The traditional world of corporate Diversity and Inclusion (D&I) is being disrupted by a new take on D&I and combining it with innovation and talent management. What some perceive as a threat to the D&I establishment may just be the next step of evolution that could invigorate and drive D&I to new heights.
Though not an entirely novel approach (see also How to create innovation culture with diversity!) the new thinking gains traction. As this could play out in different ways and only time will tell what worked, here are my thought on where we are heading.
Struggles of the Front Runner
Many traditional D&I programs, let’s call them “version 1.0” of D&I, struggle transitioning beyond a collection of affinity groups, tallying corporate demographics and competing for D&I awards to post on their webpage. In these traditional D&I programs ‘diversity’ is often understood to be reflected by more or less visible differences among individuals at the workplace while ‘inclusion’ translates to supporting defined sub-populations of employees through, for example, establishing affinity groups.
The United States is seen as the front runner of the D&I movement. D&I has been around in the U.S. corporate world for decades. For historic and demographic reasons it hones in on removing obstacles for minorities at the workplace supported also by strict legislature and execution; exercising Affirmative Action, for example.
This legacy in the U.S. lends itself to an inside focus on organizations that became the backbone of the traditional D&I programs. It comes down to the question ‘what can or should the organization do for specific groups of people’ defined by ethnicity, gender, age, sexual preference, faith, disability, war history and so on. Apparently, it still is work in progress as, for example, Silicon Valley just recently got on the public radar, which stirred up the debate afresh along the lines of D&I 1.0; see Google releases breakdown on the diversity of its workforce.
Stuck in the ‘Diversity Trap’?
The inside focus and minority messaging of D&I 1.0, however, can be limiting when D&I erodes to a process of ‘doing things right’ by pushing for quotas, ‘checking boxes’ and inflating variations of terminology perceived as ‘politically correct’. This can in fact be different from ‘doing the right thing’ for the company overall, its employees as well as the affinity groups and their constituency. It should not surprise that Affinity groups can be (and often get) stigmatized and perceived as self-serving and self-centered social networks without significant and measurable business impact.
Under this paradigm these D&I 1.0 programs struggle to get serious attention, support and funding from executives beyond operating on a minor level to ‘keep the lights on’ more for public image purposes than business drive. The fundamentals seem to get forgotten: in the end, a business exists to generate a profit, so less profitable activities are likely to be discontinued or divested. It’s a symbiosis and to say it bluntly: without healthy business there is no D&I program and no affinity groups. When this symbiosis get lopsided, D&I 1.0 gets stuck in the trap.
- With more of a disruptive innovation focus but not totally unrelated, read: Shut down! Why Successful Innovations Die
“Diversity” is catching on beyond the United States in Europe, for example, where many countries do not have share a highly heterogeneous demographic composition, for example. Here, companies can start with a fresh approach jumping straight to D&I 2.0 – and many do! It reminds me of developing countries installing their first phone system by skipping the landlines and starting right away with mobile phones.
The 2.0 internal focus corresponds to hiring workers that truly think differently and have different backgrounds and life experiences some of which overlaps with D&I 1.0 affinity roots. In addition, there is also an external focus putting the staff to work with a clear business proposition and reaching even beyond the organization. So here a candidate would be hired or employee promoted for their different thinking (2.0) rather than more visible differences (1.0).
While need remains for affinity groups to tend to their members needs within the organization, the “new” D&I 2.0 opens to shift focus to go beyond the organization. It goes along the lines of a statement President John F. Kennedy became famous for and that I tweaked as follows: “Don’t ask what the COMPANY can do for you ask what you can do for the COMPANY AND ITS CUSTOMERS.”
D&I 2.0 gears towards actively contributing and driving new business results in measurable ways for the better of the employees as well as the organization and its customers. A visible indicator for D&I 2.0 affinity groups helping their constituency beyond company walls is affinity groups identifying and seizing business opportunities specific to their constituency. They translate the opportunity and shepherd it trough the processes of the organization to bring it to fruition. For example, affinity groups are uniquely positioned to extending and leveraging their reach to relating customer segments in order to identify ‘small elephant’ business opportunities; see How to grow innovation elephants in large organizations.
The D&I 2.0 approach demonstrates sustainable business value which is why D&I 2.0 sells much easier to executives. It makes a compelling business case that contributes to new business growth, the life blood of every company.
U.S. companies stuck in D&I 1.0 are hard pressed to keep up with the D&I 2.0 developments and overcome their inner struggle and resistance. With decades of legacy, D&I 1.0 programs in many organizations lack the vision and ability to make a compelling business case, to develop a sound strategy as well as capability and skill to implement it effectively. This is the requirement, however, to truly see eye-to-eye with senior executives and get their full support. This can become a serious disadvantage in the markets relating to products and customers but also in attracting talent.
In the end, the saying holds true that “talent attracts talent” and all organizations compete over talent to compete and succeed. Therefore, a D&I 2.0 program combines business focus and talent management while tying it back to the core of diversity and inclusion: Fostering diverse thinkers and leveling the playing field for all employees. This requires a level playing field that offers the same opportunities to all employees, which is the real challenge.
How do you level the playing field effectively in a large organization? How this will be implemented becomes the differentiating success factor for companies transitioning to D&I 2.0!
Here is a example 2.0-style for a level playing filed that has its roots in the D&I affinity group space yet opened up to include the entire workforce. It empowers and actively engages employees while leveraging diversity, inclusion and talent management for innovative solutions with profitable business outcomes. It may take a minute or two to see the connection between D&I, talent and disruptive innovation but it is at work right here in the School for Intrapreneurs: Lessons from a FORTUNE Global 500 company.
Previous posts relating to innovation and employee affinity groups / employee resource groups (ERG) / business resource groups (BRG):