The Bridge Between Diversity and Innovation

For the past two decades, the diversity and inclusion conversation has been about gender, race and ethnicity programs. Many companies have invested in fostering deep bonds between diverse professionals and elevating the connections among them. For example, many corporations have African American, LGBT, NextGen and women’s networks. Yet, there is a missing piece. These programs create deep roots among individuals who have things in common, but we need to encourage the mixing and mingling of diverse ethnicities, religions and backgrounds.

The future of diversity and inclusion is about bringing diverse people together in new ways to unleash our connectional intelligence and solve pressing challenges within our organizations. Connectional intelligence is the ability to combine knowledge, ambition and human capital, forging connections on a global scale that create unprecedented value and meaning. Tapping into your networks beyond diversity groups, which corporations are a hot zone for, unleashes ideas and innovation.

In his book “Bowling Alone,” author Robert Putnam writes about two different types of social capital, which he calls “bonding” and “bridging.” Bonding is referred to as the social networks between homogenous groups. It can be valuable for oppressed and marginalized members of society to band together in groups and networks to support their collective needs. This is the type of social capital we’ve seen in diversity employee resource groups for the past two decades.

Alternatively, bridging refers to social networks between socially heterogeneous groups. It allows different groups to share and exchange information, ideas and innovation while building consensus among groups that represent diverse interests. Bridging is the future of diversity and inclusion programs, and it is where innovation will begin to happen.

So what will this look like? It could be creating a marathon runners’ group that launches a companywide wellness initiative. It could be a jazz-lovers group that brings people together to unleash a musical employee engagement event.

Let’s dig a little deeper — here are four ideas to launch a new wave of communities within your company.

1. Administer an “employee challenge” to identify new bridging communities. Create a challenge to find out what unique hobbies your employees have. Design a questionnaire that asks employees to share their top three hobbies outside of work. Ask employees to post their answers on the company’s intranet. Run a challenge and determine common affinity groups that can be leveraged to increase interactions and connections across business units, groups and locations.

2. Generate employee engagement around new bridging communities. Create a curated newsletter and/or video series highlighting employees’ hobbies. Launch a site for individuals with shared hobbies and interests, and share a weekly email that drives employees to connect with matches of their common interests. For example, an email might say, “You love to knit! Did you know Jane Doe is also a knitting aficionado?”

3. Prioritize bridging communities by their potential to be leveraged to deepen collaboration and innovation.Prioritize these communities based on the highest number of connections. For example, a marathon runner’s group could host a half marathon for company employees or even with customers. They could host a pre-marathon client dinner as a way to cross-sell products. Another idea would be a social media lovers’ group teaching a skill-share lunch about social media best practices.

4. Task prioritized affinity groups with launching initiatives that build sustained interactions across the company and clients. Challenge the communities to create initiatives that will serve business goals. An example is an art lovers’ community that combines monthly art viewing with clients and incorporates cross-selling marketing discussions. Implement knowledge sharing tools like social media or a chatroom to sustain interactions. Create a “new innovation award” that recognizes the most engaged hobby network — one that has brought different employees together across the company and has generated a great new business initiative.

As we continue to build the commonplace diversity and inclusion groups, we also must welcome a new wave of innovation and connection.  Let’s create cultures that are not so much about bonds but bridges — ones that create greater collaboration, connection and innovation.

The future of diversity and inclusion is all about reimagining the future. What will you do to stay on top?