· 3 min read · Features

Understanding the business benefits of cognitive diversity

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The continued economic down-turn has narrowed the options in the pursuit of competitive advantage. Investment has been pared back and workforces are running very lean.

It's hard to find new ways to boost your quality of service, improve internal efficiencies or connect with new groups of customers. All of which means that now more than ever, organisations need to encourage new and diverse ways of thinking that can help them derive competitive advantage through different ideas, philosophies and workable innovation.

Understanding that diversity of thought is a real driver of value is key to organisations' ability to harness the `power of collective difference`. Different approaches can yield new solutions, uncover new ways of working and inspire new innovations. Traditional rule-bound organisations that impose one 'right way' become moribund because they stop people evaluating other ways of doing things. In contrast, organisations that encourage their people to explore different approaches, within corporate guidelines, build a learning culture in which decision-making is based on outcome rather than process.

A culture where diverse thinking flourishes can also mitigate the risk of 'groupthink' - the tendency for people of similar cultural backgrounds and characteristics to conform with accepted norms and patterns of behaviour, rather than challenging the status quo or encouraging the sort of free thinking that underpins ideas-generation and innovation.

According to IBM's 2012 CEO study of 1,700 CEOs and senior leaders from around the globe, "Leading Through Connections", 75% believed that leveraging diversity through collaboration is critical to organisational success. It is also the No. 1 trait CEOs look for in their employees.

As former Hewlett-Packard chairman and CEO, Carly Fiorina, said: "To be successful, we must harness diversity of thought. Yes, diversity of people, diversity of background, diversity of experience, diversity of skills. But most important, diversity of ideas. This is about a new definition of diversity that has to do with more than national origin or race or creed - it has to do with keeping the market in motion by feeding it new models, new ideas, new approaches."

Unfortunately, recruitment processes can be a significant block : the recruitment industry itself is notoriously non-diverse and consequently prone to significant unconscious bias in selection. It can be all too easy for RPO or direct hiring to reduce enterprise value by pandering to the comfort zones of a client that only wants to recruit new people in its own image - who will think along the same lines and be unlikely to challenge the old thinking.

The RPO or direct hiring model reduces value because reading through a stack of online résumés or online applications isn't going to tell you much about diversity of thought. So if organisations wish to benefit from increased cognitive diversity, they need to engage with a different supply chain who can help them create sustainable conditions and processes for their direct hiring to be more inclusive. At a senior level they will require long-term partnerships and market barometers to regularly check their attractiveness and employee branding.

Tapping the power of diversity of thought requires a culture that encourages the sharing of alternative viewpoints. After all, just because a person thinks differently is no guarantee that they will be willing to share their insight or that the difference is valuable in itself. So does the organisation encourage the sharing of information, ideas, insights and suggestion? Are the systems and processes in place to enable people from various levels and functions across the business to interact, share and learn from each other? Is it safe to challenge your company?

Clearly, companies where teams are comprised of people who are willing to stretch each other and who understand their working relationships in a fluid rather than linear fashion are more naturally suited to capitalising on cognitive diversity. But it is also important that the behaviours that underpin diversity of thought are actively encouraged, supported and rewarded. Key to this is the development of interpersonal skills that facilitate communication, dialogue and information-sharing and the ability to see a problem through a different business oriented perspective. Competencies and skills such as flexibility, the ability to deal with ambiguity and self awareness should also be integrated into the assessment process.

In summary, forward-thinking organisations are accelerating their investment in diverse thinking within their organisational leaders and HR professionals have both the responsibility and opportunity to lead on this issue. HR has a part to play in helping educate business leaders that it is important to be able to identify, recruit and optimise the value of candidates who are equally capable but think differently.

Do these individuals already exist within the organisation? How do you identify and engage with them? If they don't, is there a strategic recruitment strategy that will start to attract these types of candidates over the next 5 years? And once these individuals have been identified internally or sourced externally, what can be done to help promote their potential to the full?

As an HR professional if you can clearly explain the financial and brand benefits of a diverse workforce based on collective difference to the Board, it will be a significant step toward helping your organisation fast-track innovation and competitive advantage at a time where these are increasingly essential outcomes to how you support your business

Raj Tulsiani (pictured) is CEO Green Park interim and executive search

Green Park is sponsoring the HR Excellence Awards 2013 category: Outstanding Employee Engagement Strategy.

To book one of the last few remaining spaces at HR Excellence Awards 2013 then go to hrexcellencewards.co.uk or email edward.wyre@markallengroup.com