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Better collaboration with cultural diversity

There has been a lot of talk in recent years about cultural diversity and inclusion, especially in the corporate world. When the topic comes up, people often remark that diversity and inclusion build stronger, more resilient and more creative work teams.

That can be a powerful package of value-added benefits for a company.

Does diversity really lead to more effective workplace collaboration? Personally, having witnessed it first-hand in various forms and situations, I’m convinced it does. Here are a few examples of highly effective work teams – for the purposes of this article, I’m going to focus on cultural diversity.

Citizens of the world

I worked at Bell in the days when Bell pretty much had a monopoly on home phone service and long distance calls. It was 1997, and cell phones were not yet commonplace. The only vague threat to home phone revenues was a few 10-10-220-type numbers that you could dial ahead a long distance call to save on per-minute rates with American telecom companies. Calling cards existed south of the border but were not yet a real option here in Canada.

All that meant that the country’s cultural communities were one of Bell’s most lucrative customer segments after the business sector. Monthly long distance bills in communities looking to stay connected to their families overseas could be staggeringly high.

Bell therefore allowed the creation of the “In-Language” department, a specialized subgroup within the company made up almost exclusively of children of immigrants, who took on the mandate of meeting the needs of their parents’ generation. Most of the team were new Quebecers, perfectly trilingual or even quadrilingual, which made it easier for ethnic communities across the country to get personalized service in the language they were most comfortable communicating in.

Diversity in the Tower of Babel

Walking by this multilingual department was like walking through the Tower of Babel, with a cacophony of Greek, Italian, Creole and Spanish that had a surprisingly impressive, avant-garde feel about it. Each agent was also equipped with a set of cultural codes that allowed more targeted assistance to clarify service options, explain how to use the equipment or negotiate payment agreements. This internal collaboration with an international flavour allowed Bell to offer an efficient service that met the expectations of large users. Its return on investment was unprecedented.

Communicating with China

A few years later, I worked for Fido (now Rogers). Fido was the very first cell phone company to offer Global System for Mobile Communications (GSM) technology, which, among other things, allowed a smart card to be inserted into the phone.

This technology was already well accepted in certain European and Asian countries, and Canada’s Asian communities and foreign businesspeople were thus quick to adopt the new cell technology. To support customer interest, the same type of creative collaboration occurred: the few in-house employees from the Chinese community, for example, began offering specialized service in Mandarin and Cantonese. All Fido needed to do was add those language options to the 1-800 service home menu, and voilà!

Unique cultural expertise

Needless to say, in both cases, the personalized service offered and the initiative taken by Quebecers from minority cultural backgrounds provided their employers with significant added value, not just in terms of the level of personalization of the services offered but also in terms of recruiting operations that allowed these specialized subgroups to maintain a level of quality that would not otherwise have been possible. The results in terms of customer loyalty and retention were tangible.

Quick, hang up!

In one more example from the world of telecommunications, I recall a meeting at another former employer, Cogeco Cable. The year was 2010, and we were reviewing the monthly long distance call report for the province of Ontario for the previous month.

The data analysis team couldn’t figure out why so many of the long distance calls lasted less than a minute. They hypothesized that there had been a phone system failure and promised to look into it with IT.

Then a French woman in the room, married to a Colombian, raised her hand and said that she thought the issue was not a system or equipment failure but rather growing use of WhatsApp, especially among families of Indian origin living outside the Greater Toronto Area.

And indeed, many newcomers trying to stay in touch with family had begun calling abroad, telling the person at the other end to switch to WhatsApp and then quickly ending the call, all to avoid incurring long distance charges.

Without the very pertinent input from someone with an immigrant background and a far-flung family, an accurate understanding of this new Ontario customer behaviour might have taken much longer to arrive at. In this particular case, cultural diversity resulted in time and money saved.

Cultural diversity: More of you than of us

These examples drawn from my work experience with large Canadian companies over the past 20 years are just a few instances of enhanced team collaboration where cultural diversity was already well entrenched in the existing teams.

Unfortunately, there are many more instances of lost opportunity due to an absence of diversity. While missed opportunities may be more difficult to pinpoint, they are still real, and costly.

All to say that we still have a long way to go before all our work teams can enjoy the optimal collaboration that diversity can bring. Diversity is not only a necessary response to the adoption of new behaviour patterns by a changing demographic. The call for diversity is also about benefiting from new ways of doing things and trying approaches that have sometimes already proved successful elsewhere.

Fudjika Bloncourt

Senior Change Management and Communication Consultant


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