Purple People - Learning and Development for Business oriented Technology


Here at QA, we are lucky, as our heritage and breadth allow us to work with technology in ways that form bridges with the business. No single practice area within QA (we have our silos too) delivers performance by itself. Organisations work across our areas of specialism from DevOps to agile to managing and leading, to office applications, to project management to software engineering to infrastructure and how could I forget data and cyber.  To quote from a 2023 perspective on Digital Transformation – Organisations ‘need to navigate the hype, lower the risks, and increase return on investment’ (Bottke). To do that within our Customer Innovation Hub those silos come together.

QA also has TAP, a service to employees wishing to take a professional interest and develop capability in Learning and Development whether that be L&D staff, or capability mangers, or IT managers, or learners keen to make learning critical to their career management. We have all that it takes to have a very considered and thoughtful view on how learning can support modernising a business – not just today and tomorrow but long term. Digital Transformation is a misnomer – it is always a journey.

So where do Purple People come into the equation, I hear you ask. Stick with me here. If you are a parent, or have spent way too much time watching a screen, you might have come across The Smeds (red) and The Smoos (blue) or even read the children’s book by Julia Donaldson. Two alien families (and business to tech people can feel alien just as technology can feel alien to business people) one blue family, and one purple family, come together (aka collaborate) to find some lost family on both sides. Then along comes a SmoosSmed – a purple baby who they play with from morning to night, and sing by the light of the silvery sqoon, and encourage to play with both the Smeds and the Smoos. You get the vibe.  

The heritage of purple people in business is long standing. It’s standing as a colour transcends cultures and history and is made from mixing the two primary colours. In business purple people blend business acumen (blue) and driving for business value with technical (red) skills and prowess. Derived by Wayne Eckerson (2010), he recognised that between these two tribes can lie little trust and respect. We know what perspective making and sharing is so important in gaining value from technology and is not simple as the relationship between investing in technology and payback is elusive (see Kohli and Grover 2018 cited in Bottke). Rumour has it that Jim Wilson, based in an insurance company came up with a similar idea when working with actuaries and data architects. Purple people can be traced back to any technology rich time in history such as the industrial revolution.

To make the relationship between technology and payback less elusive – shall we say manageable – requires purple people to be cultivated, for them to succeed, and their success to be celebrated to make it, well - less elusive. On the basis we do not have enough digital skills, it is easy to appreciate that we do not have enough purple people. I am also far from sure they can be found easily even if we are not good at looking for them to ask the questions posed by Simon Radcliffe of Ensono. They are as rare as a baby SmoosSmed who can innovate and improvise as well as the jazz players in Simon’s blog post.

Which leads us to:

  • Can people learn to be purple people?
  • What does learning to be a purple person look like?
  • Can we attract and retain more purple people to support people learning to be purple people back in the workplace through social and informal learning?

Back at QA, we are delving deep into these questions and how the answers are unique to your context, both learner and organisation. The solutions are not easy – this is no simple formal learning event with a touch of structured social and informal learning that makes purple people. We value the need to take emotions and vulnerability into account when working to create purple people.

Because of QA’s different practice areas worth together through the Practice Directors we can:

  • Ensure every Smoos blue business person and Smed red technical person, at least touches on the complexity of the relationship between technology and value – to bring a tinge of purple to their training.

  • Ensure every red person practises how to translate their technical language to business staff who might feel vulnerable about asking for a term to be explained in plain language. If you look back, we can all relate to how mouse, spam, byte, 4o4 now have a meaning in our lives they did not before. Then there are the many programming languages named after animals, family members, famous people, islands or is Java a coffee bean?

  • Ensure every blue business person remembers that just because we now have big data and data literacy, managers did make decisions using data before big data arrived. They should still learn how best to use new technology that manipulates and display much more data in very useful versions and not forget that data is still linked to power.  

To conclude purple people are rare enough to form a source of sustainable competitive advantage in an era of relentless emerging technology, the use of which creates differential business value. Purple people are likely to be good purple team leaders, to be good role models and partners to blue and red tinged-with-purple people.  Their rarity means L&D has a role to play in making more SmoosSmeds.

Related Articles