As the tech revolution matures, it’s moving focus from innovation to monetization. As it does, tech’s work culture is being transformed. Employees, consultants, and marketers must adapt to survive.
Culture defines a company. Yet…
It’s been said, “culture eats strategy for breakfast.” Any consultant that has proposed ideas that run against the grain of how a company sees itself and the resulting resistance to those ideas can attest to that.
What we forget is the next bigger predator: the profit motive.
Think of a bigger fish (profit motive) eating a smaller fish (culture) that is eating an even smaller fish (strategy). This dynamic is the circle of life that transforms most organizations over time.
Under this cycle, things like the celebration of innovation, seeing tech founders plastered on magazine covers for their brilliance and tech companies’ focus on employee experiences are fading.
The attention is shifting as tech companies need to make their current innovations deliver amazing profits ASAP or show shareholders how they are establishing competition-resistant moats (E.g.: Facebook’s top app competitors are most often its own: Instagram, Messenger, and WhatsApp) that will ensure high margins and profits.
The tech industry is changing.
In the dot.com boom of the 2000s, investors tolerated companies with business models that weren’t profitable. That is, until the stock market woke up and finally broke free of the mass hypnosis that the tech industry could defy economic gravity.
It’s that experience, now in the rear-view mirror of shareholders and an aging stock market that has forced investors to keep tech a little more honest this time around. Shareholders and industry analysts are now exerting profit pressure.
We saw the failed 2019 IPOs for tech companies like WeWork and Uber. Companies that asked investors to focus on their big idea more than their balance sheet. As investors said, “uh, no thanks,” companies are now pivoting from selling a seductive vision to a more Spartan-like focus of executing programs that deliver revenue for shareholders. That image pivot is reverberating across their corporate cultures. And it’s driving pressure for internal change.
It’s why we’re seeing companies like Facebook and Google that previously lauded an employee-first, hippy-woke libertarian vibe falling downward from the list of best companies to work for. It’s also seen in companies’ top management enacting policies that are increasingly at odds with their own employees’ beliefs or vision of the company. For example Amazon selling facial recognition technology to law enforcement.An action that met with employee protests.
Like tectonic plates, these cultural shifts are reverberating and creating tensions within companies that employees, consultants, and vendors will have to navigate.
Even Google, whose founders coined the corporate phrase “Don’t be evil” has, under new leadership, like CEO Sundar Pichai, seem to be changing to “Don’t be uppity” as the company has eliminated most of its weekly no-holds-barred all-hands meetings that allowed employees to speak their mind. The company is also making news for “coincidentally” firing employees that “just happened” to try to unionize employees or inform them of their rights as workers.
Why the cultural change in tech?
With some tech firms moving into late teens and early 20s, companies like Facebook and Google are no longer the young innovative newborns. Sharing your vacation with grandma on Facebook isn’t a brave new world, it’s the ho-hum present. And with many of those companies, the new frontier for growth is around data and advertising services. In the face of normalization of once-revolutionary technology, companies are transitioning from being founder and idea driven, to profit-minded growth and pleasing shareholders.
For example, while most think of Roku as a streaming service, its pitch to investors is as an advertising service as it collects data (some would say too much data) on its users to support marketers. For an employee of a company, that workplace shift is like working at a clock company that suddenly changed to making bomb timers. Same technology, but now an application that might challenge how you view your job.
I’m not criticizing what is happening as much as I’m recognizing the growing pains of most companies. Everything changes, including tech companies.
The pressure of the real world and focus on shareholders eventually erodes, or at least, challenges the idealism, egalitarianism and professed values many companies strive for as they get bigger.
Maintaining profit in tech thrives on optimizing production.
Optimizing is just another word for removing the excess around what is deemed most important. Important has changed.
When company goals were more focused around recruiting valued talent for competitive advantage, businesses made efforts to outfit and present their company as sexy for the press and goose market valuations. It seemed like every tech or tech marketing company was rushing to LinkedIn or Instagram to post their “wild and crazy” or woke sides.
As part of a content marketing strategy, it’s a way to look and get exposure as the hip, attractive firm. But today in quarterly profits world, your posted company outing, ping-pong tables, and high-end cafeterias don’t impress investors. Growth does.
Capitalism’s quest for growth demands a marketplace that is relentless in seeking efficiency. Better efficiency yields better profit margins. Efficiency is about prioritizing what’s important to the goal.
For today’s tech firms, that will be more of a focus on creating business motes, better ways of monetizing data and working with companies, governments or markets that might give some moral pause. Why? Like the punch line about why you rob a bank, “because that’s where the money is.”
Growth is change. As change happens in the company, the culture will adapt to the company’s priorities.
What tech’s change will mean in 2020 and beyond.
I have five predictions:
Prediction 1: Buzzwords will go away.
