CN Academics Corner

The Seeds of the CultureNeutral® Framework – Part I


Neutral Hat

I first heard a definition of “Managing Diversity” in 1989, while working on the management team of a Fortune 500 company business unit.  The farsighted CEO made the decision to enter into a “diversity intervention” with one of America’s top Diversity Consultants.

Though I had only a narrow idea of what the term “diversity” meant in the context of business at the time, the consultant framed its management as, “a process of creating and maintaining an environment that naturally allows all individuals to reach their full potential in pursuit of organizational objectives, teaching them to promote, recognize and value differences and similarities. It is one starting point for building crucial organizational capabilities as a component of change strategy. As an organization development activity, it can enhance team building and values clarification.”

It was fortuitous that my academic pursuit at the time was Human Resources Management and Organizational Development.  Change interventions come in all shapes and sizes, and I was privileged to be engaged involved in more than one at a fairly high level in my employer organization at the same time as the academic pursuits.  While multicultural diversity interventions at that time tended toward a focus on the organizational social climate and developing surrogate vehicles for a foundering Affirmative Action prescript, this particular diversity intervention was to take aim in earnest at preparing the workforce for the stresses and strains of planned organizational and industry change.

The championing CEO was not only a thought leader, but a genuine humanist, a widely respected business and community leader who understood that diversity can hinder communication of cognitions critical to optimum problem-solving in organizations that weren’t well prepared for the complexities of a heterogeneous workforce.  And there were problems aplenty to solve.

The Operating Company business unit (one of five) had been leading the industry transition into energy deregulation. The larger organization was in a continuous M&A mode. Wall Street pushed for increased profitability performance. Both consumer and regulatory demands for service excellence were heightening in a shrinking energy market with intensifying competition.  Strategic reorientation characterized the state of the entire organization. “Turbulent” was the best way to describe it, akin to the emerging continuous whitewater models.

The Operating Company itself had a bedrock culture, etched in the organization’s foundations, settled, unchallenged and unchallenged for nearly a century.  The employees were cut from the same cloth as the industry itself, reinforced by hiring, promotion and inter-company transfer practices that were a century old.  High performance teamwork on all fronts was the new demand on an industry with the longest median employee tenure other than the priesthood.  With respect to “diversity,” the predicted “Workforce 2000” demographic wasn’t in any danger of appearing on the horizon for this organization anytime soon, the culture having survived its first hundred years without a minority candidate successfully sustaining any position above the level of manager.

The general theory espoused at that time was that the greatest payoff of a diversity-based intervention would be to create an environment in which the conditions necessary for high-performance team interaction and decision-making were at a zenith. Research indicated that building genuine relations between diverse members could add value not otherwise attainable for either homogenous teams or untrained diverse teams. Theory held that such training is would be especially critical for thriving under the trauma of organizational strategic reorientation.

After more than a year of preparation, in response to environmental demands and internal climate survey-validated social problems, the Operating Company unveiled and implemented the intervention “Excellence Through Diversity” (ETD) in 1991 with the expressed intent: “To build in employees the ability to value diversity, manage differences effectively, and foster inclusiveness of diverse groups who were formerly excluded, or whose talents were underutilized or ignored as a result of differences.”All Operating Company employees were encouraged to 1) become serious students of differences, 2) unlearn stereotypes, 3) learn to listen for the differences in assumptions, 4) build authentic relations with ones seen as different.

The Parent Company, though some forty years old, was a newer legal entity than the century-old autonomous Operating Company, and had its own distinct culture. More “corporate,” it was characterized by Operating Company employees as “The Ivory Tower.”  Corporate made the conscious decision at the executive level to not engage in diversity intervention of any kind.  The expressed view from Executive Human Resources was that such interventions were theoretical, experimental at best, and of dubious social benefit.

Operating and Parent companies extensively used small groups for decision-making, but no formal group performance management or assessment system existed.  The performance management systems of both organizations used general descriptions of “teamwork” behaviors as performance management criterion for individual performance management reviews. The Operating Company’s ETD intervention did not specifically target group relations or team behaviors.

