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Article No.: 08-5

Article Title: Diversity Efforts Should Support Business Imperatives

Author: Linda Gravett, Ph.D., SPHR

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It’s no secret that in today’s global marketplace competition is keen, and the skills, knowledge and abilities required to keep up with, let alone lead the competition, are becoming increasingly sophisticated.  Supplier relationships are often spread across the globe and can become very complex, given language and cultural barriers.  The demographics of the existing or potential customer base of many organizations is a moving target.  In the meantime, shareholders in private sector companies and stakeholders in public sector organizations have high expectations for profit or results as a return on their investment in time, money, or both.  Additionally, the U.S. has become a litigious society with a marked increase in the past few years in costly sexual harassment, racial harassment, and other diversity related lawsuits.  These factors all support the necessity for strategic planning with a diversity initiative as an integral component of that planning process.

Organizations today spend a great deal of time, effort and money on sending their leaders to off-site retreats for an annual strategic planning session.  Typically, a major portion of the time is devoted to establishing a Mission Statement (which addresses the question, “why are we here”?) and a Vision Statement (which addresses another question – “where do we see ourselves headed for the future”?).  Unfortunately, these plans often don’t focus on implementation tactics for achieving the Mission and Vision or take into consideration environmental barriers and support mechanisms that will help or deter positive efforts.  Some companies develop tactics to carry out their objectives and goals but don’t establish a series of process checkpoints and measures to assess how well those tactics are being carried out.

I believe in order to achieve its Mission and Vision, every organization requires specific competencies to ensure survival and success.  For example, you most certainly need expertise to locate potential customers for your product or service.  Do you have staff who knows how to craft a message that will appeal to these potential customers?  For example, if you wish to expand your marketplace into South America, you’ll want to understand the language, culture, and currency in target countries.  As part of a diversity initiative, you would need Human Resources staff or consultants who are conversant with labor laws (if there are labor laws) in those target countries.

Perhaps your organization has established the objective of enhancing its image within the community as part of its strategic plan.  The concept of “responsible corporate citizen” is different in other countries.  In Swedish companies, for example, parents are often allowed to take paternity or maternity leave at their discretion.  The desire for balancing work and family life has been a mainstay of the Swedish society and is an expected work benefit.  Swedes frequently surprise their international clients when they leave at 5:00 p.m. with the announced intention of spending time with their families.  U.S. business people might judge this behavior as a lack of commitment to work, when in fact Swedes may be demonstrating a strong commitment to quality of life.  This type of cultural difference must be explored before engaging in business with international companies and is therefore an important part of any diversity initiative.

Years ago, I was carrying out a segment of my organization’s strategic plan which was to develop and deliver training for new accounting procedures.  Sounds pretty straightforward, right?  The organization where I was employed was in the Far East, and my trainees were all Japanese.  Since I could speak the language, I was under the (mistaken) impression that conducting the training myself would not be a problem.  During the workshops, my students were smiling and nodding – and had no questions when I asked if anyone needed clarification.  Following the training, I was totally frustrated when all my students (who were also my direct reports) continued to use exactly the same procedures that they were using before the training!

I called upon a Japanese colleague for some advice, and he reminded me of Japanese cultural norms.  The “boss” is revered, as are teachers.  In this case, I was both.  If the students had asked me questions during the training, it would have caused me to “lose face” (they thought) because I couldn’t teach effectively.  I obviously had to find another way to educate my students to ensure they had the knowledge required to do their jobs.  During a follow-up workshop, I designed small mini-quizzes and provided individual feedback to clarify points that weren’t being grasped.  This time, the training was successful.  However, I had wasted training days and energy for myself and my staff because my planning didn’t incorporate cultural norms!

A critical component of strategic planning is implementation.  Successful implementation depends on inclusion of the unique skills, talents, and knowledge of individual employees.  Therefore, I believe no organization today can afford to omit tactics that address the diversity of its customers, suppliers, shareholders, and employees – if it wants to successfully achieve it’s Mission and Vision. 

If you have any questions or need more information about this article, please complete our Contact Form, or contact Dr. Gravett by telephone at 513-753-8870.

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