5 Ways to Drive Diversity and Digital Transformation at the Same Time

This post originally appeared on LinkedIn

As a woman of color in high tech who advises organizations around leadership and digital transformation, I’m struck by the similarity of the challenges around diversity and inclusion (D&I) and digital transformation (DT). You usually don’t see “diversity and digital” in the same sentence, so I’ll explain how the two topics are connected and what organizations can do to advance both strategic imperatives with the same initiatives. Yes, it’s potentially a two-fer!

Skip the business case – this is about culture.  

A common refrain in D&I circles is to “make the business case” for diversity. Similarly, organizations drag their feet in making tough DT decisions because of the lack of a “business case.” However, there have been a multitude of studies that make the case for D&I, and similarly for digital transformation. And yet, many companies struggle to make meaningful progress on either initiative despite the evidence to do so. It’s infuriating to have to convince people of the obvious — that digital infuses all aspects of our employees’ and customers’ lives, and that women and people of color are missing from the top ranks of organizations. The business case has already been proven, so don’t waste time trying to prove it. Instead, assume that D&I and DT are simply the way things will be done. Either get on board, or lose.

The unspoken fear is that both are about shifting power and culture change. An organization that truly reflects the population it serves at all levels, or a truly digital organization, means that the world of work as we know it will be completely different. We will have to work and communicate in new and different ways. We will be pushed out of our comfort zone. Data and charts can’t address this.

So stop trying to make the business case for diversity and digital transformation. Stop living in your head, and start leading from your heart. What are the implications for diversity parity at the executive level? What does a truly inclusive workplace look and feel like? What would it mean for us to be connected and work digitally? Step away from the spreadsheets and presentations and instead approach D&I and DT with compelling stories of employees and customers who will benefit from the change, stories that move the heart and fill it with courage for the change ahead.

Build a holistic, measurable strategy for both initiatives.

In a recent post, Bernard Coleman, the head of diversity at Uber, makes the case that D&I requires a well-considered, consistent strategy, not knee-jerk reactions or disparate initiatives. I see a similar issue with DT — I’m frequently asked by leaders what’s “the next new thing” to try, and my response is that they are asking the wrong question. They are so blinded by the next bright shiny object that they can’t see the most basic aspects of being digital that need to be addressed in their organizations.

So why do organizations have such a hard time getting started and sustaining a concerted strategy for D&I and DT? Diversity/inclusion and digital transformation require executive leadership, and a commitment to create and follow through on a process that is often messy, political, out of their direct control, and deeply personal. I see many well-meaning initiatives like diversity councils and digital transformation workgroups get kicked off, but meander because of a lack of concrete vision and metrics. You are what you measure, and one of the hardest (and rarest) things I’ve seen organizations do is to sit down and do an honest, numerical assessment of where they are on these two initiatives, and more importantly, where they want to be.

For example, the 50/50 by 2020 initiative set as its goal D&I parity in the executive ranks of the entertainment industry. That’s an audacious, transparent goal that organizations can be held to. The most terrifying and transformative part of such transparency is that it also creates accountability. So if you’re serious about D&I and DT, then make sure you marry a vision with SMART goals and metrics.

Build the army that you need.

There’s an old saying: “Go to war with the army that you have.” That may be adequate for today, but you’ll need to quickly build an organization with new digital competencies in order to be competitive in the future. It’s a war for digital talent, so make sure you are seeing all of the qualified candidates that you can, unburdened by traditional biases for what a “digital” person looks like.

In addition, a key requirement of the digital space, and of artificial intelligence in particular, is the need for diverse teams capable of having empathy and respect for a customer base, as homogeneous teams run the risk of cognitive bias (see our Altimeter report “The CX of AI” for more).

There are a multitude of new technologies like Entelo and Blendoor that can source people with these digital skills and mindsets and layer it on top of diversity data. Cloud-based tools like GapJumpers and TalentSonar provide blind auditions and resume reviews to remove implicit bias. And my personal favorite is Textio, which reviews your job descriptions and makes them more likely to appeal to diverse candidates. One company that used GapJumpers found that only 20% of non-male, white candidates from elite schools made it to the first round. With blind auditions, that number jumped to 60%.

