A recent column in the Wall Street Journal recounts the research findings of Professor Robert Putnam at Harvard University on the effects of diversity. Putnam wrote:

“Inhabitants of diverse communities tend to withdraw from collective life, to distrust their neighbors, regardless of the color of their skin, to withdraw even from close friends, to expect the worst from their community and its leaders, to volunteer less, give less to charity and work on community projects less often, to register to vote less, to agitate for social reform more, but have less faith that that they can actually make a difference and to huddle unhappily in front of the television.”

Our approach at Darden is to promote diversity, so I noted these findings with concern. As you know from previous postings, we seek to create a diverse and inclusive educational environment at Darden for four sound reasons:

  1. Quality of learning. Richness of learning in our case-method classroom depends on having a diverse range of backgrounds and views in the classroom. Our high-engagement culture needs heterogeneity as a basis for good discussion.
  2. Service to our constituents. People and organizations we serve care greatly about diversity. Corporate partners who recruit MBA students and who come to Darden for executive education want, and expect, to find a diverse faculty, staff, and student body.
  3. Recruiting talent. If we want to attract the best and brightest students and corporate partners, we need to create and nurture an environment that includes international students, women, under-represented minorities, gays and lesbians, and people with disabilities.
  4. Anticipating the future. Looking at immigration trends in the U.S. and other countries, and at the inexorable pace of globalization in business, Darden needs to train its graduates to compete well in a world that will be more (not less) diverse. Diversity in one’s section, learning team, clubs, and housing teaches valuable lessons that no textbook can.

Putnam is a serious researcher. His study is based on some 30,000 interviews in 41 U.S. communities. No doubt, scholars will find reasons to quibble with the findings. But I think we should take them seriously. What is a CEO or Dean to make of them?

One important implication is that we’ll all have to work harder to achieve the kind of organization culture required to sustain high performance. Human behavior shows that individuals resist assimilation—they like difference and want to preserve it. You cannot assume that simply congregating a diverse workforce will produce any particular benefits. You must work at it. Firms like Airbus, Arcelor, Boeing, General Electric, Goldman Sachs, Siemens, Tata, Toyota, and Wal-Mart tell a sobering story: the competition to recruit great talent is stiff and some of the best talent is in neglected corners of the population; also, global competition demands an ability to adapt to the opportunities and challenges in different cultures. Competition requires a business approach that is inclusive and respectful of difference. Here’s the kind of hard work that Putnam’s findings may imply:

  • Make the case in plain terms. To many people, the concepts and arguments for diversity are mumbo-jumbo. Leaders need to bring diversity into common conversation in terms that men and women at all levels of the organization can grasp. Daniel Henninger argues that the behavior of these 30,000 Americans rather plainly rejects the ideology of diversity. But Americans tend not to cotton to lofty abstractions; we are a practical culture. There is a solid business case to be made for a corporate culture that values diversity and inclusiveness. State it.
  • Listen and study. Of course, being able to articulate a case for diversity helps if you know your stuff. Understand the business necessity for diversity and the perspective of employees, customers, and suppliers. If diversity is a bland abstraction in your mind, you will sound like it.
  • Practice. If the only people you hang out with are like you, you won’t internalize the means of living in a diverse community. Get out of your comfort zone.
  • Promote diversity. As a manager, you have some choice about assignments, locations, and communications to employees. The choices you make about organization design and talent development today can help to prepare your organization for a more diverse world in the future.

Nobody said it would be easy. But those managers, corporations, and B-schools that successfully adapt to an increasingly diverse competitive field will likely succeed. Darden will be one of those B-schools!

Posted by Robert Bruner at 08/20/2007 06:33:21 PM