Diversity & Inclusion in Business Change and Transformation

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This article presents the thoughts and insights of the Diversity & Inclusion discussion panel at the IRM Business Change and Transformation Conference 2021.

Photo of Philippa Thomas

Philippa Thomas, Managing Director, Skills Shift Ltd
Philippa will be moderating the Keynote Panel: Is There a Future for Business Analysis?
at the Virtual Business Analysis Conference Europe 20-23 September 2021

The panel opened by defining what the terms ‘Diversity’ and ‘Inclusion’ [D&I] mean:

  • “Diversity” is about recognising that people are different.
  • “Inclusion” is about valuing those differences.

The CIPD[1] reports that an “inclusive working environment” is one in which everyone feels that they belong, that their contribution matters and they are able to achieve their potential, no matter their background, identity or circumstances. 

For the purposes of the discussion, we assumed a general agreement that being diverse and inclusive in the way you operate an organisation is simply the right thing to do so the morals and ethics of D&I were not a subject of this discussion. The panellists instead considered diversity and inclusion from the perspectives of change professionals, focussing on four key areas:

  1. The business case for D&I.
  2. The opportunities created by D&I for increasing value for stakeholders.
  3. Tackling bias and/or lack of representation in systems design.
  4. The hybrid workplace – a help or hindrance to inclusivity.

The insights and experiences shared by the panellists in each of these areas is summarised below.

1. The business case for diversity and inclusion

Until fairly recently diversity and inclusion were viewed by most organisations as being the responsibility of HR, as they were a part of UK Employment Law that you just needed to comply with. However, in May 2021 there’s ample evidence that organisations are moving beyond legal compliance and are actively looking at ways to create more diverse and inclusive workplaces. This suggests there is a compelling business case driving this transformation.

Attracting top talent

The panel felt that one of the reasons why organisations are embracing diversity and inclusion is the need to attract top talent – particularly millennials. Inclusion is especially important to millennials – who will be 75% of the global workforce by 2025 – they want to work at places that reflect their values, and D&I are at the top of their list[2].

While diversity in an organisation was clearly once a niche value, the panel’s experience is that it’s now becoming mainstream. Top talent will often look for evidence that D&I feature prominently in an organisation’s culture before deciding whether to make that job application. For example, if D&I are not evident in an organisation’s social media posts, adverts and press releases, the risk is that prospective employees will simply assume these values are absent and look for a role with an employer with whom they feel more aligned.

A diverse customer base

A second reason may be a desire to succeed in markets with an increasingly diverse customer base. If your customer base is diverse (in terms of age, ethnicity, gender, disability) and your organisation isn’t, then you’ll almost certainly have a problem connecting with them. To access these markets and achieve the best possible growth, the panel believed that organisations should aim to have representation from the target customer communities within their change and transformation teams.

Gender diversity and financial outperformance

Hard evidence is emerging of the positive impact on financial performance of D&I. A McKinsey report of May 2020 found that “the most diverse companies are now more likely than ever to outperform less diverse peers on profitability.”[3] More than that, they report that companies in the top quartile for gender diversity on executive teams were 25% more likely to have above-average profitability than companies in the fourth quartile (up from 15% in 2014).

Another example of the benefits of gender diversity offered by the panel was the way in which Iceland responded to the financial crash in 2008. They replaced two of the 3 (male) banking chiefs – who were sent to jail – with women. These women have since transformed the country’s finance, bringing a different way of thinking and set of values to the board table but culture: “what started out as a crackdown on reckless bankers spread into every corner of the culture.”[4]

Improving accessibility for the disabled

The panel discussed the powerful business case for improving accessibility for the disabled. A Microsoft report was referenced which found that “there over are 1 billion people in the world who experience some form of disability, but only 1 in 10 have access to assistive technology, which means they can’t fully participate in our economies and societies. The unemployment rate for people with disabilities is typically twice that of people without. And disability—whether temporary, situational, or permanent—can affect any of us at any time.”[5]

If an organisation doesn’t consider accessibility and inclusion, they are excluding a large segment of the global population who could be their customers or employees. It’s like saying to every fifth person who walks in your door “I don’t really want your business!”

The panel believed that accessibility presents a significant business transformation opportunity. We already know that companies that embrace best practices for employing and supporting persons with disabilities in the workplace outperform their peers. In a 2018 US study “Getting to Equal: The Disability Inclusion Advantage” produced by Accenture in partnership with AAAPD and Disability:IN, they found that the 45 companies identified as standing out for their leadership in areas specific to disability employment and inclusion had on average, over the 4-year period, 28% higher revenue, double the net income, and 30% higher economic profit margins than their peers[6].

