Sunday, September 20, 2009

Diversity in the Class: More than just a "nice to have"

I was recently reflecting on our Managing People in Organizations class and how we analyze cases in order to develop models we use. Last week, we had a case regarding cultural issues and how they affect the performance of organizations (for better or worse) as well as being able to differentiate between different definitions of "culture" and being able to apply those definitions in order to improve our own models.

In this particular case, it was very clear that there were some huge difficulties within the company caused by cultural issues. Now this probably comes as no surprise. As my undergrad strategy prof at McMaster, Dr. Terrance Flynn, used to say: "We learn the most with companies in distress"... I loved his class and got a good grade, but used to call it "doom and gloom" because the companies we analyzed always had problems. This case was no different. The two organizations had major organizational friction during the acquisition and restructuring.

What WAS interesting is that the bias reflected in the case was also reflected in our class. Our class, composed mostly of Canadians, were incredibly quick to side with the Canadians in the case (it was a case of a Canadian bank acquiring a Mexican bank). They say that those who don't study history are doomed to repeat it. However, there were some South Americans in the class who identified more with the Mexicans and were very quick to correct our biases with concrete examples from their past experiences.

When we used to do interviews to hire managers, you could quickly tell who was inexperienced when you asked them a behavioural question, such as "What would you do to resolve a conflict?"
An inexperienced manager would start by saying: "I would..."
Whereas an experienced manager would say: "In the past, I have..." and finish with a powerful example.

This is exactly what the two South Americans, Alejandro and Jenny, did in our class. They were the first two people in our class to add value to our conversation beyond just doing an analysis of the case as provided by injecting their own personal experience and unique perspective. I thought it was wonderful. We often hear MBA recruiters telling us how great their programs are because they can attract international students with diverse backgrounds (Rotman's official number this year is 36%), but it's an entirely different thing to have your case conversation redirected (in a good way) such that you would have missed out otherwise if you had a homogenious class of Canadians.