One of the key attributes for organisations in the digital era, is the ability to respond in a nimble way to the requirements of the marketplace in which they operate. To do this successfully, organisations have to adequately understand the issues their customers face, and proffer solutions that tackle them; whilst keeping in view the wide variations in the life experiences of their customer base, which impact on how acceptable a solution might or might not be. Diversity in the workplace often provides the basis for which a wide range of views and solutions can be provided.
Ask anyone what they understand diversity in the workplace to mean, and the response would typically be about ensuring gender, ethnic or race balance among staff, but might include, depending on the location of the organisation, religious plurality and blindness to sexual orientation. While these are indeed important dimensions that need addressing through appropriate human capital recruitment strategies, an important element that is currently receiving attention, is diversity of thought within organisations as a whole, but teams in particular.
A recent Harvard Business Review publication considers the effect of cognitive diversity on the success or failure of teams. It defines cognitive diversity as “differences in perspective or information processing styles”. Essentially, this relates to the differences in how people consider and address challenges, based on their individual life experiences, backgrounds and culture, and how these translate into how they might consume information or proffer/create solutions to problems.
Cognitive diversity presents itself in ways that are easy to overlook. People hire from sources they are familiar with, for example a lot of hires are alumni of the same schools (where the same way of thinking is typically taught), and of similar backgrounds as those that recruit them. More importantly, people hire or build teams of those who think like them, ensuring that there is very little conflict as a result of diversity of thought, but limiting the likelihood of ‘out-of-the-box’ solutions to problems.
Having teams with people from different disciplines offers one solution to diversity in the workplace and helps in remediating this issue. However, ensuring that there is diversity in the life experiences of members of teams and organisations, by hiring differently, reduces the inclination to conform to fixed norms, and the improves the likelihood of having successful teams and organisations.
Dr Obinna Onwude is a clinical dentist, public health professional and management consultant. He is a Principal Consultant at Optimity Advisors where his focus is on the use of best available evidence to drive transformation for clients.