At the European headquarters of the consumer goods company Procter & Gamble, diversity is seen as a quality that provides a range of benefits. As well as seeking diversity along such familiar lines as gender, age, ethnicity and culture, the company looks at less obvious facets, such as marital status, parenthood, style, experience and skills, in the hope of catering to the whole breadth of the market and appealing to as many customers as possible.
The benefits of diversity can be seen in almost every function of the business, from human resources and product development to procurement and logistics. Despite this, many organisations still see diversity as a rather costly exercise instead of a strategic asset.
Such an asset must be developed over the long term, throughout the organisation. At Procter & Gamble, the process begins with each employee and manager and continues under various headings. First is leadership accountability, which requires leaders at all levels to set clear targets for their actions and to translate them into specific plans. Another is awareness, which is created by internal workshops as well as exposure to external events.
A third, empowerment, involves such activities as educational workshops; while boss-subordinate relationships requires bosses to consider regularly whether they represent role models for work-life balance, whether they are in touch with their subordinates, whether they invest adequately in the development of their employees, whether their development plans reflect the company's diversity strategy and whether there are any biases that may distort their views.
The concept of diversity does have its limitations and drawbacks, though. It is an investment that obviously has a cost and it may take some time to see the benefits. Establishing and maintaining diversity is not a panacea - it is just one aspect on which companies need to focus. And diversity can lead to a company employing people from backgrounds that have previously been in conflict, giving rise to potential clashes within the office.
All things considered, diversity can bring a lasting competitive advantage to companies. It should be considered a true strategic asset because it is valuable, rare, hard to imitate and impossible to substitute.
Source: Winning through diversity
Patrick Schueffel and Cristina Istria
European Business Forum, Issue 23
Review by Roger Trapp