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Sloan's Diversity Day spawns discussion, competition ideas

"Why would the world's leading school of management want to investigate diversity?" Mary Rowe (special assistant to the president, ombudsman and adjunct professor of management) asked rhetorically last Friday at the Sloan School's third annual Diversity Day. The event is a day set aside during the academic week for the Sloan School community to examine closely issues of diversity that can bring individuals and organizations into conflict, or -- if wisely understood and mined -- can enhance their lives and profitability.

Diversity can have a positive effect on a business's bottom line, said keynote speaker Jeff L. Shames (SM 1983, chairman and CEO of MFS Investment Management) in answer to Ms. Rowe's question. Maureen Scully noted that "people doing diversity cases need to be bilingual -- able to talk about both the moral and business reasons for diversity." Dr. Scully is the Elizabeth Barrett-W. Maurice Young Career Development Assistant Professor in Business Ethics.

During the afternoon session, Susan C. Shackford (Sloan Fellow, 1994), gave a punchy primer on the art of developing a diverse workforce. Sloan School Dean Richard Schmalensee, who opened the afternoon session, asked everyone to help design research and action plans to promote diversity. Alexander d'Arbeloff (SB 1949), chairman of the MIT Corporation and of Teradyne Corp., concluded the day with the observation that "in today's changing world, if you're not changing within your company, you're going to have a problem."

Diversity Day offered more than 200 attendees exposure to diversity issues (some unexpected, such as the importance of playing golf) and some unexpectedly sensitive (age discrimination, for example). They also had a chance to enter a "$10K Return on Diversity (R.O.D.)" competition, a first for Diversity Day. In the competition, teams submit research proposals or action plans that could result in mutual gains for businesses or organizations with diverse workforces. Prizes totaling $10,000 will be distributed among winning entries.

The teams -- randomly chosen groups of Sloan faculty (including Dean Schmalensee), staff and students who worked together in the midday breakout sessions -- discussed topics such as how merger and acquisition layoffs affect diversity, how diversity in a workforce affects sales, how a woman could run successfully for president, chauvinism, how empowering low-level teams in an organization can reduce costs, reasons for nurturing women entrepreneurs, and how homogeneity (hiring and promoting people who look and think just like you do) can limit opportunities and make organizations inefficient and unproductive.

Final suggestions for the competition, which the teams will develop into formal proposals in the next two weeks, focused on how diverse workforces could result in mutual gains for businesses or organizations, including Sloan itself. For example, one team called for putting more effort into helping new students, who come from all over the world, relocate in Boston and assimilate into the Sloan community.

"Boston is a captive, incredibly competitive labor pool," Mr. Shames said. "Attracting the brightest and best people to work for you has to be your focus. You need to have a reputation as a great place to work -- for people of color, people with different sexual orientations, women. It's hard to attract these people. They self-select themselves out of the pool.

"We have to be more proactive -- educate them about our opportunities and learn about their needs. We want to attract people who think differently than we do so that we can come up with new ideas together. Diversity makes American companies a lot stronger in the marketplace. We're more sensitive to different cultures than our competitors are. Representing diversity is a real positive for companies operating in the global marketplace. It makes us better competitors," Mr. Shames said.

Mr. d'Arbeloff agreed. "The United States has the greatest economy in the world," he said. "It's entrepreneurial, because we can reallocate our resources toward things that are productive. We are probably the most inclusive society in the world. An economy moves on the talent that is available. You don't want to miss some talent because of your attitude. Diversity means getting the best talent available in your society to work in your organization."

Speaking before the breakout sessions, Dr. Scully listed the Sloan faculty, staff and students on Sloan's six-year-old Diversity Committee by name. "It's a really diverse team; it's hot; it hums," she said. And she asked some hard questions: What helps recruit and retain women? Can you create new niche markets when you single out segments of society -- for example, mothers of young children? How can you integrate diversity into your everyday ways of doing things? What is the impact of diversity?

Ms. Shackford described diversity as "a real business case. But it doesn't happen by itself. It has to be championed by the leaders in the company and supported by the whole workforce. It works when we work at it." She is vice president of parts manufacturing for Sikorsky Aircraft, part of United Technologies Corp.

"As managers, it's our job to pick candidates and develop environments that bring all views to the table and result in good decisions. At my company, 95 percent of our customers used to be the military. Now, 60 percent are international. They have different faces, different cultures. We need their trust. To be competitive, we have to be diverse."

The speakers agreed that "it's hard to get quantitative information, an ROI [return on investment], on human capital in the workplace. But diversity needs to be a business goal. Your greatest resources are your human resources."

United Technologies Corp. contributed financial support for Diversity Day.

A version of this article appeared in the April 14, 1999 issue of MIT Tech Talk (Volume 43, Number 26).

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