/ 5 October 2012

Diversity is a treasure trove of solutions

'The department of labour's policies reinforce identity-based thinking.'
'The department of labour's policies reinforce identity-based thinking.'

The Labour Relations Act, the Basic Conditions of Employment Act and the Broad-Based Black Economic Empowerment Act all encourage a bigger pool of diverse identities in the workplace. But Labour Minister Mildred Oliphant highlighted the fact that white men still formed the largest proportion (65.4%) of top management – and men still made up most of the workforce in South Africa.

An article on the report in the M&G said it "is clear … that males and white people are more likely to be recruited and promoted compared with any other group". How are we to make sense of this data? Why is transformation so slow?

Apartheid has conditioned people to think of diverse individuals in terms of their identity – for example, their race, ethnic origin, religious beliefs and sexual orientation. But this is a small part of the broader logic of diversity.

The department of labour's policies reinforce identity-based thinking. This is "bigger pool" logic, the notion that reducing identity-based discrimination enlarges the pool of potential employees because talent is found in people of any race, gender, ethnicity and so on. It is true – talent knows no colour, but the "bigger pool" logic is not where the conversation should end; it is where it should begin.

A more expansive approach sees that an individual's cognitive talents cannot be captured with one number on a transcript or a standardised test. It sees that people differ in how we think, how we represent problems and how we try to solve them. These differences produce collective benefits.

Pragmatic approach
How does an entity such as a company shift to a pragmatic approach that leverages diversity to "create a united, democratic, nonracial, nonsexist, prosperous South Africa", as Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe has mentioned repeatedly? Some argue that South Africa is a young democracy and it will take a long time to correct the wrongs of the past. Some say one should not fix one wrong with another, claiming these policies are just discrimination against white people.

We can offer three counter arguments. First, as United States president Lyndon Johnson famously said: "You do not take a person who, for years, has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line of a race and then say 'You are free to compete with all the others'." That is, equality now cannot atone for past discrimination.

Second, people are more comfortable with people who look like them and think like them. Sociologists call this "homophily". This preference leads to glacial change in the integration statistics from the department of labour; it also leads to worse outcomes. Academic studies comparing homogenous groups to diverse groups find that people prefer being in a homogenous group and believe such groups perform better even when diverse groups do better.

Third, without affirmative action the playing field would not be level. Subtle structural discriminatory policies are widespread in organisations or schools: they include admitting individuals based on whether their parents attended a school or university, or they discriminate on the basis of language and other such criteria.

Our point is that affirmative action creates a more diverse and inclusive society at multiple levels. This will produce interaction among people from different identity groups, people with different experiences. People who have dealt with disadvantaged educational facilities, poverty or constraints on public resources will think differently about problems. Identity diversity and cognitive diversity go hand in hand, as should the people of South Africa.

Perhaps more than anywhere else in the world, South Africans are aware of how cultural identities influence the stories people hear and tell and how they drive beliefs. A group, team or organisation containing identity diversity will also have relative cognitive diversity and it will be better at complex cognitive tasks. This is called "the diversity bonus".

Attitudes matter
Evidence from business and the social sciences shows that well-functioning diverse groups are better at solving relevant problems, being innovative and making predictions than homogenous teams. But attitudes matter: if you expect diversity to lead to better solutions then you will get a diversity bonus; if you do not, you will be part of a dysfunctional group, team or society.

If South Africa is to be a global player, competing on the global stage but solving the unique challenges of Africa, it is imperative that South Africans embrace diversity. Only involving wealthy or white people will fail because the challenges South Africans face require many different perspectives and experiences.

The real question corporates and organisations should be asking is: How do we attain functional diversity (identity and cognitive diversity), make the moral and ethical transition towards a "united, democratic, nonracial, nonsexist, prosperous South Africa" and, at the same time, value the increased talent pool?

 Unfortunately, not many organisations are willing to restructure by allowing diverse individuals to propose solutions and thereby share power – a symptom contributing to the labour department's statistics. Universities, for instance, need to decide what their roles are and how to provide education and training that foster diversity and use its successes and failures to demonstrate how the "rainbow nation" can lead to a more productive society.

As long as South Africans construct policies that interpret this as a problem of dividing up a pie, they will view competition as divisiveness. South Africans should see their diversity as an asset that enables them to make a larger pie of which everyone gets a satisfactory share.

Dr Gareth Witten is an adjunct professor at the graduate school of business, University of Cape Town.Professor Scott E Page of the University of Michigan is the author of The Difference: How the Power of Diversity Creates Better Groups, Firms, Schools and Societies (Princeton University Press)