Managing, Leading & Personal Effectiveness

Purple People: the business - technology hybrid?

We look at the importance of hybrid business-tech professionals - 'purple people' - as technological advancement and business success converge.


In 2018, Forbes produced an article titled, ‘Every business is a Technology Business – Some just don’t know it’. As technological advancement and business success converge to the point of becoming inseparable, are we witnessing the birth of the ‘hybrid business-tech professional’?

Not yet. With business-tech misalignment costing enterprises an average of $1.7 million per year in lost revenue and 654 days in lost time, it’s surprising that this ‘evolutionary pressure’ hasn’t created the business-technology hybrid that could overcome these challenges.

An old problem that is deeply-rooted

It’s easy to assume this is a new problem, but the seeds were sown a long time ago. As far back as 2006, this problem was already so acute that a book was released titled, ‘The Geek Gap, Why Business and Technology Professionals Don't Understand Each Other, and Why They Need Each Other to Survive’.

You might wonder why this matters, but it speaks to the fact that this division is not new: it is ingrained in the minds of so many professionals across business and tech, which is what makes it so difficult to change. This problem is especially dangerous, sometimes fatal, for large enterprises, given that larger organisations are slower to act and adapt to change.

A blog by Anthony Chaine (CEO of Elite Leadership Consulting) sums up the enterprise challenge like this: ‘Companies that relied in the past on size and longevity are no longer shielded from newer start-ups that are scalable, fast-moving, and use smart, modern systems that allow them to gain a competitive edge’.

The future is purple

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. Derived by Wayne Eckerson (2010), he recognised that between these two tribes can lie little trust and respect, stating: ‘In most organizations, these two groups are at loggerheads. Neither side trusts or respects the other. This is largely because neither understands the pressures, deadlines, and challenges that the other faces.’

In business, purple people blend business acumen (blue) and driving for business value with technical (red) skills and prowess. It should be noted that purple people are not consummate experts in all things business and all things tech, but know enough about each to bridge the divide and understand both perspectives.

Can people learn to be Purple People?

How do we cultivate purple people? Despite the evolutionary pressure of converging tech-business interests, purple people are proving to be very elusive! A very large part of this problem comes down to siloes.

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, data and cyber.

Distilling what we’ve seen from the clients we’ve helped in addressing this issue, I’d make 3 core suggestions when training your people:

  • Break down the walls, brick by brick: 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.
  • Learn to speak one another’s lingo: Ensure every red person practices 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?
  • Keep on learning: 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 displays 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.

Want to learn more? Visit our Leadership & Management page to see how we can help you.

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