The stage had virtually set itself. A rare opportunity presented itself in the form of two proximate but separate and discrete business units in the same industry, with appositive cultures and polar opposite attitudes and actions regarding diversity interventions. Both routinely using task based teams for management level decision making. Thus, the cumbersome title, “The Impact of Cultural Diversity Management Intervention on Small Group Behavior, Interaction and Decision-Making in Non-Equilibrium Conditions.”

What were the chosen measures? The proposed research design would compare the strength of communication preconditions among teams comprised only of members that had been exposed to one multicultural diversity intervention to those teams comprised only of members that had had no programmatic multicultural diversity intervention exposure.

Better yet, even as late as 1990, the jury was still out on the efficacy of Diversity Training.  The concept of a corporate “diversity intervention” was still new enough so as not to have reached the level of a universally obligatory business practice in name, if not in earnest. The body of literature was growing, as well, and provided requisite insights.

What the Literature Revealed

Though a quarter century ago, the literature review readily yielded the alleged affect of diversity on phases and aspects of small group decision-making, particularly how diversity was thought to affect group dynamics. There was a growing but already robust body of literature on, 1) assessments of heterogeneous group decision-making compared to that of homogenous groups, 2) the importance of assessing group dynamics as a critical organizational management practice, 3) and application of work groups as a technology for innovation and problem-solving, particularly through periods of non-equilibrium and organizational transitions.

The literature of the day revealed, among other things, 1) a consensus that group decision-making would remain in vogue for the foreseeable future, 2) broad agreement that groups could improve decision quality over individual decisions, 3) seemingly conflicting conclusions on the role and value of heterogeneity in group decision making and its affect on decision quality, 4) belief that researching team relations and practices should be a component of organizational performance assessment, and 5) changes in individual/dyadic behaviors in an organization do not automatically accrue to group behaviors.

The literature consistently indicated that diversity does affect decision-making subprocesses primarily by impinging itself on cognitive maps and interaction processes.  The only question was whether the affect would be positive or not. Since structure and content of managers’ cognitive portrayals of environments drive strategic decisions, ability to share environmental cognitions logically becomes a critical success factor in a cultural construct.

Theory held that valuing and sharing diversities, the effective communication of cognition, becomes an important element of an ETD culture. The collective and shared models then become shared sense-making, which is organizational culture, and organizational learning. Team culture was generally defined in the literature as the process of constructing a reality through which organization team members see and understand their environment and the happenings therein. The extent to which team members share such understandings correlates to the degree of high-performance team capacities.

The examination of the degree of shared reality is best performed at the group behavior level, the closest level to organizational culture. Research also indicated a high statistical correlation between cross-cultural training and strong team performance where diversity (heterogeneity) exists. Therefore, the hypothesis was that ETD training should have some measurable affect on key behavioral dimensions that were part and parcel of the targets under the definition of “Diversity Training.”

The research objective was to detect variances over time between a test group (Operating Company) and control group (Parent Company) in the strength of conditions conducive to the objectives of ETD.  The metrics selected were those relevant to specific diversity related behaviors that the literature indicated would be characteristic of a diversity-friendly business environment. The research sought first to find, a) appropriate measurement(s) of diversity related interactional behaviors, and b) measured differences in success in establishing conducive interaction climates, including but not limited to measures of effective communication that would rise above the cultural din of differences and stereotypes.  The primary objective became finding any evidence of affect, i.e., transfer of ETD Training to team or small group behaviors at the management level.

The Research Project Moved Forward

Though it took some time and effort (a.k.a., shameless begging and pleading) to obtain senior management approval, both executive suites of the business units sanctioned the project, with only minor limitations.  The expressed applied research objective was to determine whether individual ETD training and development extended itself into group behaviors that would equate to high-performance team characteristics over time.

A critical and deliberative decision of the senior management team was that no pre-intervention testing or assessment would be conducted.  Though pretesting would have been ideal from a researcher’s standpoint, from a legal standpoint it was a risky proposition.  Because the intervention got underway in 191 with no pretest-posttest intent, the design of test and control group was the next best thing.

Study Design

A post-test only control-group study was performed on 54 short-duration face-to-face small groups in both Operating and Parent Companies where the results of interaction and decision making over the five-year period could be quantified and compared by measuring specific context relevant group behaviors among the subjects.

