Diversity as strategic enrichment

Monday, 25 October 2010 03:54 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

By Deepanie Perera

Microsoft, Citi Group, Toyota, Mitsubishi, AIG, Johnson & Johnson, Unilever, BP, Shell, Exxon Mobil, Altria, Pfizer, Fannie Mae are some top international businesses.

Some of them are top global companies for sales, market value, assets and for profits. Among many things these global giants have in common, there is a compelling and enduring one thing that they thrive on. That is ‘diversity’.

Equal access

With all firms having equal access to fiercely fought resources like material, financial and human on a level playing field, often referred to as a ‘battlefield,’ gaining a competitive advantage is becoming increasingly challenging. It is true that when everything else in terms of resources remains equal, human resources is the only edge organisations have over their competition.

As per the 2006 World Investment Report, 77,000 transnational corporates had 777,000 foreign affiliates employing 62 million workers worldwide. According to a number of other statistics, 2010 is estimated to record a 200 million people living abroad, a 13% rise from 2005, and the trend continues. What do these numbers mean to you?

Manoeuvrability

 Globalisation, technology, sustainability and competitiveness have broken real and virtual boundaries to bring the world closer than ever imaginable. Diverse cultures, lifestyles and ways of doing business have all shifted gears, dramatically. Customers demanding greater quality for lower prices are becoming more and more powerful, a phenomena that is here to stay.

Whilst businesses are required to deliver products at very low costs, they must remain competitive enough so that they are able to manoeuvre their vehicle of business success to the next level they espouse to reach.

People

So how do organisations make this shift, whilst also remaining consistent on value released? That is the irony for businesses of this age. The answer is in the people. It is in the uniqueness people are able to bring on board.

The uniqueness that would feature in the products they offer. It is largely in the creation of the culture that support such ways of doing business, by bosses for whom it matters. What is all this boiling down to? People.

Yes, diversity is about people. It is the variety that people bring on board. The variety is in different cultures, ideologies, nationalities, demographics, level of education, technology, socio-economical aspects, lifestyles, etc.

Businesses today are more and more inclined towards fostering diversity due to:

•    Creativity and innovation

•    Greater reflection of an increasingly diverse customer base

•    Best mix of talent in a competitive environment and a ‘war for talent’ scenario

•    Better competitiveness in a fiercely fought global business environment

Have you ever wondered why countries like the USA, Australia, Canada and New Zealand are such hot destinations for skills migrants? These countries have identified and actively advocated diversity to remain competitive.

Diversity as a national strategy: They attract and encourage talent in varied forms to fill massive demands in their labour markets. Certain countries and nationalities from time to time are allocated quotas to ensure equality.

Equal employment opportunity is serious business. Laws to ensure Affirmative Action (AA) whereby women and minority groups don’t suffer due to marginalisation, anti discrimination and anti harassment laws are all efforts in making the work place diversity work and last.

Global businesses

Let’s take a global business like Virtusa, which operates out of USA, UK, Hungary, the Netherlands, India and Sri Lanka. Their core business, that is software development for diverse markets, requires creativity and innovation, which could only be attained through people.

Virtusa has a number of offices in different parts of the world employing a highly diverse workforce of ‘Virtusans,’ comprising of Sri Lankans, Indians, Americans, British, Dutch and other nationalities contributing, making a workforce of more than 4,500. This diversity brings the business so much value with creative synergies that could virtually fix any business problem under the sun.

Interestingly, Virtusa culture has evolved to a state where diverse nationalities become an ‘encompassing one’ that is ‘Virtusan’ once you come on board and have gone through the acclimatisation, admits their Director – Human Resources.

As much as they are uniformed in terms of business processes and customer interfaces, specific HR services require a certain degree of customisation.

Getting it right

Hiring, retaining and rewarding are the most critical human resource functions for today’s businesses that have to encounter with a diverse work force. A fact we must pay much attention to is that for the first time in our history there are four generations i.e.: Baby Boomers and Generations X, Y and Z all working side by side.

Each of these generations got their strengths and weaknesses, and they could complement each other for the best. Meeting both employer and employee expectations while delivering on customer expectations require creative solutions that would mean a high level of evolution. Ensuring your key processes represent the diversity of your work force is a sure way of gaining competitive advantage.

Challenges

Diversity won’t come without its inherent challenges. Managing a highly diverse work force is both a skill and an art. When your stock is representative of a number of countries, cultures and sub-cultures, speak different languages, with very different employment contracts, different values and beliefs, etc., managing and leading becomes extremely complex.

Maintaining that fine balance between customisation and standardisation as necessary to suit the diversity of employees could become an overwhelming task. Taking high context cultures like most of those in Asia (Sri Lanka included), where non-verbal communication plays a huge role and what is said is not what is necessarily meant, contribute to this challenge-making in a big way.

Working in low context cultures like those in the USA, UK and Australia where there is direct communication (what is said is what is meant) makes things much easier to deal with.  

Overcoming such diversity challenges, would only churn results with every experience and continuous improvement, while nothing stays static. Let diversity become a critical strategic enrichment. It is as equally important as your brand values and equity. Make it work towards better business results.

(Deepanie Perera is a Business Consultant, HR Specialist, Trainer and Lecturer. She can be reached via deepanie@customized.com or deeps.perera@yahoo.com.)

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