An organisation is a collection of complex interactions between diverse inputs. One of these inputs is the employees within a business. Recent global events have brought conversations forward around how to adopt diversity within a workforce and exploit its benefits. Although possibly well intentioned, these initiatives will remain inadequate for as long as we hold on to this flat perception of the different dimensions of diversity. Without understanding when to apply it or how to measure it, its payoffs will remain latent.
So how can we gain an expansive view of the possibilities brought about by diversity?
I intend to broaden your perception of the applications of variation — thereby highlighting its importance — so I’ve developed metaphors to offer a unique viewpoint on the nature of diversity. I ask you the reader, to indulge me in exploring the applications of diversity in different contexts, so as to understand how these same principles can be applied within an organisation. This outlook will explore some of the attributes, limitations, and effects of diversity.
The Edge Effect: Collaboration Across Silos
Ecology defines the edge effect as the overlapping of two different ecosystems. Within those ecosystems are different species. At the point of convergence, you find species from both ecosystems, as well as distinctive types. These distinctive species are adaptive to the conditions of the area of transition.
Similar to ecosystems, functional silos can become a network of interconnected teams operating effectively at interfaces. However, collaborations across these intersections are partly dependent on the business’s level of:
Volatility — rapid changes
Uncertainty — difficulty in predicting future events
Complexity — multiple interconnected elements
Ambiguity — unclear meaning of indications
Based on the above conditions, as they become apparent within a business, an appropriate level of diversity begins to emerge based on the rate of system disruptions. We can infer that diversity enhances the robustness of a complex system, that is the ability to maintain functionality, while also driving innovation and productivity. This allows an organisation to remain operative in the event of disturbances, thereby mitigating unfavourable outcomes.
So, how do you enhance diversity through collaboration?
Generally, silos suppress the development of diversity, limiting what ideas get transferred to what context. Facilitating and improving interactions between people across and within boundaries can be achieved by data analysis and technology namely through:
a. Network analysis: this essentially is the evaluation of network data (i.e., interactions from sources like email, phone calls, and collaboration tools) through Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning (ML). The desired outcome is the eventual development of collaboration within an organisation to address business issues. You can evaluate the patterns through the following tenets:
i. Size — the number of people an employee is connected to
ii. Strength — the strength of relationships within the network
iii. Range — how many different groups you are connected to
iv. Density — the extent to which all employees within the network are interconnected
v. Centrality — whether all employees are connected to the same number of other people
vi. Redundancy-Diversity trade-off — a balance of skills and capabilities, as with increasing redundancy you sacrifice diversity, but also eradicating all redundancies results in a fragile system
In using these rules above, you are able to interpret interaction sequences (descriptive statistics) and evaluate patterns through correlational or multivariate analysis.
b. AI powered tools: to facilitate collaboration requires efficient informational systems that improve data flows, decision-making, and autonomy — breaking down information silos.
In managing information systems organisations use negative feedback to monitor their environment, to detect any deviations from set objectives. This initiates corrective actions, thereby creating a self-regulating system. The feedback generated by the system creates the opportunity to evaluate standard operational procedures and assumptions. This highlights the relationship between uncertainty, information processing, and organisational design. (G.Morgan, 2006).
The design of teams should align with the above by focusing on (i) ongoing and iterative communication to create transparency, accountability, and a clear understanding of constraints across functional units, (ii) coordination to enhance the ease of cross-functional collaboration, through asynchronous (exchanging of information independent of real-time feedback) coordination.
When adopted appropriately advanced analytics together with AI/ML powered tools can transform the ways in which employees collaborate. From their ways of communication to the coordination of their workflows within and across teams. This results in enhanced diversity, greater team efficiency, and more synchronisation.
The structure of a team requires distinct skill attributes, which when coupled with a collaborative culture will improve diversity. To identify the skills requisite within the “convergence zone” (refer to exhibit A) and overall teams, involves a shared understanding of the skills typology. It also requires the ability to refine the skills based on the level of experience or role expectations. However, this is dependent on the availability of data to understand the individual’s profile or team composite — a skills and capabilities inventory.
I. The Individual (Divergent v. Convergent thinking)
Each individual has a limitation on how they see the world because their perception is confined. Narrowed by two things; the individual’s capacity to take in information and the paradigms within which they process the information. As diverse minds lead to different methods, innovations or predictions, it is then essential to create an environment that promotes collective knowledge.
Apart from the observable benefits of productivity and innovation (exploration), cognitive diversity contributes to the functionality of a team — and the organisation by extension — in improving responsiveness to uncertainty. The greater the possible outcomes, the more disruptions a system can absorb. Scott Page discusses how it also increases the rate of improvement as the learning rate declines overtime. Generally, any easy improvements are identified early on. So, as the easy tasks get fewer and improving becomes difficult, it promotes the relative advantage of specialisation.
II. The Team (Redundancy and Degeneracy)
In case of disruption a system requires redundancy to remain operational. However, too much of it will cause rigidity and too little of it results in a fragile system. So, there needs to be a redundancy-diversity trade-off. Within redundancy is also the concept of degeneracy, which refers to structures that are different yet able to perform the same function. The human body offers a relatable view that can explain redundancy-diversity trade-off.
Tissue regeneration in stem cell research has proven how a human adult regardless of their age, their cells are approximately 7 to 10 years old as they constantly renew. However, this is dependent on the role of the organ, with other cells having a lower turnover. For example, some or all of the cells from the cerebral cortex (the part of our brain that is involved in language processing, sensory information, and intelligence) do not renew from birth to death. This is in contrast to another part of your body such as your skin. But even if the cells are being replaced, the DNA remains. So, such a complex structure as the human body which is generally perceived to be unchanging, is a system in constant variability.
To understand how to create a self-organising team requires knowledge of the following principles:
a. Creating a team culture with a shared vision, values, and sense of purpose
b. In order to improve the system and build resilience, relies on redundancy and degeneracy. The latter, a duplication of critical functions within a system to eradicate any instability. The former, referring to different structures that can perform the same task or function
c. Requisite variety — the variety and complexity within the system should reflect the environment it operates in
It is important to understand the relationship between diversity and redundancy. Building these tenets within the structure of a team and organisation as a whole, allows for a decentralised self-managing style of work that remains aligned to overall business strategies.
“Metaphors stretch imagination in a way that can create powerful insights, but at the risk of distortion.” — Gareth Morgan
In conclusion, to appreciate diversity requires understanding the simple compounded risk of operating without it. In the moment of forming a perception you are left blind to another, thereby impaired in your judgement and restricted from a holistic view of your environment.