Why Tech Should Share As Well As Build
Many of the principles and rituals we take for granted in the tech industry could benefit charities, especially in these times. If only we started talking to them.
Let’s face it; Tech’s got a bad rep. Or at least a more tainted reputation thanks to how a certain group of large, powerful tech companies has been behaving in recent years.
Unsurprisingly, Tech and purpose have become a hot topic; “tech for good” searches are on the up. The world wants to see more tech companies creating more products and services that advance social change — and rightly so.
But the solution doesn’t have to lie solely in what we build. There’s another (in some ways more straightforward) contribution that we’ve been overlooking. And it’s taken a global pandemic and a long call with my father, Nik Demetriades, for me to figure it out.
Let me explain.
Not everyone can adapt to change like Tech
Nik is the CEO of 4Sight Vision Support (4SVS), a charity established in 1921 to support blind and partially-sighted people in the South East of England. I am the Product Marketing Lead at M — Volvo Car Mobility; an innovation venture started in 2017 to change how people access cars through technology. Two very different sectors, with completely different ways of working and almost no interaction between them.
Like most organisations, 4SVS has made significant changes and sacrifices in response to COVID-19, with most employees working from home for several months. When the British government briefly eased restrictions in July/Aug, the burning question was: should they go back to the office?
On our call, Nik shared his mixed feelings about the situation. On the one hand, he was concerned about his staff’s safety; on the other, he was keen to get them all back together in a physical space to rekindle the team dynamics he believes have suffered due to working from home over several months. A clear dilemma. Or was it?
Those methods might be second nature to you, but they are foreign to most of us in small charities.
Because then, Nik said, “Ultimately, I don’t see an alternative to returning to the office. Our people need to regain their sense of team, and I need to run some important strategic workshops. None of that will work if we continue to work remotely.”
I was instantly confused. A slew of ‘but what abouts’ quickly followed: “But what about remote team check-ins, weekly online appreciations, online collaboration tools….There are so many ways to create and build effective teams remotely,” I argued.
After a long pause, Nik replied, “That’s your working world, Lauren. Those methods, that corporate culture might be second nature to you, but they are foreign to most of us in small charities. And we certainly don’t have the funds to start training the team in any of it now.”
Now it was my turn to be quiet.
Tech’s echo chamber
By “my world,” Nik meant tech/startup land or whatever we prefer to call it these days. In March, my company switched to remote working overnight, and it was a relatively smooth transition. We already had all the software and most of the team-oriented rituals in place (standups, kanban, lean coffees, etc.); now, they just took place over video call instead of around a table. Sure, we had to learn more about remote facilitation and team building, but there were so many articles and blogs on these topics. I’d seen countless over the past few months.
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Why, then, haven’t any of these resources reached Nik?
First: he’s not the target audience; the algorithms have decided it’s not for him. Second: Tech typically talks to Tech. Just look at Medium’s most popular publications: #2 “The Startup” with over 642k followers and #5 “Startup Grind” with over 413k. Unsurprisingly, Nik hadn’t heard of either.
The tech industry has always prided itself on working differently. By positioning ourselves against the old/traditional ways of doing things, have we created a false dichotomy that excludes the organisations living somewhere in between — like charities?
In under-funded sectors, knowledge goes a long way
Many of the principles and rituals we take for granted in Tech could be hugely beneficial to those working in the non-profit sector, especially in these uncertain times.
Take retrospectives. For those who don’t know, these are weekly/bi-weekly sessions in which a team reflects on how they are working together — what they’re doing well and what they could do differently. Creating an environment in which team members feel comfortable sharing feedback increases psychological safety, which studies have shown is the number 1 contributor to high performing teams.
Over 80% of UK charities have an annual turnover of less than £100,000. The money simply isn’t there to invest in upskilling staff and optimising internal processes.
However, investing in processes and training that helps build a high performing team culture is a luxury that very few non-profit organisations can afford.
Over 80% of UK charities have an annual turnover of less than £100,000. The money simply isn’t there to invest in upskilling staff and optimising internal processes. When the coronavirus hit, switching to Zoom and Teams was challenging enough for Nik and 4SVS, without having to figure out how to maintain team trust and cohesiveness. In some cases, they are aware that things need to change internally but don’t have the resources or the knowledge and tools to act. In other cases, they just don’t know what they don’t know.
Nearly 170,000 charities share approximately £51bn in annual income in the UK, with an estimated £10bn shortfall due to COVID-19. By contrast, 11,864 registered software development businesses contributed £149bn to the UK economy in 2018. And Big Tech has continued to grow during the pandemic.
We can afford to share our knowledge much more widely. And we should start now, as second lockdowns are looming large.
Time to start sharing
Building great products that make the world a better place is an awesome mission to have, but it’s not the only way Tech can make a purposeful contribution.
The conversation with Nik has inspired me to start writing for a new audience. In the hope of reaching his network, I tagged Nik in a version of this article on LinkedIn and posted an ad in the newsletter for a leading UK sight loss membership organisation. I’m now preparing to publish my own newsletter that will introduce fundamental Agile/Lean principles in an accessible way and explain how non-profit leaders can apply them to their organisations.
Our industry has spent a lot of time thinking about responding effectively to change and building high-performing teams. It’s time we started passing it on.
So, what will you start teaching?
Special thanks to:
Nik Demetriades, my Dad, for letting me share this story and pointing me towards relevant articles on the charity sector.
Lauren Currie OBE, for encouraging me to see writing as an invaluable experiment.