How D&I contributes to successful Digitalisation while earning hidden risks

Although the trend is not new, the profoundness of the digital transformation is only about to become clearer. While most areas feel as if they had to follow (or obey), D&I should not only be seen as an object of digitalisation, but also as a driver. An overview of the two-way inter-relations.

As a value-chain, Diversity & Inclusion has the potential to contribute to most business priorities. While this has been described in detail for innovation, productivity, marketing or organisational effectiveness, it appears to be less clear for digitalisation. This megatrend has usually been seen as the dominant force that will impact each area of (business) life. Michael Stuber, The Global D&I Engineer, has analysed interdependencies and presented his summary in the closing keynote at the 2018 Diversity Day in Luxembourg.

The Scope of Digitalisation

Like every Industrial Revolution before, digitalisation creates numerous disruptions including huge opportunities but also losses in many industries or job families. While automation is already felt in many everyday situations, the dynamics of change present challenges for many involved – mostly due to the pace, complexity and profoundness of the changes. Resilience has become a key need in this respect. At the same time, the dynamics of the new ways of working and an Everybody-can-do-anything-attitude needs to be managed. Finally, the redistribution of work to fewer jobs, some less and some more qualified, presents a challenge for individuals as well as economies.

What D&I contributes to the success of the digital transformation

With thousands of start-ups and a specific generational culture, the digital era has created a wide-spread belief that everybody can achieve (and create) anything. This founding age spirit creates huge positive momentum which, at times, ends abruptly. D&I can add significant value by facilitating a self-awareness process for individual strengths (or weaknesses) and foster the recognition of existing solutions that have already been created by others (as opposed to accept the default approach to start from scratch). In many of these processes, generational, cultural or competence gaps exist that can be addressed easily and effectively through a holistic process of D&I.

Related to the multiple changes that are going on and yet to come, D&I contributes an open mind-set that is key to successfully driving digital transformation. Fostering open-mindedness is a critical component of well-designed D&I processes and unfortunately lacking in many normative (e.g. policy or metric-driven) frameworks. The other key component of successful D&I strategies focuses on inclusive behaviours and communication which inevitably could and should encompass more flexibility and adaptability. Finally, as a theme that cuts across all elements of the D&I value-chain, D&I contributes a fresh look on capabilities and more specifically new leadership competences that are required in a digitalised world.

However, analysis show that robust contributions can only be generated if D&I is positioned, designed and implemented as a holistic organisational, cultural and leadership change process – and not just a series of initiatives, events, awards and campaigns.

Reversed perspective: What is the impact of Digitalisation on D&I?

Based on the success of digitalised HR processes, including standardised online applications or automated evaluation tools, D&I experts were filled with hope that the digital revolution will help to overcome existing barriers or biases towards Diversity. Closer analysis and more in-depth research has shown, unfortunately, that most tools cannot meet this expectation for reasons that are embedded in the tools:

  • Artificial intelligence creates knowledge and insight based on existing data and the patterns included in these data. This means that AI will inevitably reproduce biases that exist in the current reality. A powerful example for this dynamic is the attempt of the London Metropolitan Police to use AI to evaluate public CCTV data
  • Software that is programmed to perform people processes, such as CV screening or evaluation, will reproduce biases that might well be embedded in the code – stemming from the designer or the programmer who have to set criteria for the software to operate (e.g. if a career break is counted negatively, positively or neutrally).

Two recent studies that have found how bias can be reproduced in digital tools are described in this article:

However, other people analytics tools show that dealing with bigger data in an effective way can create new insight that is relevant (and helpful) for D&I in that it unveils previously hidden patterns, e.g. of attrition or subtle inequalities.

Some fundamental biases of the Digital Revolution

Previous industrial revolutions had created inequalities. While this does not mean that it happens again for the current digital revolution, the past experience should prompt us to check current dynamics against D&I. In fact, many new technologies are widely described as drivers for D&I as they improve accessibility (e.g. people with a disability), employability (e.g. remote work for people with dependent care responsibilities) and inclusion of people in various global locations in collaborative processes.

However, it has been noted by many authors that the digital success stories are usually ‘his story’ and almost never ‘her story’. This may be fuelled by the ongoing gender gap in STEM education and professions as well as by gender biases in the start-up environment including among venture capitalists. In her book ‘Bienvenue dans le nouveau monde’, Mathilde Ramadier busts many of the myths that are glorifying the start-up industry.

On the other hand, recent analysis have shown that the Hi-Tech-Industry does not qualify as a role model for D&I. While their corporate cultures and employment policies were admired in the beginning (often overlooking that the industry has very different possibilities than a steel producer, a retailer or the tourists industry), new data and incidences provide evidence that many of the larger hi-tech firms suffer from similar symptoms like many corporations in more traditional industries. This article provides an analysis:

Filter Bubbles and Echo Chambers: D&I is also subject to Digital Dynamics

Beyond the digitalisation of D&I tools or relevant business processes, the D&I arena is also subject to much discussed digital dynamics, including filter bubbles. Analysis show that D&I practitioners are just as much affected by selective information and self-created echo chambers. Due to the sensitivity of some of the topics discussed, it could well be that D&I experts are even more inclined to rely only on people they (happen to) know and hence trust rather than a structured search for input from a wider array of sources. A more in-depth description of relevant considerations can be found in this article:

What D&I can Learn from Creative Professionals about GroupThink

Conclusions for the Future of D&I

In his summary, Stuber highlighted key points for the future of D&I in a digitalised world.

  1. Human component: D&I continues to be a critical element to add tailored human components to a digitalised workplace
  2. Business value: D&I generated substantial and measurable benefits to the business agenda in general and to the digital transformation in particular
  3. Differentiated metrics: D&I requires a holistic look at differences, open-mindedness and inclusiveness, which should all be measured
  4. Serious resources: D&I can only add value if it is implemented as a robust change process with adequate resources in place
  5. Mainstream role models: D&I needs to reposition itself to include and actively involve majority or mainstream audiences

The following discussion touched a number of interesting additional aspects including the reliability and accessibility of, e.g., online tests and applications, or the effectiveness of segregated D&I formats.

Luxembourg Diversity Day 2018