Changing Corporate DNA

By Edward Cone  |  Posted 07-14-2008 Print Email

Changing Corporate DNA

SAP launched its diversity office in the summer of 2006 as a response to its rapid growth around the world. The program at the software giant does not focus specifically on gender or race relationships, but instead on what Leong calls "intercultural relations."

Why the careful wording? Starting with charged topics can put people off, she explains, while culture is more "relatable" in a business context. "Our definition of diversity is diversity of thought," Leong says. "The concept of culture is much broader than a national boundary. One department in a company can have a different culture than another."

The program, offered to teams with as few as six people and as many as 150, has been marketed across the company largely by word-of-mouth recommendations from groups that have been through it. Formal courses are available through the in-house educational function, SAP University.

Diversity training has a certain eat-your-spinach reputation, and creating a diverse culture is still an uphill climb. "I was more Pollyannaish when we started," Leong acknowledges.

Building a diverse organization requires more than diversity training. The Information Technology Senior Management Forum encourages employers to take a proactive approach to retain minority staffers and support their advancement. According to Thompson, this includes exposure to internal and external leadership programs and a deliberate effort to put African-Americans in positions where they can prove themselves as executive material.

The ITSMF offers professional development programming of its own, and also pairs midlevel managers with senior executives in mentoring relationships. Since that program began four years ago, about 30 percent of managers participating have achieved promotions within their firms. "That's a good number, but we'd like it to go higher," Thompson says. In March, the Forum launched a series of events on college campuses, in which CIOs meet with students in business and IT programs to discuss career paths and opportunities.

In the end, managing diversity is a mind-set that requires buy-in from across the organization. Consultant Billings-Harris advises companies to focus on four areas if they are "serious about making diversity and inclusion a foundational piece of corporate culture." Those areas are knowledge, understanding, acceptance and behavior.

Most organizations start out with the expectation that diversity should be a goal. "They have diversity seminars, feel good stuff, celebrations," she says. "It's the lowest risk, and it has to be done first, but it's not enough to retain people who might feel on the outside."

Understanding, the second phase involves moving past the "what" of differences to the "why"--the reasons people believe and behave in disparate ways. It means focusing on personal interactions, like mentoring, across groups. Companies that reach this level tend to be more successful in attracting and retaining a diverse workforce, Billings-Harris says.

Acceptance, the third level, involves putting understanding into practice. This includes practices such as putting together teams that are diverse in makeup, so that "respect and inclusion are built into the fabric of corporate life," she says. When that becomes routine, a company moves to the fourth level, where diversity is part of the behavior of the organization.

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