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Dr. Ella F. Washington: The Very Strong Business Case for Diversity

Originally posted on MISESINSTITUTE

Hosted by Hunter Hastings

There is a threshold of diversity below which no organization can operate with complete effectiveness. Diversity in this sense does not only include the “Big 3” DEI elements of race gender and sexual orientation, but also education, experiential background, business partner diversity, learning capabilities — all of the organizational resources that Austrian economists refer to when they talk about the creative combination and recombination of heterogeneous assets. Dr. Ella F. Washington, author of the book The Necessary Journey, joins Economics For Business to make the business case for diversity.

Knowledge Capsule

The business case for diversity is built on the sustainable competitive advantage in productivity that it can bring.

Dr. Washington’s book is a global, multi-variable survey of the effect of diversity orchestration on business results. She describes a wide variety of business cases, in large, medium-sized and small firms, in businesses ranging from global hospitality services to IT to alcoholic beverages production and marketing, and many more. She looks at diversity not just through the “big 3” lenses of race, gender, and sexual orientation, but also educational achievement, cultural background, learning capability and interpersonal communications variables. In all cases, well-orchestrated diversity made a demonstrable and positive difference in business outcomes. Diversity is a tool for competitive advantage.

The business case is globally applicable.

Dr. Washington has studied and provided consulting services to global firms and to local and regional firms in many countries. She sees diversity not as a provincial political issue but as a business tool for elevating human performance. There is a lot of hard work involved in identifying and understanding local differences, and some challenging decision-making and communications issues. Getting diversity right is not always comfortable, and many perspectives must be balanced. But it pays off in results.

Value and empathy are at the core of diversity management.

Subjective value lies at the core of Austrian entrepreneurship. Subjective value is in the mind of the customer, it’s a feeling that’s experienced. When businesses deliver a valuable experience, customers engage enthusiastically. The same is true for a group of employees. An organization that can empathically feel the experiences of all its employees, and can orchestrate the environment and the culture that recognizes, caters to and enhances their felt experiences, can achieve the exciting collaborative energy of alignment and harmony. Austrian principles of subjectivism and empathy apply in all areas of business thinking.

People want to feel valued, and the feeling is personal and individual. No matter the size of the corporation, each individual counts in their own way.

Diversity policies always benefit from the free incorporation of multiple perspectives as compared to centralized mandates.

Dr. Washington’s case studies consistently demonstrate that decentralization and localized management is a better tool for productive diversity that central mandates. One of her case studies concerns Sodexo, a French company specializing in food services and facilities management, employing over 420,000 people in 80 countries all over the globe.

Through the processes described by Dr. Washington, Sodexo came to realize that thinking and acting locally was the key to achieving the diversity target of collaborative productivity AND elevated human performance through valued experiences. Diversity solutions could not be formulated in the central HQ, or even country-level HQ’s, and even regional and local offices. It was the individual sites where people work together in small teams that should be the focus. A general goal was established — it was termed “Spirit Of Inclusion” — and then specific programs were resourced and implemented at the local level in ways that comported with local needs.

To quote from one of the Sodexo executives, “engagement across the organization very soon became an enabler of business growth and business success”.

Diversity has a future orientation — influencing future performance.

In the US, diversity policies are often pitched as addressing past wrongs. In another case study, the President of Infosys, an India-based technology company, stressed his focus on building the services of the future. A diverse work force is, in his words, the most viable business model. Since the company would be engaged in building new services for a new future and a more diverse audience (i.e., in new countries, new situations, new circumstances), then it’s smart to try to imagine the needs of that future workforce, and how to maximize its capability for future success. A diverse workforce is better able to develop superior understanding of a diverse customer base.

One of Infosys’s diversity tactics was to extend hiring in the US to community colleges. Many tech firms focus on 4-year university graduates exclusively. Infosys felt that (a) they might not be competitive in hiring those candidates, and (b) such a focus excluded a lot of bright, trainable people from two-year community college programs. They also found out that the two-year students often exhibited greater “learnability” — they could be trained and coached in the Infosys way with outstanding results in achievement and productivity.

Another source of diverse talent is the individual making a mid-career switch. Infosys opened up its thinking and its recruitment to include this type of diversity too. Career-switchers tend to excel at learnability.

As is always the case in entrepreneurial economics, imagining a better future opens the pathway to better implementation.

At the close of her case studies, Dr. Washington tells us her respondents’ answer to a question about the workplace utopia of the future. All the answers are different, but the principle is the same: conceptualizing the most productive workplace in terms of how employees feel and how the feeling can be translated into effective and consistent contribution, collaboration, and business results. How do firms awaken and stimulate the best capabilities of all their employees? That’s the business case for diversity.

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