Tech Isn’t An Industry. It’s a Mindset

As the rest of the world faces recession and mass job loss, the tech industry is going from strength to strength.

Silicon Valley has become as much a part of the American Dream as Hollywood and now we’ve even got our own imitation movement here in East London. Old Street’s ‘Silicon Roundabout’ is something I’ve been engaging with a little bit (in particular, the events at Google Campus are consistently brilliant), but I feel like it’s a bit unfair to call it an industry. Utilising technology to achieve your aims is, and should be, a mindset, not a sectioned off part of the business world.

I build websites for small businesses and it worries me how much many of them think of tech as something completely alien. I actually think it’s a mindset that all of us are naturally adopting at some level; Whether it’s instinctively Googling your kid’s symptoms when she feels ill, or using Twitter to engage with customers – The rate and expanse that technology is evolving at the moment means we are all benefiting from, and investigating, novel ways of doing everyday things.

I’d even go so far as to say embracing technology wholeheartedly has the potential to change every aspect of life & business. Ashley Baxter spoke recently about how she runs her business with a ‘hate something, change something’ attitude, while organisations that promote “hacker culture” like the Hackspace Foundation are enabling people to take charge of their things and take more of a DIY approach to improving the things they rely on. It’s this kind of thinking that I see as the heart of tech as a mindset. We aren’t just consumers of these magical, mystic devices. We can be creators too.

Steve Jobs summed up the notion brilliantly “Life is much broader once you discover one simple fact: Everything around you that you call life was made up by people that were no smarter than you and you can change it, you can influence it, you can build your own things that other people can use.” It’s a philosophy that us geeks seem ready to take on, but out there, there are many businesses who still aren’t getting it.

I don’t blame them, either. A time when more and more small businesses are closing down is not a time to start taking risks, and make no mistake, innovation always comes with risks. It can be a calculated one though. The first thing to note is that most of the things you try will fail. Geoff Petty’s ICEDIP theory of creativity holds ‘Inspiration’ as one of it’s pillars. Defined as a phase in which ‘you research and generate many ideas’, it’s something that comes easily to those who are traditionally thought of as “creative” but maybe doesn’t come as easy to your local shopkeeper. If you’re comfortable and at ease with your income streams, then it doesn’t actually make any sense for you to want to generate lots of new ideas. In fact, there are many situations where it doesn’t make sense to spend lots of time generating new ideas for your business at all, but I still think that keeping a keen eye on emerging technologies can be good for any business.

Social media is popular even with small businesses because it clearly and easily helps businesses connect with their customers. That’s not why it’s been so readily embraced though. It’s been embraced because the business owners already use Facebook themselves, so they can see the value immediately. I build websites for small businesses and some of my clients don’t completely see the value of having a website, beyond “it’s just something you’re supposed to have, innit?” I see it as a vital part of my job, being able to identify exactly when and why a customer might use the product I’m building. On one level, I’m trying to design “intuitive interfaces” and implementing “responsive design”, but on another level, I’m integrating a new technology into the lives of people who’ve just got lost on the way to their favourite Italian restaurant and how well the address on the website displays on their iPhone could sway the decision of whether or not to find a new place to eat. Once I’ve convinced my client that this is a real use case for their website, I’ve integrated them into the tech mindset – but certainly not the tech industry.

The key here is abstracting the business aims. Working out the best way to use technology is something you do when you set up a business, when you’re working out the rest of the bare basics of operating. But really, the tech mindset is all about reevaluating those bare basics on a regular basis. It’s a difficult, unintuitive thing to do. Once you’re in the flow of going through the motions everyday, it’s hard to get enough distance to get philosophical. You might even think there’s not enough time in the day for such silliness. But of course, there’s a balance to be achieved here; You can’t spend too much time postulating but you can’t just hammer away blindly either. The key to riding the next wave of success could be anything from installing new touchscreen checkout systems to thinking of your “product” as “digital content” and bringing in a new revenue stream.

Big companies have resources like Research & Development departments for this job. Although it might not be possible to have dedicated team members reassessing how to do things, I think every business should have one eye on innovation. At a time when some of the fastest growing companies in the world are less than a decade old, it really is time to question old mindsets.

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