Cultural diversity, IBM style

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It’s tempting for organisations in Australia to assume that our employee communities generally reflect multicultural Australia. Certainly my experiences at IBM Australia during the past few years have taught me the value of reality-checking assumptions about what it means to be a culturally diverse organisation.

Formal statements relating to diversity at IBM can be found as far back as 1953 by the then CEO Thomas J Watson Jnr, who said: “It is the policy of IBM to hire people who have the personality, talent and background necessary to fill a given job, regardless of race, colour or creed.”

More recently, in 2001, IBM Australia’s bi-annual employee opinion survey included questions to enable us to better understand how different ethnicities fared within the corporate culture of the company. The study findings presented some variation between ethnic groups in individual levels of satisfaction with particular variables. Cultural issues did make an impact on how staff felt about IBM, especially where differences impeded clear communication, for example, between a line manager and staff member.

The decision to develop a strategy for cultural awareness and acceptance within IBM Australia was driven by corporate values (one of which is respect for the individual), legal requirements (Anti-Discrimination Act and Racial Discrimination Act) and the business case. IBM’s thinking on cultural diversity did not develop in a vacuum. It is a long-held view that by valuing diversity, IBM uncovers new perspectives, taps different knowledge and experience and generates innovative ideas, suggestions and methods. Three pillars that are in place to make up IBM’s diversity strategy are:

• Creating a work/life balance.

• Advancement of women.

• Integration of people with a disability.

Making the business case for diversity

IBM’s employee opinion survey (EOS) provided the hard data to substantiate the business case for cultural diversity. Modern organisations face a skills quandary. On one hand, their workforce is ageing and skilled workers are in increasingly short supply, while the demands of clients driven by globalisation and advanced technology are becoming more complex. So any organisation that fails to maximise opportunities for all employees will fall into a talent gap and miss business opportunities.

Part of the business case was about retention, particularly retaining people with languages other than English as their first language. Such employees are crucial to IBM’s ability to serve its international clients. For example, an IBM Information Technology helpdesk, based in Brisbane, mainly deals with Japanese clients.

Another case reflected the global business market in which IBM operates. Employees must recognise and act on global opportunities. They must be able to operate effectively in a variety of cultural and business environments, whether travelling overseas or operating at home.

Establishing that cultural diversity makes good business sense is essential in obtaining the support of business managers. Ironically, it also reduces the need for a large budget to put programs in place. The diversity team found that once organisational managers understood the rationale for the program and began viewing it as an investment in good commercial practice, they were actually offering to contribute resources in time and incidentals.

Making cultural diversity part of IBM Australia’s DNA

Our most effective diversity programs combine ‘push and pull’ strategies. We’ve made good headway through company-led, top down practices such as formalised training or policies like floating cultural holidays (exchanging an Australian public holiday for another significant cultural holiday). However the truly great progress has come about through the momentum generated by individuals who are passionate about diversity issues and truly want to make it happen.

Aside from IBM’s diversity team within human resources, three other groups within IBM have formally identified roles in the implementation of the company’s overall diversity strategy. These are IBM’s Diversity Council, diversity contact officers and diversity champions.

The Diversity Council

IBM’s Diversity Council, chaired by our CEO Philip Bullock, ensures that IBM visibly encourages and values the contributions and differences of employees from various backgrounds. Its key objectives are to heighten employee awareness, increase management awareness, and encourage the effective use of IBM’s diverse workforce.

It does so through key initiatives such as developing attraction and recruiting strategies along with retention and awareness strategies (which includes the education of managers and employees). Once the business case for cultural diversity was established, it became a focus for the council and IBM’s HR director, Robert Orth, was appointed as an executive cultural diversity sponsor. In this capacity, Orth works with a team of senior IBM managers who champion particular diversity programs within IBM. This is achieved through personal commitment, regular communication, by gaining support for the program from other IBM managers and influencing decision making that may impact on the program.

Under the guidance of the Diversity Council, a series of cultural diversity employee roundtables have been held to gather more face-to-face feedback and ideas from staff. These meetings have generated many practical ideas for increasing awareness of cultural diversity within IBM. Some, like the suggestion for a cross cultural communication course, were simple ideas that became pilots for fully fledged diversity training initiatives. Others, such as a networking and cultural evening with the Vietnamese community in Brisbane, were one-off events.

Diversity contact officers

Diversity contact officers are regular permanent employees who volunteer to be conduits of information relating to diversity, are trained as work/life balance coaches, and help to integrate people with a disability into the IBM workforce. They include men and women from a variety of ethnic backgrounds, people with disabilities and people who are gay or lesbian, transgender or bisexual, to reflect the diversity of our organisation.

Diversity champions

Our internal diversity awards recognise and celebrate individuals whose actions encapsulate our diversity principles. They help to raise awareness of the diversity program and establish cultural diversity as the ‘norm’ within the company.

The power of internal awards for diversity champions lies in bringing to life the actions of ‘real’ employees. The diversity team works closely with internal communications and public relations to communicate success stories. Ensuring that stakeholders outside the company know about the diverse culture within IBM directly supports recruitment efforts and forming commercial relationships, reinforcing the business case.

Cultural awareness/acceptance in action

Cultural diversity education and awareness initiatives at IBM can be grouped under two headings: individual professional development and general staff awareness.

Professional development

IBM manager ‘QuickViews’ are, as the name suggests, intranet-based resources designed to give managers essential and accessible information to conduct business successfully with clients or colleagues from another country. Topics include: culture and globalisation, culture and business and diversity and multicultural management. So if a manager is called upon to travel suddenly to a new culture, QuickViews offers handy hints on business meeting protocol.

Another professional development initiative is IBM’s ‘Shades of Blue’ – a more in-depth program for managers who are engaged in cross-cultural business interactions or have multicultural teams. Shades of Blue is a unique learning experience in developing cross-cultural competence. The workshop-based tutorials train employees in:

• Understanding the cultural bias of each team member and their impact on mutual perceptions.

• Why certain behaviours and communication styles fail in some cultures.

• Identifying approaches to address cultural gaps that could lead to misunderstandings.

• Handling issues about team decision-making, giving or receiving feedback and conflict resolution.

The courses cater to individual managers or members of an established multicultural team and are designed to heighten awareness of each person’s own cultural biases and increase their sensitivity to other cultures. The shades experience can be a powerful team-building exercise for multicultural teams to transcend cultural differences and become a high-performing team.

General staff awareness and polices

IBM’s cultural diversity strategy relies on raising the general level of awareness of different cultures within the organisation. General initiatives include:

· Celebration of Chinese New Year for Sydney employees.

· Publication of a diversity calendar, showing various dates of cultural significance that might be relevant to employees and business relationships.

· Introduction of a floating holiday program where employees can exchange a public holiday for a significant cultural holiday.

· Employee representation at an IBM global conference on multicultural people in technology.

Looking to the future

The most valuable learning for me has been to clearly distinguish religion from cultural diversity. Simply, cultural awareness and acceptance is the theme rather than religious observation.

The proof of programs, such as those designed to promote cultural diversity, lies in the results. Retention rates, staff satisfaction, client feedback and new contracts will all determine how successful the company has been. Quantifiable results will soon be available from another EOS study to review the effectiveness of the program. In the meantime, the Diversity Council is reviewing anecdotal feedback from the business units who are making the most of cultural training.

Kylie Nicolson is diversity program manager, Organisational Culture and

Change for IBM Australia & New Zealand.

Comments? Suggestions? Email: craig.donaldson@thcpress.com.au