Everyday behaviours are fundamental in business transformation

Although the business case for D&I is the carrot which is attracting some organisations to move beyond compliance, the risk is that without a strategy for behavioural development of leaders and managers, the transformation programme will deliver limited results. The panel recommended that an organisation’s senior examine the key behaviours which foster inclusivity in the workplace – and those which stymie it – and commit to leading by example. Only then can the cultural transformation happen, and the business benefits of D&I fully realised.

2. The opportunities created by D&I for increasing value for stakeholders

Beginning with the project initiation and selection of the change project team, the panel all felt that some assumptions needed to be challenged. Too often, change teams are selected from a narrow set of criteria (technical knowledge, skills, and experience), which immediately places limits on the value that the change project can create for stakeholders. If team members were selected primarily based on a set of strengths which were more strategically aligned with the transformation programme – such as tolerance to pressure and resilience – then the opportunity to enhance value for stakeholders increases exponentially. One example from a panellist referenced the employment of veterans with experience of war in Iraq and Afghanistan. The organisation discovered that they have skills, qualities and experiences which make them uniquely suited to the organisation’s task force for overcoming the challenges of the Coronavirus pandemic.

The panel noted that although a diverse project team can take longer to gel and to agree on solutions (there’s less tendency to ‘group think’), without diversity in team members there is a significant risk that important things can be missed.  A personal example from a panellist, described a process mapping exercise for a slick new system, where the change team completely forgot that field engineers needed a lunch break, until the obvious mistake was pointed out by…a field engineer! When designing systems, it’s important to ensure appropriate diversity in the project team in terms of role, level, background and experience, as well as gender, ethnicity and disability. Without it, oversights such as the one in the example would have to be addressed after roll-out, which would be costly both for the budget and the team’s professional reputations.

The panel agreed that it’s critical that system processes are designed with appropriate representation of stakeholders. It is here that the opportunities to enhance the value from change resides.

As a final point, organisational leaders and change managers have a key role to play in facilitating opportunities for diversity in project teams, by using more compelling language. Instead of communicating the message “we value your differences”, they should focus instead on “we value your strengths”.

3. Tackling bias and/or lack of representation in systems design.

Increasing stakeholder value is something that organisations can look forward to from a change project that embraces diversity and inclusion. But it’s fair to say that inclusivity isn’t always a key consideration for systems design teams. For example, self-service touch screens for flight check-ins and bag drops are very convenient for many of us, they are simply unusable for people with motor skills conditions such as Parkinson’s and MS. 

A personal experience of lack of representation in systems design shared by a panellist involved the renewal of one of their utility contracts. In speaking to the utility company’s call handler – who was working through a script – they were asked “are you disabled?”, to which they replied “yes, I am” (naturally expecting there to be some advantage available for them as a disabled customer). Instead, they were asked “Could you now please pass on this call to the responsible home-owner?”. This is not only offensive it’s commercially disastrous: the panellist took their business elsewhere.

Nothing about us, without us

It was clear to the panel that this situation would not have happened had this organisation designed their processes with appropriate representation. The plea from the disabled is “nothing about us, without us”. Had the call centre script been reviewed by people with disabilities, it would have been pointed out that people with disabilities can be homeowners too and, shock horror…responsible.

Systems are typically designed to Pareto’s Law (the 80/20 rule) and personas used for the 80% are ‘average’ representations. However, as a panellist pointed out – humans are almost never their own average. Excluding 20% from the system design, can not only affect a lot of people it can derail a change and transformation project. One of the panellists gave the example of the all-women spacewalk that never happened, because they hadn’t created spacesuits suitable for females. It had been assumed – by the men on the team – that the male spacesuits would be perfectly usable.

There is a growing body of research that suggests that 50% of people are routinely excluded from design and development:  women. One of the panellists recommended change professionals seek out a book “Invisible Women – Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men” by Caroline Criado-Perez where she cites innumerable examples of inherent design bias. The panellist also presented a couple of examples of bias in design from their own personal experience. Firstly, in Covid-19 vaccine trials, no research was done on the impact of the vaccine on women’s menstrual cycles. Secondly, seatbelts in most cars are positioned rather dangerously across the side of the neck of women below average height.

