On November 22, I had the privilege of participating in a panel at the Mediterranean week of Economic Leaders in Barcelona on the topic of human capital and managing mobility. My focus was a quick review if of the intentionality, the motivation, the algorithm if you will, lying beneath our diversity efforts over the years and its current challenge. My hope was that this would create a context for understanding out current challenges in the light of how our engagement has evolved into the present. What follows here is a somewhat expanded version of my remarks on the topic of best practices in diversity and talent mobility.
I am a consultant and trainer focused on diversity and cultural issues and, in particular, how to create cultural competence that goes beneath knowledge and awareness to actually bring about human change in our perception of each other and the connection we develop. Over the past fifty-five years, the clientele I have served has been enormously varied, from Fortune 500 and other large commercial organizations, public entities, and university programs to small to medium size enterprises, as well as coaching and mentoring individuals in expatriation challenges.
While I can say that my cultural career was rooted in the multicultural immigrant experience of my forebears and the highly diverse environment in which I grew up in the Midwest USA, my conscious and deliberate engagement with diversity issues really began when I was in graduate school at the start of the 1960s. It was a moment in which in which inequalities were festering in a variety of us-versus-them contexts, demonstrations were rife, race riots were occurring, and the military was out in the streets to keep the peace.
Our first attempt of engagement with the issues was bringing people, families and individuals of different backgrounds and neighborhoods to meet face-to face with each other in exchanging home visits. These enabled them to share with unlikely others their life experiences, beliefs and and interests and walk away perhaps with new friends or at least with less anxiety about the nature of "the others".
This interest continued and deepened as I graduated and began my work life, partly serving university students and partly engaged in a local community, specifically in its mixed ethnic and racial make-up. Here, besides being an activist and vocal about diversity issues as well as the war in Vietnam, I fostered the creation of neighborhood programs focused on engaging local children in communal activities.
"It's the right thing to do."
For others and myself, similarly engaged in diversity work at this point, the motivation was clearly, "It's the right thing to do." "Right" to be understood as the moral, ethical imperative of caring for the well-being of the community and its members and promoting fairness, justice and equality. Highly-motivated individuals and organizations were conscious of this imperative and began to deliver and to implement what were called "diversity initiatives", attempting to influence behavior in society and in the workplace to embrace this mandate for doing the right thing.
Legislative Intervention, public programs and activities
A growing public consciousness soon resulted in the passage of legislative initiatives holding organizations accountable for fairness in the hiring, promotion and treatment of its employees. Affirmative action became a buzzword in the practice as well as a bone of contention, sometimes labelled as reverse discrimination. Governments and private initiatives established programs for the furtherance of the diversity agenda. Affinity groups were formed inside organizations to represent the interests of those who were identified as targeted minorities. The belief was that the law could make things happen, and it did to some degree.
The diversity industry; ROI becomes king
The need of organizations and businesses to perform and conform give rise to professional cadres of diversity engagement, taking the form of internal structures, committees and positions in organizations, bearing responsibility for implementing the diversity agenda. There sprung up a profession of diversity consultants and trainers, independents and branches of existing consulting firms. Not surprisingly, these businesses and their clients inevitably began the serious commodification, the marketing and branding of diversity work, a product to be sold in the form of training and coaching as well as consulting aimed at assisting organizations to improve their diversity performance. The “right thing to do" was hardly a marketing slogan that would lead to the expenditure of capital and the shaping of budgets, so it faded in the background as ROI became the selling point. Consultants scrambled to develop and deliver proof that diversity was good for business, that it was profitable, and that it could be well developed and managed using the perspectives and tools of these professionals who, in turn, thus marketed themselves and their work. In short, diversity became an industry and a line item in 10k reports.
The Commodification of Diversity Language
Inevitably, the language of diversity professionals had to become the language of business in order to sell. Human resources, human capital, the war for talent, etc., and the slang of fight and sport, already existing business lingo, colonized the language of diversity and intercultural work. Diversity as measurable “value-added” shaped the new metanarrative, the commodified algorithm of the industry, and popular perception of it. Diversity work, despite reluctance in many quarters, became part of the mainstream business of organizational development.
Political Correctness, the new righteousness
Yet there were questioning voices as the need to continually innovate language to describe the diversity/intercultural business and its interventions as products in a highly competitive marketplace. Blame entered this language through political correctness, accusations of bias, denunciations of privilege. Adoption of technologies for hiring, staffing and promotions depersonalized the responsibility of managers and interviewers, while the algorithms themselves were often infected with biases they were supposed to eliminate. The focus turned to curing both individuals and fixing these technical tools of hidden bias while concepts of cognitive integrity and new neurological insights brought existing processes and attitudes into question. Despite its many good results, support for diversity efforts seemed to be declining.
The Shock of Populism
Then an explosion of events ripped the blinders from our vision: the referendum on Brexit in the UK, the election of Donald Trump in the USA, along with a significant shift to the ultra-right in many other parts of the world. Many diversity professionals and interculturalists, already struggling to be competitive, were suddenly struck by the awareness that their efforts had been, in fact, less far-reaching, attractive and effective than they had been imagining them to be or at least hoped they would be. Diversity became a matter of national politics demanding hardline position-taking for ethnocentric interests. It is now a political as well as financial commodity, the ultimate commodification dictum being delivered from the mouth of the US president, as he declared arms sales to the Saudis trumped human rights considerations in the case of assassinated journalist Jamal Khashoggi. One murder is virtually irrelevant, according to the prophet of profits, when it is compared to the economic benefit of supplying the deadly weapons market to the tune of billions of dollars.
Acculturating to each other
Facts and learnings about ourselves and others, along with moral imperatives, still matter. However, the challenge for diversity and intercultural work and successful mobility interventions now lies in our ability to enable human contact to come about in both civil and meaningful ways, encouraging people to bring their cultural selves with them to their encounters and mutually enrich each other therefrom. Paradoxically, this in a way echoes the “home visit” starting point of over half a century ago that I mentioned above.
Gamification as a best practice
There can be many ways to address mobility and inclusion. One that has engaged me for a number of years now is the potential of gamification. Games allow us to create a comfortable and safe space that can free us to be ourselves, take on new roles, and share our stories with each other. Over the years, my colleagues and I have busied ourselves with the development of intercultural learning tools in the form of games to the point where we have over a hundred variations in the series called diversophy®. These are games that explore our cultural proclivities and develop areas of interconnected competence in living and working with each other. We have come to discover that, while the content of the games tells us about each other, and this is useful, it is in the very telling about ourselves and sharing our stories in response to this content that real contact and meaningful, more satisfying human connections begin to knit us together.
Much of my work in this area, particularly and most recently in response to the migrant crisis, has been and is pro bono and focused on generating games that enhance contact, familiarity, togetherness and even friendship between newcomers and established local communities. My colleagues and I are eager to collaborate and offer our resources to develop new directions for gaming in the service of society in this era of diverse forms of mobility. While face-to-face gamification is a powerful best practice, we realize new forces and opportunities, and are exploring how in the world of digital communication and networking will be essential in expanding this potential for human connection. Visit us at www.diversophy.com or write us at email@example.com.
Post by George Simons