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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.
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In fact, these homogeneous connections often provide the illusion of diversity without actually accomplishing it — they collect more knowledge, perspectives, and opinions, but not necessarily different ones. The result: greater confidence in a bad decision. Consider the recent Nivea ad campaign featuring the tagline “White is purity” that immediately led to a global backlash alleging racism. The Nivea marketing executives were probably not intentionally trying to promote a racist agenda; they simply didn’t have anybody involved in the collaboration process who could offer an important (and, in hindsight, obvious) alternative perspective that might have allowed them to recognize a different interpretation than the one they intended.
The benefits of collaboration often occur only after an organization uses digital platforms to strengthen the organization’s diversity in both workforce composition and connections among employees. In research conducted with Yong Kim of Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, we found that digital platforms used alone tend to reinforce existing organizational silos. When platforms are used to create affinity groups — connecting people with shared interests outside of traditional workplace relationships, such as cooking or cycling — they are more likely to yield the types of cross-boundary communication that lead to productive collaboration. Platforms can enable groups to cultivate different types of homophily and break down those that support existing organizational silos.
Digital Platforms Can Enable Diversity
The good news is that digital collaboration platforms can help promote diversity in organizations. They can democratize access to information in the organization when needed, benefiting employees who may not have equal access to the more traditional social networks for knowledge. At one professional services firm we studied, we found that adoption of collaboration tools has a disproportionately positive effect on groups of people who have had difficulty tapping into organizational resources in the past — specifically women, lower-rank employees, and those of shorter tenure. Digital platforms can also allow certain employees to overcome many of the traditional barriers in organizations that have hindered them, making them more valuable sources of knowledge and increasing the depth and diversity of knowledge held within the organization.
When strategizing the various types of diversity you may be looking to create inside your organization, consider how digital platforms may play a role. By offering employees opportunities to connect in new ways with people with shared interests — rather than shared teams or responsibilities — leaders can foster stronger, more-diverse collaboration.