Solve for one, extend for many

The panel discussed that edge scenarios can be very helpful in inclusive systems design, as they represent the extremes of system use including challenging environments, difficult tasks and atypical users. Creating a solution for one scenario can bring benefits for many others. An example is the use of captions which can improve the accessibility of audio and video recordings not just for people with hearing problems, but with language fluency issues.

The panel felt that the goal for inclusivity in systems design is to recognise where the exclusions exist (through appropriate representation), then focus on removing the barriers to accessibility. They also believed that inclusive design needs to be fully embedded in system testing and sign-off processes.

4. The hybrid workplace: a help or hindrance to inclusivity?

We couldn’t end the discussion panel without considering the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on diversity and inclusion in the workplace. In the past year, a sea change has occurred our workplaces. Working in an office, 5 days a week, 9 to 5 – “what a way to make a living” as Dolly Parton once said – looks like it might be over. Many organisations are starting to embrace home and flexible working for at least part of the time, and it looks like the hybrid workplace might be here to stay.

Whether the hybrid workplace is a help or a hindrance to diversity and inclusivity very much depends on an organisation’s starting point. The panel felt that supporting people who work remotely from the office hub requires managers to step up and demonstrate the kind of leadership qualities that build high performing teams:  empathy, listening, curiosity about individuals’ needs.

One of the panellists recommended that change professionals read the book by Nancy Kline called “Time to Think”, where she identifies 10 behaviours that form a system called a Thinking Environment™, a highly practical, accessible model of human interaction that dramatically improves the way people think, and thus the way they work and live. Listening – the quality of people’s attention for each other – is the core of this method. It’s seen by many as the management handbook for successfully managing a hybrid workplace.

The panel believed that the pandemic has accelerated what organisations are trying to achieve in terms of inclusivity, by the urgent and immediate need in the March 2020 national lockdown to provide employees more flexible working options. Research has shown that the flexibility offered by a hybrid workplace has also been requested by excluded communities of workers, as it helps them ‘bring their best self’ to work, improve their economic and social opportunities, self-confidence and productivity. However, the panel observed that the picture in the UK is still mixed, with some organisations – determined to have employees back at their desks at the earliest opportunity – leaving some employees thinking whether this is a question of trust.

In Conclusion

The panel concluded that there is a significant business case for putting D&I at the heart of business change and transformation. Organisations that embrace D&I can look forward to financial outperformance, attracting – and retaining – top talent in a competitive global market, and expanding their customer bases. Change professionals have opportunities to exponentially enhance the value of their projects through D&I, through appropriate representation of stakeholders in the design team and methodologies used. Finally, the panel were unanimous in the view that the global pandemic has provided a once in a generation opportunity for organisations to develop a transformational diverse and inclusive culture, by focussing on developing the behaviours of its leaders and managers, so inclusivity becomes “the way we do things around here”.

With over 20 years’ in the IT industry, since 2006 Philippa has held a variety of executive director roles in leadership and management training organisations. She launched her own company Skills Shift in 2014 with one goal: to provide people managers with the skills to understand change, deal with change and thrive on change, in a challenging VUCA environment. With an international team of expert learning consultants and coaches, Skills Shift provides inspiring, pragmatic development programmes, which are customised to organisations’ unique cultures and strategies. Passionate about the business analysis profession, Philippa is a regular contributor at industry conferences, has been a judge for the IIBA Business Analyst of the Year Award for the past 6 years, and is a co-author of the BCS book ‘The Human Touch – personal skills for professional success’. In her spare time, she is a British Wheel of Yoga teacher and representative for North Hampshire, and an enthusiastic trekker, counting Everest Base Camp and the Inca Trail amongst her recent (pre-lockdown) conquests.

Copyright Philippa Thomas, Managing Director, Skills Shift Ltd

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[1] CIPD (2018) “Diversity and Inclusion at Work: Facing up to the business case”, p.2

[2] Microsoft (20 May 2020) “Start Your Journey”, p.2

[3] McKinsey (19 May 2021) “Diversity wins: How inclusion matters”

[4] Lipman, Joanne (8 Feb 2018) “How Iceland’s reaction to the 2008 crash made it the best place in the world to be a woman”, Business Insider

[5] Microsoft (20 May 2020) “Start Your Journey”, p.2

[6] Accenture (29 Oct 2018) “Getting to Equal: The Disability Inclusion Advantage”

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