THE BLOG
10/26/2016 03:36 pm ET Updated Oct 27, 2017

Harnessing All Available Talent May Lay at the Intersection of Business and Government

I spent a week in Washington DC last month, meeting with congressional caucuses, industry committees and White House staff to talk about the role of the technology industry in resolving the challenges business face when trying to build and maintain diverse working cultures. "Policy-makers are eager to learn about innovative approaches on complex and long-standing issues like diversity and inclusion," says John Stephenson, seasoned lobbyist and Executive Director, US Government Relations, SAP. The urgency to find a solution has moved beyond philanthropic and toward the economic. As an example, increasing the number of women and under-represented racial populations in technology intensive industries would result in an additional $470 billion to $570 billion, representing an additional 1.2 percent to 1.6 percent to the US GDP.

Executives and policy makers have made an important cultural shift in their mindset on the topic of diversity and inclusion. "All Americans deserve to share in the success of the country's economic growth. As a result, CEOs are leading their companies for a modern era with a focus on diversifying talent in their companies in order to take advantage of our chief resource--human creativity," says Dane Linn, Vice President of Business Roundtable, an association of chief executive officers of leading U.S. companies working together to promote sound public policy and a thriving U.S. economy.

Words matter
The path from where we are to where we need to be requires a conversation, one that must be orchestrated using common language. There are four distinct words that are at play when it comes to the future of a workforce that can ensure the viability and prominence of the USA in the global market: diversity, inclusion, equality and equity. Diversity and inclusion are often used synonymously, yet each word holds its own important definition.

Diversity is about numbers; how many women in leadership or the representation of African Americans in the technology industry, for example. Inclusion is about culture, whereby the values and behaviors practiced by its people welcome and cultivate all talent.

Equality and equity should also be distinguished. Leaders who place a value on equality believe that everyone should be treated the same, which requires that all members of the population start from the same level playing field.

Those who focus on equity understand that everyone is different. Equity starts where a person is in her or his life and gives them what is perceived as needed to enjoy their lives. The challenge with equality is that people are not the same and their journeys on the path of transformation, from where they are to accessing power and investments, is vastly different depending on social and financial capital among many other factors.

Take STEM as an example; much of the conversations in DC center on educating the future workforce. Turns out, there isn't much of a level playing field where equality-based programs can impact diversity and inclusion. "According to the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights, only one third of high schools whose enrollments are at least 75% black and Latino offer calculus and only 48% offer physics. Far too many students of color lack pathways to STEM degrees or careers," says Claus Von Zastrow, Chief Operating Officer and Director of Research at Change the Equation, a nonprofit working with corporate members to ensure STEM literacy for every US student.

Where are we going?
Technology plays a critical role in building a diverse workforce that can create and market the products and services that shape how we live and work. "The most impactful diversity and inclusion efforts are authentic. For the tech sector, a part of that authenticity is recognizing that technology will be an important tool and platform for achieving our diversity and inclusion goals," said Dean Garfield, President & CEO of Information Technology Industry Council (ITIC). ITIC represents the interests of its members, which include top hardware and software global brands.

How will we get there?
Discussions about the role of government policy in solving diversity and inclusion challenges remain open and, quite frankly, pretty fuzzy. Business leaders in member organizations like ITIC and the Business Roundtable are shifting focus from the "why" to the "how." The good news is that the barriers to harnessing all the best talent represent some of the biggest opportunities for technology enablement. The urgency of these discussions can't be underestimated. White men are still in charge in most industries, particularly in technology despite the demographic shifts in the workforce. Today, women make up nearly half the US workforce while racial diversity continues to increase; by 2055 there will be no majority race in the USA.

With the acknowledgment that there is no smoking gun that will instantly and quickly resolve the inclusion challenges currently rampant in business - technology is merely an enabler after all - there are ways that progress can be accelerated. "Making a change this significant does not happen overnight. It's complex and requires resources and steadfast, long-term commitment from the entire company," says Barbara Whye, Executive Director of Strategy and External Alliances at Intel Corporation.

Many in DC wanted to understand how technologies such as big data analytics, machine learning and artificial intelligence could be used to help decision-makers address unconscious bias head on. Changes in how the industry governs itself when it comes to harnessing talent are being called into question: "The D&I challenge in tech continues to suffer from two remarkable gaps: sufficient data to see which firms are making progress, and rigorous evidence on what works and doesn't. But the good news is that these gaps are eminently addressable with industry commitment and investment," says Andria Thomas, Associate Partner at Dalberg Development Advisors.

I am not exactly going out on a limb when I say that all industries are technology industries. Try this exercise: name one industry that has not been impacted by technology. It's impossible. Technology impacts all of us in every aspect of our lives. Policy makers, technology leaders and industry influencers will need to find ways to accelerate progress by identifying the best approaches for inclusive cultures to provide equitable access through STEM education while building upon data-driven best practices that harness all the best and available talent.