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When one thinks of a successful digital transformation, employee diversity doesn’t immediately come to mind as an essential component. Yet, to compete in an increasingly digital environment, a diverse employee base can not only help provide new ideas but can also help reveal key decision-making errors that may otherwise go unnoticed.
Diversity is particularly important for collaboration, a critical factor associated with digital business maturity. Our research shows that while only about 30% of employees from companies at an early stage of digital development say that their company is collaborative, more than 70% of employees from digitally mature companies do. Nevertheless, collaboration simply for the sake of collaboration is not necessarily valuable.
Groupthink vs. Collective Intelligence
The psychologist Irving Janis describes how certain types of collaboration tendencies can go wrong, noting that groups tend to make collectively bad decisions under certain types of conditions, such as when they possess homogeneous knowledge and perspectives. In contrast, James Surowiecki reverse-engineers Janis’ principles of groupthink in his book The Wisdom of Crowds: He argues that groups can come together and make stronger decisions than individuals can because they bring different opinions. Professor Thomas Malone of MIT’s Sloan School of Management refers to this phenomenon as “collective intelligence.”
On one level, it would seem that digital platforms would naturally lead to the facilitation of diverse knowledge and perspectives, since this technology allows people to connect without respect to time and place. Yet, digital platforms can cultivate a diversity of opinion only if an organization actually employs diverse people to connect with. Furthermore, even if a company has a sufficiently diverse workforce, digital platforms can both enable and hinder a diversity of opinion, depending on how they are used.
Digital Platforms Reinforce Natural Collaborative Tendencies
Human brains are hard-wired to be social — people typically have certain inherent tendencies to interact with others in specific ways. Digital platforms often reinforce these natural collaboration patterns by making it much easier to connect with others — but people generally gravitate to other like-minded individuals.
Homophilous connections may be enjoyable, but they often reinforce existing decision-making biases and degrade the overall outcome of cross-enterprise collaboration; new connections with like-minded people typically don’t offer new insights or alternative viewpoints that broaden one’s knowledge resources.