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Diversity as a competitive tool: focus on inclusion and innovation

Inclusion and innovation is a combination that ensures greater productivity and competitiveness in business. Diversity (such as sexual orientation, religion, ethnicity, culture) can be a powerful driver of growth, a source of creativity and of new ideas, and a stimulus for a better culture of enterprise, and diversity management is now seen as an essential tool in development, especially for those who operate in the international marketplace and in the difficult construction of the vital unification of global and local. Recent studies by Catalyst (a leading US advisory firm, which has offices in Europe, Japan, Canada, India, Australia, and more) and by McKinsey have shed some light on this topic.

According to Catalyst (as reported by Paolo Bricco in Il Sole24Ore, 25 September), over the last decade, the 50 global US corporations – benchmarks in diversity management – posted stock-price gains that outperformed the Dow Jones Industrial Average by 22% and the Nasdaq by 28%. In other words, the financial markets are rewarding the vibrancy of companies that are able to come to terms with and take advantage of different, and often conflicting, approaches to business. (In short, investors like a company that is neither a military base nor a temple of conformity, of blind obedience, or of organisational inflexibility.) McKinsey expanded the study to include Europe, putting together a sample population of US, British, French and German firms, and found that companies that have boards that feature a significant number of women are worth 25% more, in terms of efficiency as measured by return on equity (ROE) and growth, than the rest, while also confirming the improved internal physiology of businesses that adopt diversity policies generally. In short, McKinsey has found that a diversified, inclusive workforce generates greater results in teamwork (57% above the standard), in individual productivity (+12%), and in the ability to build strong, long-lasting relationships with the customer (+19%).

Taylorism and Fordism, strict technocrats, and standardised management processes have had their day in the sun. “Obedience is no longer a virtue” is a recurring view that can now also be witnessed in the best culture of enterprise (and was the courageous decision of the Roman Catholic priest Lorenzo Milani, one that was finally rediscovered after his death in 1967). There is now room in enterprises working on the complex fringes of innovation for critical (and even heretical) thought. Calls for “the individual first” (or what of the work of Emmanuel Mounier or parts of “La condition ouvrière” by Simone Weil?) and for the development of human resources, essential aspects of our “knowledge economy”, need to be translated into organisational structures and rules of governance in which diversity is a key to decision-making and a focus of conduct and strategies – efforts to be carried forward.

“The new economic rationality is made up of the appreciation of differences,” as Bricco has said, and Andrea Notarnicola, a labour sociologist and author of “Global Inclusion” (a book recently published by Franco Angeli), notes: “The paradigm founded on inclusion represents the evolution of equal opportunities for women and of corporate social responsibility. It is an overall approach, a global orientation, that leads every business, both within and without, to consider see diversity as the new, fundamental key to competitiveness.”

Easier said than done. There is, of course, no lack of resistance in business. The road from a will to improve to actual inclusive practices properly applied is a long one. Nonetheless, the most important thing is that the process is under way, backed by a sound theoretical framework and supported by a number of success stories. In addition, a study by the European Business Test Panel of 188 European enterprises that have a diversity agenda has shown that all areas of the business can benefit. As reported in “Il Sole24Ore”, the business owners and managers surveyed pointed to performance improvements in recruiting in 61% of the cases, in customer service in 58%, in the development of new products in 49%, in training in 45%, in entering new markets in 42%, in management processes in 40%, and in the involvement of stakeholders in 30% of the cases. And the result? Better and more effective ideas, greater organisational efficiency, and greater profits.

In short, diversity pays, and work is being done in this direction even in Italy. To cite just one example, Barilla has created a Diversity & Inclusion Board comprised of independent experts and an internal Operating Committee working in concert with Catalyst, Human Right Campaign, and Parks. Mariapaola Vetrucci, chief strategy officer for Barilla, said, “Multicultural diversity is an indispensable value for a multinational organisation. The promotion of diversity and inclusion is more than just ‘doing the right thing’. It is also supporting our strategy for growth. A diverse workforce and an inclusive corporate culture increase our commitment and encompass a more profound understanding of the company, which is essential for those like us who serve consumers throughout the world.”

Ethical and financial value in harmony. “Parks – Liberi e uguali”, an organisation founded by Ivan Scalfarotto (a member of Italy’s parliament and now under-secretary of reform in the Renzi Government), chaired by Dario Longo and directed by Igor Suran, is also working in this direction. The name comes from Rosa Parks, a civil-rights activist in the US who had started the anti-discrimination protest against blacks on buses in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1955. Its underlying vision is clear: “Going to work is as ordinary a gesture of life as catching a bus, and Parks’ small gesture is a testimony to all of us that the world can be changed just by saying a peaceful but firm ‘no’ to discrimination.” Today, companies such as Microsoft, Johnson & Johnson, Roche, Ikea, Telecom, IBM, Barilla, Deutsche Bank, and others are all members of the organisation: “Valuing all aspects of an individual’s identity is an indispensable part of the full expression of human capital.” Identity, diversity, competitiveness. A virtuous circle to be supported.