Research Talk at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.
Archive for March, 2010
Not long ago, I read an excellent article in the Fall 2009 issue of the magazine Strategy+Business on the challenges of global talent management, given the variety of economic, social, and demographic changes we are encountering. Diversity was an important part of this discussion as the writers explored the dynamic shifts in what talented people wanted in their work lives and where those talented people could be found.
What was interesting was that race was not a part of the discussion in the issue at all. Certainly nationality was, as was gender. And the term “people of color” was used in describing a best practice undertaken by Johnson and Johnson. But nothing else referred to race. Now, I could chalk this up to pervasive and persistent bias and racism. After all, none of the authors (to my knowledge) were black so it’s not surprising that race might be downplayed as an important factor in the talent diversity discussion. But then my wandering mind began to entertain an alternative hypothesis: what if race—specifically the presence or absence of black people in organizations—was simply no longer a priority in the 21st century discussion on global talent development? What if black people were really only tangential to the path that effective 21st century firms needed to traverse?
I guess that’s possible, but I don’t think it’s likely. First, in the talent hungry U.S., 11% of the population matters. The sheer number of skilled individuals in the U.S. workforce who identify themselves as black represents a substantial benefit to any company that can harness that talent. Though constantly underappreciated, the talent within the black community is vital to U.S. economic viability moving forward.
But that’s only half the story.
Creating racial diversity in organizations is how, we, in United States organizations, get to learn how to overcome the bias toward marginalizing employees with whom we are unfamiliar, uncomfortable, or even, unpalatable. Every organization everywhere in the country wastes money and talent every single day of the year. That happens because there are always people who are marginalized, people who don’t fit the normal image of a productive member of the organization. One of the great capabilities of successful 21st century organizations (and communities, and societies) will be the ability to learn from the perspectives of these different people. Not ostracize them. Not tolerate them. Rather, seek them out and learn from them. I don’t know why one particular difference dynamic like racial difference becomes focal in a given society at a given time. Certainly there are social, historical, political and economic factors that converge to privilege that dynamic. But the important thing is to pay attention to the difference and learn all we can about how engaging it can help the organization be better.
Coda: When I began writing this essay, I was reflecting on the plight of indigenous people in the U.S. I was contemplating using Native Americans as examples of a people who, by virtue of the oppression and racism visited upon them by the European and U.S. dominance over their nations, had been rendered irrelevant in the conversation about talent. After all, there really are not enough of them to make a difference, right?
I was about to be trapped in the very hole I’m writing about. Assuming that because a group of people aren’t present in large numbers that they are not relevant to what we need to understand to be an effective organization, leader, or manager of talent. The value isn’t only in the numbers and the statistics. It’s in the lessons learned from the engagement. I know that stuff is harder to measure, but that doesn’t mean it’s not important.