Diversity can be SA’s trump card


South Africa’s business landscape is dominated by a drive to enhance the workforce diversity in our companies. But, in meeting these diversity targets, are the real performance benefits of diversity being missed by our organisations?

Diversity is becoming a key factor for competitiveness globally with analysts increasingly highlighting that, with organisations today operating in intensely competitive and complex conditions needing rich information processing, having a diverse workforce that adds flexibility and real-time problem processing power to an organisation is critical.

According to Reuben McDaniel and Michelle Walls authors of Diversity as a Management Strategy in the Journal of Management Inquiry, "if one wishes to succeed in the high-variety environment of the global economy, then one must have a great variety in the organisation.'

This is a performance aspect that may be obscured in South Africa as we continue to focus on getting the numbers right. Diversity, in South Africa, also remains defined largely in terms of race and gender - necessary due to the nation’s past - but organisations should also be aware that diversity includes other differences as well, such as in national origin, ethnicity, ability, and even geographic origin.

But if there is strength in diversity, then how do organisations tap into this for the greater good? What understanding and capacities will this require of people individually and collectively?

Peter Senge, co-author of the bestseller Presence: Human Purpose and the Field of the Future, says that the core capacity needed of individuals in organisations is "presence'.

He identifies "presence' as not just being fully conscious and aware in the present moment, but also as "deep listening, of being open beyond one's preconceptions and historical ways of making sense,' as well as, "the importance of letting go of old identities and the need to control'.

Embracing diversity therefore begins with a personal process that aims to allow us to become more aware of our actions in-the-moment as a means of opening up the doors to future successful interactions. By paying attention to this people can also begin to see that what works for them as an individual isn’t necessarily what works for the organisation as a whole.

This, however, is only the first part to tapping into the power of diversity - a foundation for the real task of building a resilient and flexible human community.

The hallmarks of this type of community can be found in Fritjof Capra’s bestseller The Web of Life. He uses the example of ecosystems to explain how human communities should be organising themselves.

Capra highlights four areas in which organisations can emulate ecosystems in order to maximise the rewards diversity continuously - interdependence, the cyclical flow of resources, cooperation, and partnership.

Emulating these principles "will enable organisations to maintain themselves in a flexible state, ready to adapt to changing conditions,' he argues.

Capra also adds his voice to the argument for diversity as powerful force in organisations today.

"In organisations, diversity means many different relationships, many different approaches to the same problem. A diverse community is a resilient community, capable of adapting to changing situations,' he says.

Attaining the performance benefits of diversity clearly demands some re-thinking in terms of the traditional models of what makes an organisation tick. This is where managers are called to action to shape the work environment and interactions with new management techniques.

Managers need to aim to build a community sustained by a web of positive relationships. They should also ensure that the organisation doesn’t have isolated groups and individuals, which may lead to conflicts.

They also need to foster the free flow of ideas across the entire organisation, which will help new interpretations and fresh perspectives come to light. The aim is to open the space for difference rather than close the space down for discussion and debate, as many organisations still tend to do.

Managers around the world have to grapple with these imperatives but the goal is the same - competitiveness in an age of global complexity that is just emerging. For South Africa, it will mean going beyond diversity as social justice and fairness into an era that uses our incredible diversity as the engines of our success. This is a challenge that will require a great deal of willingness to examine and relax the very constraining structures that appear to give us the most comfort.

Associate Professor Chris Breen is director of the new programme 'Embracing Complexity and Diversity' at the GSB from 8 - 10 May. Go to www.gsb.uct.ac.za/complexity for more information or call Tracy Kimberley on (021) 406 1346.