Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) efforts usually focus on employee diversity, mostly ignoring customer, consumer and community diversity and inclusion. Diverse hiring, as many studies have shown, can create a competitive advantage for organisations and facilitate efficient operational performance management; but the ideal recipe for an effective and successful business is when workforce diversity reflects the diversity of its customers. This mirroring of workforce and customer base is what we refer to as workforce mutuality. In this fast-changing environment, why is workforce mutuality so important for organisations to track and evaluate organisational performance and build an effective growth strategy?
The present rapid pace of globalisation has effectively turned the world into a global village. Nevertheless, economic globalisation has not been accompanied by cultural globalisation. This is why cultural awareness has become increasingly vital over the last three decades. As political scientist Samuel Huntington wrote in the opening sentence of his acclaimed 1996 book The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of the World Order:
“In the post-Cold War world flags count and so do other symbols of cultural identity, including crosses, crescents, and even head coverings, because culture counts, and cultural identity is what is most meaningful to most people.”
From imperialism to the age of cultural awakening
Now in the twenty-first century there seems to be a great cultural awakening. A significant portion of human history has been governed by the principle of “might makes right”, in which history has been written by the winners, leaving many behind. Since the Greek conquest of Alexander, the great superpowers have sought to assimilate other civilizations via imperialism and colonialism. An associated superiority complex led the more powerful to see their own culture as superior to that of other civilizations, meaning that to succeed, you had to act like the most powerful and influential people.
Many seem to have forgotten that most European nations, as with other parts of the world, were built through extreme ethnic cleansing. Although there have been various efforts to eradicate groups of people based on differences, they have all failed miserably as evidenced by the society we live in today. The implication is that even humans cannot defeat nature, and that cultural diversity is a natural phenomenon.
Despite the Cold War, the liberal international order with its champion, the United States, promoted peoples’ self-determination while also advocating free trade and breaking with centuries of European imperialism and colonialism. Yet, as “the leader of the free world”, the United States, influenced by previous superpowers, fostered a globalisation that became more of a Westernisation with an economic development model based on Walt W. Rostow’s 1960 model, 5 Stages of Economic Growth and Development. However, many countries in the so-called Third World, particularly in Asia, rejected the linear pattern of development, which they perceived as persuasion to catch up with the Western countries, prioritising the capitalist model. As a result, Asian countries began to look inward to their cultures as a lever for their development, finding technology as their strength.
In this aspect, technology became everyone’s concern, with Asian nations such as Japan, South Korea, Singapore, China and others using their large populations and cheap labour to create a massive market for Western corporations. This led to a virtual market in a digital world compressing time and space. Consequently, it became exceedingly difficult for businesses to operate only within their country’s boundaries: the temptation to capture other markets was so compelling. Given the rise of purchasing power from Asian countries and the stiff competition with Western companies, considering the culture of other people as a business strategy became vitally important. The quest to win new markets at the dawn of the new millennium became the new frontier.
Expanding in a competitive world
Rapid expansion is a critical objective for most businesses, making the formulation of a sustainable growth strategy paramount. In fact, in a digital world, going global could be easy, but staying global could be the most difficult thing to manage. As people are a company’s most valuable asset, any plan for growth requires hiring more people. To invest in and hire more personnel comes with its own set of difficulties, as the more employees that enter an organisation, the harder it is to manage them. Growth necessitates confronting obstacles and difficulties with a positive, efficient attitude and sustainable strategies.
In such circumstances, companies will need to adopt an efficient needs-based strategy to achieve effective sustainable growth management, regardless of the past successes of the company.
One essential sustainable growth strategy is personnel management to foster an inclusive workplace where employees feel safe and encouraged to be optimally productive. Building a DEI strategy is crucial to this.
The increasing diversity of our societies is one of the most difficult challenges and opportunities of the global community in which we now live. It will be challenging to acquire the best talent from a specific cultural background. In addition, a company filled with a heterogeneous group of people who do not understand themselves are difficult to manage. In Western nations, for instance, there has been a considerable influx of immigrants in high-skilled jobs, so a team could be unwittingly diverse due to their organisation’s pursuit of excellence. The poor methodology of most academic studies means there is limited knowledge in this area but some studies have demonstrated that where diversity is not well managed the result is an unfriendly workplace. That could have disastrous consequences, such as high staff turnover and lost business.
