Monday, 28 May 2012

Workplace culture, social learning & workforce homogenisation

I often see talented people come into a business, recruited for their transferable skills and potential to contribute to a team. We talk up their existing skills and experience, and reassure the new starter that they bring something very valuable to the job - you're going to be alright in this new job because you largely already have the fabric to succeed!

And then we send them to the front-line, where the prevailing culture and influence of their colleagues, socialise them into assuming homogenised work practices and ways of thinking. The new starter understands that to gain acceptance they need to largely conform to a way that is defined by certain parameters - often it's the only way. Ultimately the new starter becomes part of a stifled approach that struggles to find the solutions and drive the outcomes that the business demands.

The intersection of human resources, management and recruitment typically centres on appointing people who are a 'good fit' for an organisation. This rationale perhaps makes sense where a skill set is perceived to meet the demands of work limited to relatively low complexity process tasks. However this 'good fit' principle shouldn't be about sourcing people with a view to homogenising your workforce.

Increasingly work is now being undertaken in dynamic environments where people need to 'think on their feet' and adapt their skills to novel situations. People need to collaborate in order to synthesise solutions to meet complex business challenges. This requires high level analysis, creativity and innovation. These attributes may be overlooked and under-expressed in an organisation based on 'good fit' principles and a homogenising culture.

'Good fit' for complex work should perhaps be linked to the potential of an individual to bring diversity to a team. Diversity of skills, experience, ways of thinking - a degree of uniqueness and capacity to share something different across the network.

Social learning through the interactions across a diverse workforce has the potential to be a melting pot and fermenter of ideas. This is in contrast to the narrow perspectives you observe in a homogenised workforce.

It is not 'social' when a workplace culture limits or even punishes diversity, punishes difference. 'Social' to me, has its foundation in the connection of 'like-minded' people, in the sense that there is a spirit of sharing, augmenting, refining and applying ideas that are distilled through the coalescing of diverse perspectives.

Organisations promote the importance of shared values. However, shared values does not mean conformity of opinion. Further, diversity and difference does not imply a lack of shared purpose or shared vision.

"Diversity and independence are important because the best collective decisions are the product of disagreement and contest, not consensus or compromise.”  

James Surowiecki (2005), The Wisdom of Crowds

Diversity can bring a richness of ideas and a creative climate. A flourishing creative climate potentially drives innovation. Well positioned innovation can provide business with a competitive edge and sustainability. Let's value difference and support diversity as a means of facilitating individual and collective success.

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