Hypothesis 1: Responses to a questionnaire targeting group relations would indicate superiority in group behaviors peculiar to relations between diverse members among those who had been exposed to ETD training over those who had not.

Hypothesis 2: Changes in the Operating Company employee individual and dyadic behaviors peculiar to ETD training, having been reinforced through performance management, Employee Principles, and other HR programs, would be in evidence in small-group behaviors at the Operating Company to a greater extent than in the Parent Company small-group behaviors.

The bulk of the measures were based on what would later become part of the IDS-MBI Model® (Mapping, Bridging, Integrating).  IDS-MBI is a registered trademark of IMD International, Lausanne, Switzerland, Professor Joseph Distefano, then at University of Western Ontario, Toronto, who graciously provided guidance in the design and conduct of the study, along with the invaluable contributions and encouragement of Professor Martha Maznevski, then at University of Maryland.

The subjects included 132 employees participating in 54 discrete management level task teams created for varied tasks, each team operating over varied durations, and dissolved within varied time frames over a period from 1990 to early 1995.

Group-1 subjects (test group) were selected from Operating Company records showing supervisory and middle management participants involved in group interaction and decision-making between 1990 and 1995.  All 81 subjects identified were surveyed.

Group-2 subjects (control group) were selected from Parent Company records showing middle management participants involved in Parent Company team decision-making between 1993 and 1995.  All 51 subjects identified were surveyed.

The sample size was calculated to provide 95% confidence level in the generalizability to management level decision makers at the Operating Company, regardless of differences among them. The study was completed in early 1995 and results first released later that year.  But the biggest surprise wasn’t the statistical result of the research.

Results of the Release and Distribution of the Finding

The most important result for this novice researcher wasn’t the finding, nor the learning that led up to it.  It was the reaction to the finding that proved to be the most telling for me.

I provided the entire published study to the two corporate executive teams, of course, shortly after completion and academic review.  I presented later to faculty at several educational institutions, as well as providing the full report to a select list of corporate and academic Diversity Officers, HR/Diversity and Organizational Development practitioners and consultants.

The silence was deafening. Not only was there was no rigorous critique forthcoming, but no critique or response at all. At first, I interpreted the silence that followed as simple disinterest, or lack of time for the review. It was, after all, close to 150 pages of information that I assumed they already knew, and considered to be no great shakes.

However, beyond the initial handful of academic review evaluators at its completion, I came to the realization that no one would meet with me to discuss the study.  That initially shook my confidence in both the methodology and results, to say the least.  The thought haunted me that my work was so bad, no one could face me to deliver the bad news. Even my confidence in the few complimentary and affirming academic comments was undercut by the sound of crickets chirping emanating from every other quarter in which I shared the results, particularly corporate.  The single scrawled comment on the cover of a returned copy of the study from one prominent diversity consultant read, in its entirety, “I don’t agree with this at all.”  No other comment, critique or assessment. Not a red pen tip had so much as grazed its pages.

Several dozen copies of the study had disappeared into the U.S. Postal Service boxes, with virtually no response from recipients.  True, Diversity wasn’t my field at the time, and I wasn’t working to become a diversity consultant or even an HR practitioner, despite my field of study.  I wasn’t a PhD candidate.  I was just an energy company marketing and sales analyst, monitoring and reporting program expenditures against budgets and sales group results, doing strategic planning, measuring economic return on capital investments, projecting sales performance, analyzing process effectiveness and market segment programmatic outcomes. But still, I was still eager to talk with someone, anyone about the findings.

Until I met the CDO of a Fortune 100 manufacturing company. He had just given a stirring discourse to regional executives on the importance of Diversity in corporate America at a university conference.  I met him by chance a few hours later at local dining spot, introduced myself, and offered the obligatory positives on his speech.  After a few moments of small talk, I handed him my business card, mentioned that I had done some applied research on the effectiveness of a diversity intervention, and asked if he’d be open to a discussion of the results over coffee.  I suggested there might be an opportunity to validate the study on a broader scale at his global company.  A dawning recognition seemed to transform his face into a scowl.  He didn’t know me, but the sense that he knew of me was palpable, though I couldn’t draw the lines to exactly how or why that might be.  His shoulders pulled back, glowering over his glasses and down his nose at me, he asked in a dour tone, “What have you done for diversity?”