The world is less predictable than it formerly was
Due to globalisation, events in one region or state can affect the entire world and the rapid rate of change makes it increasingly difficult for anyone to predict political and socio-economic events that could harm the global economy. I refer to events like 9/11, with its religious implications and affects particularly on Muslim communities; the war in Iraq in 2003, which sparked protests around the world; the Subprime Mortgage Crisis and the global financial crisis of 2008; the Black Lives Matter movements in the United States with their reverberation in several European and African countries; BREXIT; COVID-19; the war in Ukraine; and let us not forget to mention the rise of emerging markets like China, India and Turkey.
One may confidently assert that the only constant in this world is change. Experts and political pundits are no longer reliable as they overwhelmingly failed to forecast the victory of President Donald Trump and its impact on the American political landscape. Similarly, the majority of people around the world were stunned to witness the 6 January attack on the United States Capitol by Trump’s supporters after he lost the presidential election to Joe Biden – in a country that takes pride in spreading democracy to other countries.
Protests have been rife throughout the world, including in Western nations, particularly after the 2008 economic crisis. Citizens seem to have lost control over their governments, and liberal democracy is challenged in Western countries, leading to what Dambisa Moyo has called the Edge of Chaos. However, many analysts were incapable of predicting or even imagining BREXIT, which demonstrates disconnectedness from their own people; the best way to be informed about how people feel is to have direct contact with the people.
How a diverse workforce facilitates information gathering
All these changes in such a short period of time have caused a lot of political and economic instability throughout the world. As human beings are social animals, their instinctive reaction in times of insecurity and uncertainty is to revert to their cultural communities, where they feel secure. This phenomenon has encouraged the rise of identity politics across the world, driven by emotions. Companies cannot afford to ignore how this impacts their business. As Scott Greenberg mentioned, “markets are driven by feelings,” customers’ concerns are “less about what they get and more about how they feel.”
People from diverse communities and cultures develop different reactions to a given event because they do not perceive things the same way or are not affected in the same manner. Take, for example, the Black Lives Matter movement. The manner in which it affected blacks and Africans and sparked cultural consciousness among people of African descent around the world was not felt in the same way by many whites and Europeans. Africans living in Western countries and Africans living in Africa had markedly dissimilar responses because of their different experiences in distinct environments.
Many businesses seem to minimise the impact that a political event such as the war in Ukraine can have on the minds of people and their consumers. When you look at the United Nations General Assembly vote to condemn Russia for its illegal intervention in Ukraine, you will notice that the vote was not unanimous. Several countries abstained, and many voted against it. The vote unveils the African story, which Africans so desperately want the world to hear. This highlights how diverse the world is on some matters, including the behaviour of consumers. Moreover, it reveals how people outside the Western world will contest a political decision that Westerners believe to be a given. As it turns out, the mainstream media may not be the best site to obtain such intelligence.
Workforce mutuality as economic intelligence
In the absence of reliable expertise to draw from, companies will be inclined to look within, through the diversity of their staff, to feel the emotions and motivations of their customers. This is an effective strategy if an organisation mirrors the diversity of the customer base it serves. It means that through your organisation you can see and feel your society. Studies have indicated that “high synchronisation builds a healthy relationship between an organisation and its customers, leading to better customer service and, thus, radically improving their business performance.”
Workforce mutuality describes the extent to which an organisation’s workforce reflects the diversity that exists in the community served by the organisation. Mutuality means a company has staff who represent their customers, think like their customers, and understand them. It generates relevant information and insights to help businesses serve their customers better. Workforce mutuality is vital to understanding the market, as the intelligence businesses gather from their own staff will help them anticipate and handle change promptly.
Organisations can easily become complacent with their success and resistant to change. Change management is a complex process because old habits die hard amongst people. However, workforce mutuality makes the process of change, which is inevitable, more organic, intuitive and human, more agile and elegant, informed as it is by real humans with real lived experiences.
Maintaining a competitive edge or surviving in business necessitates an in-depth comprehension of the surrounding environment. Understanding people is core to this. Survival requires the ability to effectively adjust to environmental changes. Relationships and business procedures are influenced by culture and cultural diversity is mostly invisible to the naked eye, but thanks to technology, knowledge can be unlocked that enables companies to perceive the true potential of their workforce and give them detailed information about who they are.
It is said that understanding who you are is the best way to understand others. Adaptation is the heart of diversity and inclusion. Leaders must adapt their actions and the company culture to help them meet and adapt to the requirements of a wide range of employees, clients, and consumers.
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