solely on outside recruits. Creating a polyglot workplace - diverse and inclusive in all senses of the word - helps staff develop.
Technology companies are often viewed as revolutionary due to outputs like fast speed to market and a focus on continual improvement. But a tech culture includes much more than that.
Successful leaders often hold modern views on leadership - not micromanaging but relinquishing control and installing trust. Teams are organised around business boundaries and operate in a cross-functional way, removing dependencies on any one individual. And all retain the ideal of contributing to a community and wider purpose.
For a tech culture to successfully permeate a non-tech industry, the willingness to let go of the details and unite under a shared purpose is key. Ultimately, technology and non-tech teams have more in common than some people would like to admit, and both can learn from each other to drive business success.