by Christina Ryan – DLI CEO
One of the perennial topics of conversation about diversity centres on how to shift culture. We need to shift culture so that diverse people will be attracted to an organisation and stay as employees or customers.
Recently I examined the ways that organisations globally have shifted to embed their culture to better suit their consumer group / target market. This global scan led me to wondering if we haven’t been coming at the whole culture conversation from the wrong angle.
Will we ever shift culture if we expect diverse people to come to us and become us? How is that diversity? Isn’t it more like assimilation? Won’t that just perpetuate the existing exclusion and marginalisation?
There are organisations that have changed their culture and embedded a more inclusive one. How have they done this?
Perhaps we are too hung up on ticking the diversity box, and not learning the lessons of other elements of business practice, like marketing? Marketing uses techniques which speak directly to the consumer, based on understanding that consumer. The most potent way to go about this is to have people from a particular demographic on both sides of the organisational experience, as employees as well as consumers, so that the conversation is authentic.
In an attempt to better understand consumers, many organisations have established advisory bodies of consumers which provide advice to be fed into the day to day operations of the organisation. This model attempts to bring the voice of consumers into board rooms and executive suites, but it does it at arm’s length. There is no real evidence that such advice is listened to, or acted on, or that it makes a difference to the consumer experience, or more importantly to how the organisation runs every day. More critically, there is strong evidence that the advice is simply ignored if it is inconvenient or poorly understood. Such examples include the National Disability Insurance Agency in Australia, and US insurance company advisory bodies (Anthem, United Healthcare, and Centene), which have clear structures in place that don’t necessarily translate into practice as a stronger consumer voice.
Organisations with advisory bodies then require a key person who acts as a channel to ensure that the “advice” is transferred into the organisation as valued input. This transfer doesn’t always happen effectively. Additionally, when that key person departs, or the executive regime changes, the value of the advisory body faces significant risk with many not being used further, or no longer being valued for their contribution. Advisory bodies then become tokens for publicity or marketing purposes and often do not contribute meaningfully, if at all, to organisational policy or practice.
The organisations that do have strong evidence of a consumer voice that contributes to how the organisation is run every day, and how the culture is designed to support a strong and positive consumer experience, are those that employ significant numbers of disabled people (or other target diversity consumer group) and which have a board that has a strong presence of that target group. It is these organisations which have experienced the culture shift required to embed long term consumer engagement. It is these organisations which are ahead of the global pack. (National Council on Disability (US), Association of Community Living (US), Think local act personal (UK) and Uloba (Norway)).
A key feature of organisations with a strong internal presence of consumer voice is that the culture is shifted from within in a sustainable way. This culture shift does not rely on individual key people, rather it is shifted by having a critical mass of the population group within the organisation, throughout its operations. Therefore, leading companies now work to build diversity in their executive and governance teams, particularly featuring population groups that they are targeting their marketing towards. This shift has been underway for decades, primarily featuring gender and race diversity, and now also broader diversity groups including disability.
The newly released Getting to Equal: The Disability Inclusion Advantage features robust data on the economic and marketing benefits of having good numbers of target market demographic within the workforce of an organisation.
There are several features of organisations that build consumer voices into their entire operation to “make it real”; these include:
- significant buy in from the top echelons of the organisations most notably at CEO level,
- strong representation from the consumer demographic in the board room, and
- a high proportion of employees with consumer / target market experience.
Without these contributing factors organisations are vulnerable to slippage in their intentions because the change is about what is being done “to” the consumers not “with” the consumers.
To affect a real culture shift to become an organisation which understands its target market/s there will, therefore, need to be considerable work done to bring the consumer voice into the board room and the staff group including at executive team level. Most importantly, the shift will need to be driven by the CEO to ensure total organisation embedding. See “A Blinding Flash of the Obvious” which highlights why having your consumers in your executive team and boardroom is critical. This example is about gender, when a company realised that it couldn’t successfully sell its product to women without having women as part of its board and executive.
It has been long established that having women in board rooms and executive suites is good for business, particularly if an organisation wants to connect authentically with the female population, yet, curiously, there is not a similar understanding that the same strategies are required for other diversity groups like disabled people. There remains an assumption that disabled people can be spoken “for” and “to”. This thinking was abandoned decades ago in relation to women yet persists in relation to disabled people.
When a consumer / target market voice is embedded within an organisation, whatever that organisation does, it provides a further layer of engagement with its relevant community, and through that, a more robust approach to appropriate structures and processes.
Fundamentally, the culture is shifted organically through critical mass, rather than through one or two key people driving it. This provides for a long-term sustainable culture shift that is not reliant on a named process or specific key people.
It is time to question the continuing use of advisory groups and token consumer voices. The evidence from other diversity groups strongly suggests that the only way to speak to a target market in a sustainable way is to include people from that target market throughout all levels of an organisation, and to commit to shifting culture through “becoming” part of that culture, rather than standing outside expecting the culture, and its consumers, to come to you.
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