The following statement (and possibly mea culpa) is my opinion by also my experience as a copywriter. “Buzzwords are mostly used to hide lack of knowledge on a topic or put a hazy filter on bullshit.” They are often designed to keep ideas pie in the sky and to waive off any accountability or clear action. It’s why you see lots of companies and executives using them like applying makeup to make themselves or an idea look “prettier” than they actually are.
When people or clients really do want hard answers and facts, buzzwords seem inadequate and collapse quickly. I predict, with the exception of annual reports, buzzwords will tone down for a while as people will be expected to talk less and just get things done.
Prediction 2: Less company lifestyle postings of social media. More ideas.
As I mentioned earlier, people want to see YOU have big ideas that make money. Not that you “like” other people’s ideas and brave stances in social media.
It is really great that your team does work for the homeless (really it is, no sarcasm). But in an increasingly no-BS minded business world, that’s like telling me how much you take care of your dog in an interview. It’s nice. Now I know you’re not an a-hole. But now, tell me how you are going to solve my problem.
To that, there will be greater pressure to really provide value to others in social media, by giving them tools or insights that help them solve problems. Which means to get that client phone call, you need to share more ideas than “likes.” This means you’ll need to do your homework and research as you provide exceptional content. And exceptional content is that which adds value and makes a client feel they are one step closer to their goal.
Or, you can do that status quo…
“Oh, really? Branding is a good idea? What? Customers want personalized experiences?”
Why not throw in that “gravity is good for keeping you on the ground?” while you’re at it. Create and seek out social media content that takes users beyond trite solutions to “change the game” ideas. That likely means that your social media team has to know your business or really work with SMEs (subject matter experts) just as much as they understand social media channels. This empowers them to convey your organization’s intelligence in your content marketing, not just moving around warmed-over news and your company’s “cool” personality.
Remember, people seek out the consultants and professionals who can tell them something and do something they DON’T know. So find it.
Prediction 3: The new Human Resources: “That’s nice. Now do your job.”
HR departments, often seen in the last ten years as part of an employee recruitment strategy and company cheerleader, will quietly pivot from “empowering” employees to just listening to them. Listening will be more about allowing an employee to vent and cover the firm’s rear end for “listening” to concerns. HR will move away from employee experience, via actions, to tacitly enforcing compliance with the new change in culture and its main goal of protecting the company.
Employees will also likely find many of the “employee experience” trappings will be quietly pulled back. An example from a company I’m familiar with where “unlimited time off” is really only unlimited in that you would be unemployed if you used it (so guess, technically it’s unlimited). Or ping-pong tables in the office that are a great way to unwind, after work hours, when your manager sees your work is done (otherwise, you should be working).
Prediction 4: Employees will need to make personal ethical decisions around employment.
Tech companies are wading into more and more ethical murky areas that face regulatory, legal or moral scrutiny. For instance, how much of a role should your company have in stopping misleading or hateful content on your service or are you just a neutral platform that shouldn’t get involved? As more companies are found approving questionable ads to the collection and use of personal data, more employees will have to ask themselves, “Is this what I signed up for?” You may find that your line and the organization’s line for questionable conduct may be in two different places.
I think back to a discussion in the movie Clerks, that talked about all the contractors in the Galactic Empire who must have worked on building the Death Star in the Star Wars universe. In that world, you may be a person who is simply installing the plumbing in the moon-sized space station. Yet in the bigger picture, your work helped to build something that killed billions. So are you simply a contract plumber doing a narrow job or part of something more significant?
Ask yourself. Just how are you changing the world?
It’s hard to know how you are changing the world. Especially in technology. Great ideas are often agnostic with good and bad determined by their applications. The same idea that enables nuclear energy can also be applied to create the atomic bomb.
Not saying your employers are dictators or evil. But dictators also want to change the world so there are a lot of ways “world changers” can go. And people may follow simply because the money’s good or they don’t see the bigger implications of the change.
The question you may have to ask yourself is that, even though we make compromises all the time, is the compromise you’re making for the greater good? Development and adoption of facial recognition software could improve airport security and save lives. It also may be able to track your movements in public as it can create billions of eyes to watch you. As I mentioned in my first blog post, the Nobel Prize was created by regrets of the inventor of dynamite.
Prediction 5: Individuals will have to constantly ask themselves this question.
If you are in marketing or a consultant this question is more important than ever…
“How do you provide value?”
In a world of global competition and constant change, companies have less and less room for BS. In this world, you can’t be a “nice to have.” You must be a “have to have.” Companies are currently optimizing staff and operations outside of the pressure of a recession. I can only imagine that effort would increase exponentially in an economic downturn.
As the companies mature or run into recessionary pressure, they’ll be looking to optimize. You can’t be the excess.
2020 is here. We are moving from founders to the foundations of business growth. There are a lot of changes and challenges ahead in the next decade. Be ready. Be excited. Be agile. Be mindful. Then, go be great.