An explosion in workforce analytics means that we can now see the relationship between past performance, raises, and promotions against general traits like tenure and gender. Tools like Visier combine workforce and business data to address subjects like the impact of diverse teams on business outcomes or how anticipated attrition will impact business operations.

Employee feedback moves to near real-time with digital platforms like CultureAmp, which allow managers to identify behavior norms that may be holding back digital transformation or an environment that is not supportive of diverse viewpoints. CultureAmp also can compare and benchmark your organization against others across standardized questions, and provide more frequent feedback via a digital platform. And for leaders, there’s Butterfly AI, which uses artificial intelligence on employee feedback to provide real-time leadership coaching to managers.

Tap into the new power couple: The CHRO + CIO.

Last year I wrote a post about HR’s Role in Digital Transformation, making the case for CHROs to take a more active role to create a transformational workforce capable of driving growth and profits. With the focus on sexual harassment and toxic company cultures, CHROs are being thrust even more into the spotlight. To speed the pace of culture change, they will need to partner closely with the CIO and other IT leaders. In the same way that CMOs and CIOs forged a tight partnership to meet the challenge of engaging digital customers, CHROs and CIOs will need to become the new “power couple” in the C-Suite.

But like all relationships, they thrive only if you commit to spending quality time with each other. A few ways to make sure this happens include:

  • Align on shared business outcomes. Make the implied goals explicit ones by crafting a vision for the future that is shared jointly between the departments, and ideally throughout the organization. For example, agility and empathy are two core ideas frequently used in digital transformation as well as in diversity/inclusion efforts. Focusing on increasing agility and empathy through HR and IT strategies will feed into both diversity/inclusion and digital transformation objectives.
  • Embed IT in HR. Embedding a top IT person in the HR department gives HR the digital and technical expertise at the ready and in full context of its strategy. That IT person can help create a single architecture to ensure that all HR systems work well with each other. This doesn’t necessarily mean HR and business systems need to be tied completely together, but rather that having them managed centrally provides a shortcut to future integrations that may be needed.
  • Embed HR in IT. Similarly, IT would benefit from an HR perspective at its leadership and planning meetings, where HR representatives can convey the voice of the employee and partner to ensure a great employee experience. By deeply understanding the core skills and competencies needed in IT, HR can also do a better job finding qualified, diverse candidates and work to ensure that raises and promotions are not subject to unintentional bias.

Activate the board of directors for diversity and digital.

My last point is one formed from hundreds of discussions with organizational leaders, and CEOs in particular. At the end of briefings, consulting engagements, or even casual conversations, I often ask the leader how their diversity and inclusion efforts are going. 90% of the time, the first thing they do is to take a deep sigh, vaguely refer to a few initiatives, and then pass me off to HR. About 10% of them launch into a deeply personal and detailed discussion about diversity.

I often find the same thing happening with digital transformation. Leaders will all say that they are going through a digital transformation, but our research found that only 11% of CEOs are driving digital transformation. Similar, CEOs would refer me to their IT or Marketing departments to learn more about digital transformation.

Given the strategic importance of diversity and digital, and layering on top of that the tremendous change effort needed to make them happen, the only person who can drive these two initiatives forward is the top leader in the organization.

As the CEO is typically accountable to the board of directors, it’s up to the board of directors to create transparency and accountability with the CEO. Having more diversity and digital expertise on boards can help CEOs be more comfortable with these initiatives, or if needed, to make the case to find a new CEO who can take on this responsibility. Tools like Equilar’s BoardEdge provide a database of expertise and demographic background to help boards find and recruit diverse, digital board members.


My hope is that you can see the connection between diversity and digital transformation efforts. While important and different, they share many of the same traits and challenges that would mutually benefit from these four initiatives. Please let me know if you find this to be true in your organizations, and how you are making progress on diversity and digital in your organizations.