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Navigating on Icebergs

Diversity management and its role as a compass while society and work environments undergo change

What impact does diversity have not just in terms of image, but also as a driver of innovation? What can companies do to furnish society with new ideas? The Steinbeis expert Beate Wittkopp looks at this and a number of other issues revolving around diversity and diversity management.

Birds of a feather flock together – and they have done for millennia, due to that familiar need for belongingness, a drive that is increasingly coming under scrutiny. This is because changes are happening in the everyday life we all share, breaking down barriers and creating room for new ideas. This is happening across all kinds of specialist disciplines, industries, and organizations, resulting in new interconnections and some unusual overlaps. These convergences are particularly powerful at fueling innovative flair. New forms of interdisciplinary interaction are emerging between different players in industry, as are a diversity of communication options and collaboration models between competitors.

The social megatrends of modern times – globalization, demographic change, and worldwide real and virtual networking – amplify these developments, but at the same time they spell an opportunity and a challenge for politics, business, science and academia, and society as a whole. The task facing everyone is to become more integrated and be a part of this diversity. Geographical location, cultural restrictions, organizational boundaries, and administrative restraints are no impediment to diversity. This is why, without wanting to overemphasize the importance of this topic, I believe a smart diversity strategy can provide us with a compass during these times of change in society and the world of work.

Diversity management is not a program aimed at minorities. It’s a sophisticated way of thinking, an approach that focuses on the horizon in order to identify different ways to work together and live together. To a certain extent, the scope and different aspects of diversity are like an iceberg.

The smaller bit at the top represents visible and measurable factors such as gender, age, origin, or human physique. The bigger and invisible part underneath are about impressions, values, attitudes, and experience. By appreciating people’s different characteristics, views, and approaches and seeing people as a partner of equals, diversity can be guided in order to add value; stereotypes and reservations can be overcome. But the moment any individual aspect is overemphasized, there is a danger of division, as we see – depressingly – by looking at certain groups within our society. This is why leaders are needed who should act as role models and show they care – people are needed who can shift the goal posts to make way for diversification in such a way that leaders work alongside the workforce in implementing ideas on a practical level. To do this, it’s not new rules that are needed but new resources.

There’s no such thing as a one-size-fits-all solution when it comes to diversity strategies. Every business enterprise has its own DNA so it has to navigate its own way through transformation, or, if it wants to stay on the radar, it needs a suit that is made to measure. When it comes to competing in the market, diversity within teams improves the likelihood of identifying different solutions for the increasingly diverse nature of client needs and developing customer-specific business models. To react quickly enough, a company also needs to show clients that it can offer a variety of new skills and perform different roles. As a result, it is not an industry or the size of a business that dictates whether a diversity strategy is relevant or not – it’s corporate culture and competition. To explain how this works, three factors are briefly examined: working models, degree of internationalization, and generation management. As boundaries are eroded in the world of work, this has to be reflected in new employment and career models in order to open the door to new forms of collaboration. Traditional structures and organizations are making way for new developments, such as agile project management and even self-organizing networks. This significantly enhances participation and transparency, and in turn, mutual insight improves understanding. Selecting the right variety of communication channels and tools can greatly facilitate interdepartmental communication. Not only does model diversity fulfill the expectations of the workforce when it comes to personal factors in terms of compatibility and balance. It also promotes increasing levels of networking at work, thus significantly intensifying and accelerating transfer. It is already well known that the greatest potential to innovate and add value lies at the overlaps between different sectors of industry, companies, and science. Transcending previous methods of adding value, networks make it possible to create “crossways value creation chains” – a concept coined by S2i and the Steinbeis Transfer Center TransferWorks BW, and even registered as a brand device under the German names Querschöpfungsketten ® (lateral value chains) and Querschöpfung® (lateral creation). A prerequisite for this is that people collaborate across different specialist disciplines, locations, and organizations, working as interdisciplinary and international teams. If a company can succeed in linking technological diversity with cultural diversity, the resulting form of diversity assumes a cognitive dimension and acts as an enabler of innovation.

This results in the creation of new tasks and growing demand for specific skilled workers. Demand is intensified by demographic developments, skills shortages (especially in fields of new technology), and internationalization. Faced with the competition, companies have to position themselves as attractive employers with attractive things to offer and direct this at totally different target groups – and that also means offering a suitable degree of diversity. The stronger a company wants to be in the global market, the more important it becomes to possess intercultural know-how, since culture shapes thought and action. As a result, internationalization must be sufficiently developed within the workforce, and that includes the management board. Internationalization may intensify the competition for customers and skilled workers, but it also opens the door to new resources. To tap into this potential, a company must be in a position to develop intercultural skills and foster understanding within teams. On this basis, cooperation across different locations can help a company successfully access new markets. This, incidentally, is not a one-way street. Currently, well over 50% of all foreign students directly or indirectly return to their home countries after graduation. This offers companies the possibility to “reverse” integration across their international sites, and this is also a form of diversity management.

There are also differences between generations in terms of how they think and act. As a rule, these are initially perceived as a challenge, but they can be particularly useful when it comes to internal knowledge and information management. Generation management is a now a particularly interesting field of growth, with some companies already spanning up to four generations within the same business unit, and the scope of ages covered will broaden due to demographic developments. It is therefore important for senior management to foster a work environment that prevents new topics from becoming segregated off and stops different groups becoming mutually excluded. The first priority has to be to offer all workers an equal opportunity to show they are still willing and able to perform. This involves offering a treasure trove of measures tailored to the different target groups in terms of staff training, occupational health management, life phase-centric HR policy, and an array of employment models with the potential of offering a healthy work/life balance and support with career planning. This allows a business to portray itself as diverse, both internally and externally. A carefully chosen diversity strategy can thus act as a fundamental building block of corporate culture within a company. It can also act as a compass, pointing to the values of a company and providing an example to society. Being able to think beyond the horizon and beyond cultures and functions also entails developing the skills of individuals, which is also fully in keeping with the Steinbeis philosophy, and this can be used to solve complex problems together, pushing divisive issues into the sidelines in the process. This way, diversity in expertise and personal views can unleash tremendous power.