Innovation, diversity and men named James

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A few days ago, I had a chance to attend an UNCTAD conference during the World Investment Forum (WIF) 2018 at the UN Geneva Headquarters. I participated in a panel with great female leaders from Coca-Cola, Lavazza, VISA and Procter & Gamble, to discuss women’s empowerment and entrepreneurship. And it got me thinking. For the past 10 years, the WIF has been a great scene for investment stakeholders from 160 countries to talk about investment, entrepreneurship and innovation. And the latter –  innovation – is a word that I come across a lot in my day-to-day job at Dell EMC. But how do we really think about innovation, and how do we enable more of it? We often seem to be trapped in a one-sided view, where we associate innovation mostly and directly with technology, rather than looking at enabling innovation from a wider perspective.

Innovation is the ability of humans or organizations to come up with new, fresh ideas and solutions to known problems. But how innovative can we really be, if the environment we work in is overly homogeneous? The absolute majority of the world’s top corporations, boards and leadership teams is composed of white, middle-aged men. It is a fact that there are more Chief Executives of Fortune 500 companies with the name “James”, than there are women. And even less women of color! And all this in a world where more women than men graduate from universities in almost every country around the globe.

However, diversity is not about gender parities alone. Research shows that successful organizations are the ones which welcome not only inherent diversity, i.e. traits we are all born with, such as gender, ethnicity or sexual orientation, but also acquired diversity, i.e. experience coming from exposure to situations such as living in another country or working with a group of colleagues with opinions drastically different to one’s own. Such two-dimensional diverse teams are proving to be more successful – their capacity to understand and respond to the yet-uncovered market potential helps their companies gain market share and create new products that are better suited for the end user.

According to an article from HBR, women working in companies without diverse leadership, are 20% less likely than straight white men to win endorsement for their ideas; people of color are 24% less likely; and LGBTs are 21% less likely. The research referenced in HBR shows that when at least one member of a team has traits in common with the end user, the entire team understands that user better. A diverse team with a member who shares a client’s ethnicity is 152% likelier than another team to understand that client.

Inviting diversity to the company is only the beginning though. Everyday actions which create an inclusive working environment where it feels safe to share contrasting opinions, frequent and actionable feedback between colleagues at different organization levels, and empowerment in decision-making are equally important in making sure we’ve secured a variety of opinions in the day-to-day business.

At Dell EMC, we work every day to transform the workplace to be more flexible, agile and efficient. Our research Realizing 2030 shows that artificial intelligence and human-machine partnerships are a big part of how this will happen, now and in the future. There is no doubt that machines are better than humans at some of jobs – they have a speed, accuracy and attention to detail that we don’t. On the other hand, it is also an increasingly known fact that applications reflects human biases. So, if technology developers are all similar in profile, then they are likely to produce the same kinds of products. This is of particular concern when we consider the growing influence of AI. When AI eventually gains control of greater functions in our everyday lives, we will be ruled by the biases inherent in its coding. If we want our future society to reflect the needs of all its members, we need to make sure the technology supporting the society isn’t overly influenced by one kind of profile (whether gender, age, background etc.). All opinions and ideas need to be welcomed and considered in a world we really want to make an innovative and inclusive place.

What’s your view on diversity and inclusion? Does your company include it in its innovation strategy? Let’s talk!

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