Had he exchanged that word “diversity” with the name “Jesus,” it would have approximated the religious tonality that constituted more than a hint of disdain and indignation in his question.  More than just a bit taken aback by the sudden shift in the dynamic, I realized our conversation was obviously over at that point. As he turned to leave, I assured him I would follow up.  Though I called his office, the call was not returned, but not at all to my surprise.

As the Diversity Paradigm took on an almost religious fervor, the public relations associated with the field thrust Diversity Training thrust it into the forefront of business social practices. As Diversity was elevated, the chances of validation of the study quickly dwindled to a near impossibility. Finding a company of any size that had not conducted some form of diversity awareness or training among the Fortune 1000 disappeared in a matter of a few years. Coupled with the general best practice of rejecting any form of pretesting, any type of measurement at all, in fact, the capacity and even the ability to gauge the real effectiveness of diversity interventions literally vanished like the buffalo from the American landscape.

For several years the few dozen printed copies collected dust in my office. Time and experience would have to be the validation mechanism. And, the proofs of the research results did come elsewhere and later; but the findings conclusions and the reception both intrigued and troubled me for some time to come.  Though I continued to work in other areas of corporate America, the work of observing and learning more about theory and practice of organizational culture change in the form of Diversity interventions became a passion that extended well beyond the years of the applied research project.

The Research Finding

What was the simple but troubling key finding?

“The scores are nondirectional in nature, i.e., they register….aspects of group behaviors….and do not indicate either improvement or degradation of interaction quality….the research result seems to indicate that integration related and diversity related behaviors that build high-performance capacity in the group dynamicmay not yet have become the cultural norm at the Operating Company to any greater extent than they have at the Parent Company where diversity training was not conducted.”

“The researcher concludes that Excellence Through Diversity [ETD] may not yet have broached the border between individual behaviors and small group behaviors in the test group to the extent that it has created performance capacities that surpass those of the group not exposed to ETD training.”

In other words, in an organization embroiled in a turbulent business environment, after five years of Diversity intervention in a real-world business setting, the statistical variance (difference) between the test and control groups of employee management teams was nil with respect to the strength of six key diversity measures.  The finding was simple and straightforward. The implications were expansive, disturbing – and almost universally unwelcomed. If the findings were generalizable, and the management of diversity at the Operating Company was typical of the spectrum of offerings (in my estimation, it was superior), Diversity Training in America was doomed to fail, and fail big. Based on the literature review, it appeared that it was no secret; but neither were there people willing to openly discuss it, especially in the Diversity profession.

The validation of the research results would have to be left to future outcomes, both within the Operating Company and across the USA.  My biggest contribution to diversity in the near term was to be limited to ensuring that the diversity I contributed to the demographic at the Operating Company didn’t get fired. Over time, as both Company and national Diversity outcomes became evident, my trepidation about the validity of my novice research efforts evaporated. The outcomes related to the widespread failure of Diversity are now part of well documented American history, and extend far beyond the narrow slice of “managing diversity” represented by the corporate training component.

On a broad scale, has “Diversity” accomplished those originally stated goals?

1. Creating and maintaining an environment that naturally allows all individuals to reach their full potential in pursuit of organizational objectives,

2. Teaching [employees] to promote, recognize and value differences and similarities.

3. A starting point for building crucial organizational capabilities as a component of change strategy.

4. An organization development activity, that enhances team building and values clarification.

If it has failed, where, in what ways, and how badly? Is there a way to “play catch up” on those goals using the traditional Diversity methods? Could there be an alternative way of approaching 21st Century needs in a way that could work for everyone?

We consider a few of these things in Part II – The Seeds of the CultureNeutral® Framework.


Copyright © Robert D Jones 2014 – All Rights Reserved

A copy of the original research can be purchased via InclusiveWorks® by email request.  Please use this CONTACT US  link to inquire and/or make the request.

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