I was raised in a family that really loves and enjoys a good, tasty meal! I think that my experience of seeing my Mother cook, the ‘natural’ precision with which she added key ingredients to ensure taste, lead to the passion I have today for food and cooking food. I remember in my very early twenties, and whilst abroad on holiday, which was a good number of years ago (!), I was told by friends and acquaintances from other nationalities that the UK compared to other countries had a very bland and basic palate, and was only known for cooking Fish and Chips, and even that, my acquaintances suggested, we cooked badly! Not something I was happy to hear, though at the time, I must admit, there was some truth in it…
Well, I challenge those friends and acquaintances now to re-examine their thinking: In London alone, there now exists over 70 different cuisines, all serving great food as part of the British identity. In fact, a leading analyst has declared that London in particular has been undergoing a “golden age” with more restaurants launched than ever before in its history. With many winning international awards for best cooking, and with London eateries rivalling their European and American counterparts, Peter Harden, Co-editor of “The Guide” argued that “…it is…the general variety in London which shows the maturity of the restaurant scene that perhaps we have not seen before”. I suggest that it is in fact the variety of different cultures coming together which constitutes British cooking that has now placed London on the ‘world-restaurant’ map!
I think the example above shows clearly the transformation that can occur when we begin to look at the idea of ‘difference’…differently. Difference facilitates change, newness and a dawn of a new era. But difference, in whatever shape of form it introduces itself to us, can initially be rather unsettling – and naturally so. And the reason for this, is precisely because difference introduces the idea of change, which in turn imposes on us the need to re-evaluate what constitutes our ‘conditioned’ ways of dealing with and doing things. But human history is in fact a history of positively managing difference, leading to change, development and progress as clearly demonstrated in the evolution of humanity from the Cave Man to the Computer!
So what is this link then between ‘diversity’ and ‘difference’? Indeed, what is it about diversity that acts as the common denominator driving change? I think it is a virtual impossiblity to actually fully comprehend the meaning of diversity without initially seeing how it is intricately linked with the idea of difference. Indeed, I suggest that both terms can in fact be used interchangeably. The concept of diversity is intricately connected to the idea of humanity. Indeed, we are unable to fully understand or comprehend what humanity is without seeing how it is intricately connected to individuality. We are all individuals, different individuals sharing in a common humanity. Our individuality plays itself out via the different visible symptoms of diversity or difference which characterises our individuality and identifies us as fellow participants in humanity – gender, ethnicity, disability, etc. Diversity, therefore, is fundamentally about that which we all share as fellow human beings – individuality, which in itself is necessarily characterized by difference – as no two individuals are the same out of the 6,884, 909, 953 people living in the world according to statistics taken from the US Census Bureau as of Dec 1, 2010!
Continuing from the above, a question to ask is this: if fundamentally, we share a common base in individuality, why is that we allow the visible symptoms of diversity to ‘get in the way’, as it were, from allowing us to use our ‘differences’ positively and creatively akin to the example of the ‘golden age’ of British cooking now recognised over the world as symptomatic of the cultural diversity that characterises the 21st century UK society?
Put another way, and seen from an organisational perspective, if diversity has been ‘introduced’ into organisations as a best practice equal opportunities lead strategy to facilitate real change, ensuring creativity and organisational performance through promoting fairness and inclusivity for all people (both present and potential), then what is it about diversity itself that prevents organisations from placing it at the very heart of core organisational strategy, given the clear rewards that can be reaped as a consequence? Is it the term diversity itself? The interpretation of the term? Or is it the wrongful associations that come to mind when we consider the concept?
I suggest that the answer to the questions above can be found within our understanding of the term, Focus. As human beings we have a natural tendency to focus on the ‘visible’ and the ‘simplistic’. It is our tendency to focus on the symptoms of diversity, and the simplistic ‘stereotypes’ and associated ‘histories’ connected with those stereotypes around which we have built mental, physical and indeed structural blockages over a period of time – and which gives us a certain amount of ‘security’, that consciously, but more often than not, subconsciously, prevents us from seeing, understanding and consequently, internalising what diversity really is, and how embracing it strategically can take organisations to new levels of creativity, positive change, and heightened performance.
What we have been attempting to unravel in examining the concept of ‘diversity’ and the idea of ‘difference’ in the thoughts above, is simply to posit that ‘change’, a natural ingredient of diversity, stems from what diversity is actually about – the uniqueness of the individual. It is within this particular understanding of the uniqueness of the individual as individual that the true idea of difference can be found. This difference is the difference arising out of the ideas created given each persons individual relationship with their environment (experiences, backgrounds, and general socio-political and economic contexts, etc).
Based on the above, it seems pertinent to say that if we are to ‘discriminate’ at all on differences, it is within the area of ideas that we should discriminate and have a debate, not on the symptoms. Having a reasoned debate on the type of ideas needed for ensuring organisational strategy is agile enough to specifically meet the diverse needs of the 21st century ‘global’ customer by positively utilising people differences, is literally ‘the essential mix of ingredients in the pot’ for achieving business success. However, it is our mis-focusing on what really matters that sees us, sometimes unintentionally, discriminating based on individual’s symptoms, which inevitably results in us losing out on a range of untold benefits and opportunities that organisations need to remain competitive, relevant and sustainable.
The varying forms of modern technological advancement; planes, trains and automobiles, etc – are great testimonies to how different and varying ideas have come together creatively and generated the air of competition that characterises organisational advancement. I have often thought, however, how much further we could have progressed if organisations had, say since the past 10 decades, recruited and developed people based solely on their ideas and the talent they possessed therein? Let me make it a bit clearer and bring it closer to the present day – are you able to imagine or indeed comprehend the potential outcome from effectively utilising approximately 6,884, 909, 953 ideas??!! What about even half of that – 3,442,454,976.5?? It is arguable to say that we would very probably be living in a completely different world!
So what’s the solution? I think the way forward is to engage in a process of re-focusing or re-programming the way we think about diversity, akin to re-programming a computer when it freezes. Focusing on the symptoms of diversity has to a large extent placed many organisations unknowingly in ‘freeze mode’, stalling their ability to identify, recruit and develop the talent needed for further growth, productivity and sustainability. What we need is to completely switch off, reboot our ‘systems’ and re-focus on the human person for what he or she is – a unique individual full of a multiplicity of capabilities and possibilities.
I propose a programme of complete re-education around re-discovering diversity, it’s true meaning and indeed what it can deliver – one that returns us to ‘the source’ of the issue – enabling us to see the underlying and absolute unity in the idea of difference.