Towards the end of last year, we were commissioned to write a white paper on workplace diversity for a client. We were excited. We are strong advocates of diversity and inclusion in the workplace and our feeling was that there would be lots to say about how workplace diversity positively impacts on the commercial bottom line.
While there is indeed a lot of data that points towards the positive impact that workplace diversity can have on the bottom line, it was, we felt, disappointing to find that far too few organisations are going beyond token-gesture lip-service to test, measure and publicly report on the impact of diversity programmes.
Furthermore, while we had geared our research towards a more comprehensive and rounded coverage, our client asked us to focus specifically on gender and cultural diversity data points as the anticipated audience of the white paper was still quite ’traditionalist’ in its outlook.
It got us thinking. For us, diversity transcends its various delineations. We are constantly being told that the future of work is complex and ambiguous and that critical thinking and creativity will play pivotal roles in future commercial success. We are also strong advocates of the belief that the traditional relationship between buyer and seller is on the cusp of irrevocable transformation (take a look at Dan Pink’s book To Sell is Human for more on this), such that failure to keep the customer at the heart of all innovation will ultimately result in commercial decline.
Surely then, if the commercial ambition of any organisation is to maximise revenues, we are less preoccupied by WHO we sell to than HOW MUCH we can sell of any given product or service? If we are trying to reach as wide an audience as possible, then surely it makes sense to have, internally, as many perspectives as possible, in order that we can develop products and services that appeal to this diverse target customer group?
Equally, we know that technology innovation is going to revolutionise the commercial landscape and that this will pose multiple complex challenges within the business community. Having a workforce that is able to demonstrate plurality of perspectives will be a key requisite in order for holistic and systemic problem-solving to successfully take place.
Plurality of perspectives comes from diversity of thought. Diversity of thought comes from being able to apply multiple lenses to any given situation and this can only come from diverse life experiences. In my personal life, when faced with a challenge, I can only apply my own unique life filter and this is why I will often share my dilemma with friends in order to get multiple perspectives. In these instances, I’m hoping for something more than simple validation that what I’m thinking is correct; I’m hoping to be able to gain insights that will shed a different light on my predicament. Very late last year, Wharton professor of Management and Psychology, Adam Grant, tweeted that we should all have challenge networks in addition to support networks. The purpose of a challenge network is to give us tough feedback and encourage us to improve. I love this idea. I also think that if we were to embrace this idea in our workplaces our corporate ability to think critically and problem solve would be greatly enhanced. For a challenge network to be effective however, plurality or diversity of perspectives is critical; without it we face the wasteland of an echo-chamber.
So, for us, diversity and inclusion in the workplace transcends a simple tick-box exercise of being seen to do "the right thing". Of course, I suspect that until more organisations are willing to take the time to test, measure, and transparently report on the efficacy of their workplace diversity programmes, the D&I agenda will continue to be perceived as a "nice-to-have", rather than an essential component of competitive advantage in the future of work.