Workforce diversity and inclusion are no longer nice-to-have elements of organizational culture. As the world’s population becomes increasingly diverse and the talent shortage continues to plague businesses, only the companies that are able to effectively attract, retain and engage diverse talent are going to be the ones to survive. Earlier this month I had the opportunity to meet with 150 diversity practitioners coming from companies that recognize this and are ready to do something about it. Below are some of the key insights I gathered from the Conference Board’s 20th Annual Diversity and Inclusion Conference.

1.  Counting is not culture, and it’s a relic of the past

When we think about workforce diversity, we typically think about the numbers—how many women, ethnic minorities, and other underrepresented groups we are able to hire, retain, and promote to advanced positions. But diversity practitioners are increasingly realizing that this is just one very incomplete indicator of success. Having the numbers in place does not necessarily mean those numbers are going to translate to bottom-line profits for an organization; there needs to be some mechanism by which diverse thoughts, ideas and values are included in organizational functioning. So which comes first- the chicken or the egg? Do inclusive cultures promote greater numbers of diverse employees, or do the numbers precede building a culture that encourages innovation and idea sharing from everyone? This question remains at the forefront of diversity research, but one thing is clear—both diversity and inclusion are needed in today’s world of work.

2.  Big change does not have to be complex

“Diversity fatigue” is a common occurrence among today’s workforce, diversity practitioners included. This occurs because it’s exhausting to try to get business leaders to change their behaviors when those behaviors have served them fairly well in the past. It’s exhausting to have to explain that a system is broken when the people at the top succeeded within that system. And for employees and managers, it’s exhausting to constantly be told that they are inherently biased and need to change. Because the behavioral and mindset change required is so great, we see organizations launching large-scale, multi-year diversity campaigns that often run out of steam. But there is ample evidence that it doesn’t need to be so complex. Research presented by Professor Valerie Purdie-Vaughns from Columbia University suggests that closing performance and engagement gaps between majority and underrepresented groups may be as simple as the message coming from the immediate supervisor, with a communicated belief that employees can meet expectations resulting in the best employee outcomes. Arin Reeves from Nextion shared the concept of “choice architecture” as a tool for diversity experts: developing processes and tools that make unbiased decisions the easiest ones to make, rather than hoping implicit bias training and awareness will have a downstream impact on behavior (which tends to be more complex). These insights make clear that big changes can happen from small adjustments to how people work and make decisions.

3.  Inclusion is not synonymous with innovation, but it can be

We are told that diversity and inclusion drive greater innovation, but how does this really happen? Research presented at this conference suggests that inclusion does not automatically drive innovation, but active collaboration between diversity and innovation practitioners certainly helps. This collaboration includes aligning on what it means to be diverse—while diversity practitioners tend to define diversity in terms of demographics, innovation experts tend to think about diversity of experiences, values, ideas, and in some cases geography. Both of these definitions have value in creating an innovative, agile workforce, and when they come together they form a truly powerful framework for driving innovation through inclusion.

4.    Adapt to keep diversity initiatives relevant across the globe

As more and more companies traverse national boundaries and adopt truly global operations, consistent administration and management of diversity initiatives becomes challenging. What does it mean to engage “ethnic minorities” in countries where they are in fact the majority? What are the implications of initiatives meant to attract people with differences in regions where those differences may be discouraged or even outlawed (consider LGBT candidates in Liberia)? According to presenters, maybe consistency is not key in these situations—because you’re facing different cultures, you’re facing different challenges, values, and ideals, and diversity initiatives need to adapt accordingly. As one presenter vocalized, “You can’t bring football to the regions that really need futbol”.

5.  Diversity and Inclusion practitioners, you are not alone

Overall, I was struck by the camaraderie among the group of conference presenters and attendees. They share similar frustrations, challenges and experiences. But when one diversity practitioner has a success, it is obvious that this represents a success for all. Diversity and inclusion can be a powerful competitive differentiator, but after this conference I realize that it’s also about working toward a bigger goal, bigger than any individual company or industry. The attendees of the 20th Annual Diversity and Inclusion Conference have made a career of creating diverse, inclusive companies that will ultimately strengthen the global workforce of the future.

To learn more about how SAP SuccessFactors is helping companies build more inclusive, diverse workforces, visit Designing Diversity and Inclusion.

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