We have long sought for meaning in business. We have sought it for many years in many ways, from going within ourselves on solitary retreats to free and guided workshops with the entire staff, from top-down management fiat to bottom-up definition of the self-view of each person who works at APUS. All of these have brought a measure of understanding, but never anything even remotely resembling a purpose, a vision, a golden mean.
Our pioneer station at the Freiräume (Un)Conference was another attempt. We thought that maybe people unaffected by and mostly unaware of APUS might bring us to a new and interesting approach.
"We" would be APUS Software GmbH in Tobelbad in southern Austria. The company has existed for over 30 years. We passionately develop software for complex requirements in speech communication for air traffic control and public transport, and in workforce management with our own product.
The Freiräume (Un)Conference is Austria's largest event on new forms of organization and work. It was held for the third time in 2018 in Graz. 250 attendees participated in lively discussions on the lead topics of self-organization, wholeness and business meaning.
At the conference, companies and people are called pioneers who have experience with new forms of organization and work, and talk about their successes and problems.
We had hoped that our Pioneer Station would bring us more input on the question that is most pressing for us: What can the purpose, the meaning, of an IT company be? Why do we do what we do? What is the central nucleus around which everything should revolve?
The outcome was sobering. Not because the right people weren't at the conference, or the right questions weren't asked, quite the contrary - but the result of all the input and participation was ultimately more questions that we had going in.
And now, after we've thought about it for a while, after putting off the follow-up on our pioneer station for a few weeks because basically we didn't know what we were supposed to follow up on, in a quiet moment of closer reflection we realized that this was actually a wonderful thing.
For us and for the question in general, it means that what seems so trivial is in actuality a highly complex issue that is anything but simple to answer.
For some time we have been pursuing the question of a vision, a guiding principle. And for as long as we have been asking this question, we have been failing in our attempt to define this nucleus of our company activities.
Let's take a step back: Why are we asking this question in the first place? For a company that has been successfully making software for over 30 years, that has seen all the changes since the floppy disc and first cell phones of the 80s, isn't it enough to just be profitable and build shareholder value? Why the question about meaning?
It probably has to do with the times we're living in. Everything is in flux, boundaries are crumbling. What was concentrated in industry clusers 20 years ago is fragmenting due to digitalization. And as always in unstable times, people are looking for something to hold on to, a framework for their lives. This can be the purpose, the reason we get up and go to work in the morning. Just generating prosperity and climbing the corporate ladder isn't enough anymore. We grew up in prosperity and are accustomed to not having to worry about survival. Generations Y and Z no longer care about their position in hierarchies, quite unlike their baby boomer parents.
So for companies in general, and software companies in particular, it is no longer possible to attract and keep employees with just money or titles. They expect the freedom to stay or go – the talent crunch in IT gives them that freedom – and they also want a real reason, a purpose, for working at a company. They want to feel that they are part of something great, something unique, something that cannot readily be replicated by any other company.
So for some years we have looked for meaning; indeed, a search for meaning has become widespread, something that business philosopher Dominik Veken calls "meaning addiction." This addiction has not brought us meaning, but it has driven us to develop our character and find our uniqueness. And so in the course of this search we have found something else, something of much more value - ourselves.Why do our staff work at APUS Software? Because we are who we are, a group of people who are free to go at any time, yet who stay. Because we're a company with our own culture, because we have character and rough edges and aren't perfect. Because we let ourselves make mistakes and be human.