A Culture War In the Making?

Hoping to fill a shortfall in talent, Britain’s military aims to scoop up some recently laid-off tech workers. But how well will these new hires take orders?

Layoffs in the private sector rarely have much to do with Britain’s military.. But facing a need for tech-savvy workers, the military has watched big tech/telecom companies shed more than 100,000 British workers with more than casual interest. In fact, it’s ready to take some action.

According to a report from the Ministry of Defence, there’s a shortfall in tech-savvy people working in the UK’s armed forces and the part of the civil service that deals with national security. While the layoffs create an opportunity, experts say some curious culture battles may follow. Private-sector tech wizards are used to a relaxed office world full of games and catered meals—not quite a defence department’s approach to business. “There is no way around the cultural differences,” says Phoebe Hitchcock, a Korn Ferry principal in the Technology practice. “There is no ping-pong or free lunch.”

To be sure, the military is set on reshaping its culture to reflect the current conditions on the battlefield. Indeed, training for possible deployment is a lot of what the British Army, Royal Air Force, and Royal Navy do in peacetime. But now wars are different, and that means altering how things get done in a sprawling organization of approximately 250,000 people, including civil servants and civilians, with a budget of approximately 50 billion pounds (USD $63 billion). 

“It’s one of the most complex organizations I have ever seen,” says AJ van den Berg, a Korn Ferry senior client partner. “It’s a very specific culture that requires tremendous amounts of adjustment.” Just the startling volume of military acronyms, he says, can take a while to digest.

Culture has long been defined as “how we do things around here.” And that will likely be a shock for people going from private-sector big tech or a snazzy startup into the public sector. In the first place, the scale is massive. “Whatever your level of responsibility, you will have a vast train set to play with,” says Ed Dinsmore, a defence-focused senior client partner. He also notes differences in pay scales. “Ironically, your pay will be much less than in the private sector, but the level of responsibility and impact will be far greater,” he says.

There are hurdles to cross when military veterans go to the private sector, or “civvy street,” as it’s known in the armed forces. Some aren’t good at networking or asking for help, says Simon Vaughan-Edwards, a senior client partner in the Defence Government and National Security, Executive Search practice. “‘Civvy street’ runs on networking,” he says. “It can take some people a while to find their footing.”

At the same time, veterans aren’t used to fixed shifts. “I find that for a lot of military people their psyche is to complete the task,” Vaughan-Edwards says. “They are not used to people who knock off at 5 PM.”


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