From Alan Turing’s code breaking machines of the 2nd World War, to the guidance computer for the Apollo moon landings, to Tim Berners-Lee and the World Wide Web, the heights of the digital revolution of the last 80 years have been summits of noble purpose. But like the depiction in the iconic Apple advert from 1984, the reality is that much of the world of our work and our digital technology still looks like a grey desert of the mundane. For without positive purpose, our technology is at best a sophisticated, fascinating curiosity. At worst, it can be far more malign. Witness the role of the “addiction tech” of gambling or social media (just one more swipe, one more hit of dopamine, ok just one more…).
That is why I was heartened to see the results of research we carried out ahead of Leeds Digital Festival exploring the importance of purpose among digital and tech professionals in the UK and the real benefits it can bring.
It showed more than half of employees across the sector feel an organisation’s social purpose has an impactful influence on their sense of commitment to their employer.
That has become more acute in recent years because, as with many other issues, the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic has proved a pivot point for many. A total of 35% of respondents from the sector said social purpose had become more important to them since the start of the pandemic, compared to 29% of non-digital or tech professionals. The research also showed 47% of digital/tech workers believe social purpose enables organisations to make good, customer-focused decisions while only 8% believe it has no impact.
So where does purpose come from? Surely not all organisations and companies can aspire to a noble purpose, they’re not all inventing a covid vaccine or fighting climate change. Well, while there might be a few “morally bankrupt” exceptions, most organisations can: they serve customers, they employ people and their dividends fund our pensions. There is nobility and purpose in the humble service of others.
Over the past couple of years at Leeds Building Society we have put a lot of effort into defining our purpose – to put homeownership within reach of more people, generation after generation – and helping colleagues embrace it and be inspired by it. It links back to the reasons we were founded nearly 150 years ago, it connects us with our mutual members (our customers) today who own us and it pushes us forward to create a better society.
That is vital because purpose applies up and down all levels and across all facets of our business – everyone knows that their role is working to that aim, including the digital and tech colleagues that I lead and work alongside.
Building purpose into long-term planning as well as day-to-day delivery empowers people to make the right calls, ensures consistency across teams and helps to push change forward with confidence and speed. And it ensures that the great technology we create is there to help that first-buyer take their first nervous step on to the housing ladder and not for some obscure meaning hidden behind a string of incomprehensible acronyms.
Businesses and organisations who haven’t already harnessed the power of purpose can start the process in a variety of ways: start a conversation with your employees or stakeholders to get their views; think about existing strands of activity and whether these can be combined to create a more meaningful whole; and explore your digital journeys and ask yourself what impacts they are having beyond the primary outcome you’re seeking to achieve.
These are all simple steps which our community must play an integral part, if not lead on. They can help us to elevate the day-to-day value we deliver and make digital a fundamental part of what businesses contribute.
There are thousands of tech and digital professionals across Leeds. We each spend 40 hours a week, 2,000 hours a year at work. We can spend that time watching the clock while we earn the money to put food on the table or we can spend it in pursuit of a noble purpose. And organisations can help by spending just a little time to connect their staff to their own purpose. They’ll be happier, the technology will be better, and you may even make the world a better place along the way.