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To allow diversity to prosper, organizations must able to recognize and foster talent that comes in a package that looks different. Photo: iStock (Work with your leadership team to create a well-articulated set of company values. istockphoto)
To allow diversity to prosper, organizations must able to recognize and foster talent that comes in a package that looks different. Photo: iStock (Work with your leadership team to create a well-articulated set of company values. istockphoto)

How systems that encourage diversity will be true winners

  • Diversity helps the system become smarter and helps the individual actors get smarter
  • It is perhaps no accident that tech companies of Silicon Valley are winning hands down

We celebrated the 70th anniversary of the day our Constitution came into effect last month, and there’s no better time to address these fundamental questions: Why should we care about diversity, and why should we care about building organizations and societies that celebrate it?

When I was a doctoral student at the University of California in Los Angeles, I had to read four to six academic papers a day. Many of them were tedious, dull and did not add value to my understanding of the world. But once in a while, I came across a paper that shone a light on the world.

“Exploration and Exploitation in Organizational Learning" by Stanford University’s James G. March was one such paper. It reports the results of a mathematical simulation on how a system learns from its different actors. March looked at what happened to a system’s learning when there were some actors who held views (programmed as codes) that were different from the majority. They did not need to be more accurate than the majority—just different. Would the system the benefit from these differences or would they be a drag?

It turns out that when individual actors held on to their code, and were slowly “accultured", the system had the opportunity to learn from the differences and came out better. The actors holding the majority code also became smarter as the system became smarter.

Take a moment to consider what this means: When any system has actors that are either similar or do not allow the expression of difference or do not learn from difference, it accomplishes a lower level of equilibrium. Diversity helps the system become smarter and helps the individual actors get smarter.

It is then perhaps no accident that the technology companies of Silicon Valley are winning hands down. Their ability to embrace the cultures of many nationalities, including Indian, without forcing individuals to abandon these differences in favour of a monolithic culture is a key source of strength. They are smart and getting smarter by the day as they embrace differences.

Of course, rising above difference is not always easy. Our tribal roots have encoded a suspicion of people who are different. After all, people who looked different were often from different tribes or were enemies competing for land and resources. So we learnt to feel safe with those who looked like us, talked like us and dressed like us. Add to that beliefs that one’s cultural roots are far superior to any other and you have the many reasons why so few organizations or societies are actually able to welcome diversity.

Early in January, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella said he hoped a Bangladeshi immigrant would one day be the founder of an Indian unicorn or the next CEO of Infosys, after voicing concern about the Citizenship Amendment Act. Predictably, Twitter troll armies pounced on him: Weren’t there enough Indians with talent? Why should anyone pay attention to someone who had left India?

As someone who moved to the US as an adult, Satya Nadella was perhaps a beneficiary of organizations that have allowed diversity to prosper. Now keep in mind that this goes far beyond recruiting diverse talent at an entry level and celebrating a few ethnic days. It requires being able to recognize and foster talent that comes in a package that looks different. It means being able to trust that talent with increasingly larger roles. Finally, it means handing over the keys of the house.

In recent years, other Indians such as Sundar Pichai (Google), Shantanu Narayen (Adobe) and Rashmi Sinha (Slideshare) have managed to reach the highest levels on the back of such systems. While we celebrate their individual accomplishments, let us also understand the systems that grew their talent and allowed them to inhabit their potential. This is truly rare and truly admirable.

We must be able to understand these systems and learn from them if we hope to build world-class organizations. If any Indian organization is able to foster and trust diversity, it would be a true winner. It would have shown it was able to recognize, foster and trust talent that looked and talked differently. It would have shown that more often than not it was able to rise above prejudice and parochialism. Of course, the very act of being able to do so consistently well would build an organization that had the capacity to grow and learn from its diversity. An organization that could grow smarter, faster than other monolithic cultures. And if one day, a talented Bangladeshi immigrant were in fact to become CEO, it would reveal how well the system worked.

Our founding fathers were on the right track when they drafted our Constitution, and encoded in it, “Liberty of thought, expression, belief, faith and worship". It’s good for our country, and good for our organizations.

Shalini Lal is an organizational development and innovation consultant with more than 20 years of experience.

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