Some thoughts..on diversity

Much talk and reference is currently being made about "valuing diversity" in business, the media, and naturally at Shell Oil. The nature of the talk suggests to me that there is some confusion as to its definition. It often seems that different people use the statement differently, or use the statement without acting like it. What follows is my own definition and understanding, my attempt to be perfectly clear about what it means to me.

First of all the statement refers to a value. Values are the result of life experiences and reside within us. If we truly value something we will be consistent in our actions, we will not even be able to hide the fact that we value it, nor would we desire to. Values we hold are clear and public, obvious to all. They are seen in our actions as well as words.

Diversity means diversity of opinion as well as diversity of background. Valuing diversity thus means valuing the creativity that results from the interplay of different attitudes, ideas, opinions, and backgrounds. People who value diversity seek to surround themselves with others with diverse experiences. This naturally results in a workforce where you find people of different ethnic, racial, and cultural backgrounds. In a knowledge-based industry it also translates into a competitive advantage which is why it has value, and is valued.

People who truly value diversity avoid or even reject conformity. Managers who value diversity do not require their entire staffs to compose and sign commitment letters. They know that common goals can be best achieved with independent thinking. Companies valuing diversity seek out diverse types people for the advantage that it brings, not because of quotas or political pressure imposed from the outside. Where diversity is forced from the outside, management will not value it. Being forced, management will resent its loss of control and will not value those people hired under such a system. Removal of this "glass ceiling" can only be done by a management which honestly values diversity.

Being a value that must reside within the individual, it is easy to recognize. Organizations which value conformity create themselves in their own image. They seek out and promote those who share like opinions. Even when they profess valuing diversity, the truth is evident in the organization they create. Conformity-based organizations do not have diverse workforces. An executive may make loud public pronouncements on the value of a diverse workforce, but still be surrounded by clones of (usually) (him)self. Such a person is a liar.

So, what is the value in diversity? I think there are three approaches to answering that question, economic, moral, and practical. Firstly the economic advantage I have alluded to above. It is seldomly easy to measure the impact of any one factor on the success of business. In my thought search for an example the case of postwar Japan comes to mind. Crushed, humiliated, and occupied at the end of the war, the Japanese experienced a profound psychological shift opening themselves to the west. Japanese export businesses, taking this fertile (diverse) mix of Japanese and western ideas, exploded into western markets and came to dominate against many companies whose only competitive disadvantage was an inability to understand or adapt against this new force.

On a smaller, individual corporate scale I feel that the competitive advantage of a diverse workgroup remains equally powerful if somewhat more difficult to measure. I think that with time and experience the record will indicate this. For those unwilling to accept that, there is the second approach. We are all created in God's image and all equally valuable in His eyes. Simply stated, if you value your own eternal soul, you will value your brothers and sisters regardless of background.

Finally, a diverse workgroup is just so darned interesting. I have so enjoyed the people I have had the honor of working with, Mexican, African, Indian, Christian, Muslim, Zoroasterian, scientists, and yes, even engineers! Diversity in the workplace at large, and (especially) at the highest levels confers the same advantages corporately as the combining of E and P workgroups did at the division level. So, there you have it.

Kevin Smith 12/96

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