Think Strategy First for a Diverse and Inclusive Workplace

Take a minute and look around your workplace. Does everyone look like you? Do some people dominate conversations and situations at the expense of others? When hiring, do you hear: “We need another Glen or Joanne?”

A ‘yes’ to questions like these signals the presence of unconscious bias, circumventing your best efforts to promote diversity and inclusion. As an HR professional, you know it’s your job to work to eliminate biases in order to avoid the pitfalls that even the biggest organizations – including Starbucks and Amazon – have fallen into. Companies everywhere are scrambling for ways to deal with unconscious bias. And you can’t count on artificial intelligence to save you – it can be just as guilty as the rest of us.

Your first instinct when dealing with unconscious bias may be to set up more training. While training is important, I recommend you take a step back and consider the problem from a broader strategic level to identify multiple behaviour-changing levers that can work in tandem to make your workplace more diverse, more inclusive and less biased.

Before we get into the details, let’s start with clear definitions of unconscious bias and unconscious bias training.

What is Unconscious Bias?

Unconscious bias refers to learned, deeply ingrained stereotypes, views and opinions that we are unaware of because they happen outside our conscious control. They surface automatically – triggered by our brain as it makes quick judgements about people and situations. Unconscious biases are influenced by factors such as our background, cultural environment, context and personal experiences and they affect our everyday behaviour and decision-making.

What is unconscious bias training?

Unconscious bias training and interventions aim to increase awareness of unconscious bias and its impact on people who belong to traditionally underrepresented groups in terms of characteristics such as age, race, sex, disability, religion or belief, sexual orientation, gender, marriage and civil partnership status, and other attributes.

Some of the aims of unconscious bias training are:

  • to reduce implicit/unconscious bias towards members of underrepresented groups as identified above
  • to reduce explicit bias towards members of these groups
  • to change behaviour, in the intended direction, towards equality-related outcomes

For more on unconscious bias training, please see the U.K.-based Equality and Human Rights Commission’s report, Unconscious bias training: An assessment of the evidence for effectiveness (March 2018).

Training, while important, is only a single tactic to raise awareness about unconscious bias and promote positive diversity and inclusion outcomes. The challenge is that most people will say they are unbiased – in fact, individuals who take Harvard’s IAT test are most likely to self-report as egalitarian. However, deeper probing continues to reveal systematic biases:

When individuals are asked about their feelings and attitudes towards others, they are most likely to self-report as egalitarian (orange bar), while deeper testing (blue bar) reveals systemic biases.

Unlike self-awareness and beliefs, behaviour is observable. We can measure it scientifically. We can track changes and make adjustments in our programming to make sure it is making a real difference. If measurable changes in behaviour are your goal (moving beyond what people say or believe to what they do), you require a strategic approach or framework that involves both teams and individuals and is embedded at multiple levels throughout the organization.

A strategic framework for diversity and inclusion looks like this:

A behaviour change approach to a diverse and inclusive workplace. Use the strategic framework of purpose, process, practice and people to minimize unconscious bias and create change in your organization.

Here’s how this strategic framework plays out in terms of real activities with tangible outcomes:


The shared values, beliefs, and purpose that lead people’s behaviour

Yes, it’s important to state that your organization values diversity and inclusion. But we all know that talk is cheap. Efforts that only extend to “core values” statements on your website may be worse than not doing anything at all. It’s essential to walk your talk by integrating your stated values into activities within the other three organizational levels (process, practice and people). Doing so will set you well on your way to creating a culture that honours and supports diversity and inclusion.


Policies and procedures that guide people’s behaviour

Turning policies on diversity and inclusion into concrete workplace procedures that people can easily follow is critical to creating the ‘ways of working’ that you want to engender throughout your workforce. Hiring is a high priority place to start, including recruitment strategies, resume review and interviewing techniques.


Tools that nudge and support your people’s behaviour

It’s entirely possible to change people’s behaviour without expensive, productivity-zapping education and training. One way is by augmenting people’s environments – whether physical, cognitive, or social – with tools or “behavioural nudges.”

From a simple checklist all the way to a fully integrated performance support like Turbotax (accounting software that takes individuals through a step-by-step process of answering simple questions to file their tax returns), these tools effectively take the thinking out of an activity, and influence the way people perform the activity through subtle, often unconscious cues. (This point is critical, since it is people’s thinking that is precisely the problem when it comes to diversity, inclusion and unconscious bias.)

For example, framing interview questions in certain ways on your standard interview script can disavow interviewers of particular biases that may differentially support certain candidates. The interview script is an example of a tool that deploys nudges by framing questions to drive egalitarian questioning and responses.

Note that it’s not necessary to change the thinking of interviewers; we need only have them follow a particular script that is nuanced in the right sorts of ways.

For many organizations, these “behavioural nudges” are an untapped method of creating behaviour change. They are easy to implement and tremendously cost-effective.


Learning experiences that change people’s behaviour

Of course, we can also change observable behaviour by developing each individual’s personal knowledge and skills. To do it right, however, you need to design training in a way that goes beyond changing their minds to improve behaviour-based skills.

I’m a big fan of in-person training that uses scenarios and simulations to facilitate practicing skills and applying knowledge.

I like to flip the traditional way of teaching and begin by challenging people to solve an applied problem, while providing them with coaching and feedback along the way. Any information they need – any knowledge – can be provided as optional resources they can use to solve the problem.

Another avenue to consider is e-learning, which provides a scalable solution to unconscious bias and diversity and inclusion training if you have a large employee base and are looking for cost efficiencies. The research shows that for unconscious bias training, e-learning can provide the same outcomes as in-person training. (For more on this point, see section 3.2 in the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s report, Unconscious bias training: An assessment of the evidence for effectiveness).

A blend of in-person training for leaders and e-learning for employees is a good mix if you have a big company. The leaders get the hands-on experience: they wrestle with the ideas and can help shape the implementation in the organization, while employees get a scalable e-learning version, with no loss in learning outcomes.

A strategy integrated across these four organizational elements – purpose, process, practice and people – is your best path to real, measurable behaviour change and a more diverse and inclusive workplace.

— Aaron Barth

Aaron Barth, Ph.D., is president and founder of Dialectic. He is a frequent speaker on topics such as unconscious bias in the workplace, and the power of science, design thinking, and technology to help accelerate employee learning, transform organizations and support employee and customer engagement.


AI and Machine Learning for Business

Dialectic Book Club: AI and Machine Learning for Business

The Dialectic Book Club recently explored one of today’s hottest topics, discussing Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning for Business by Steven Finlay, a practical and concise overview geared to managers and business people.

Finlay is a data scientist with a Ph.D. in predictive modelling, who specializes in developing machine-learning solutions in big data industries, including the financial sector.

The book begins with the basics, providing easy-to-absorb definitions of machine learning and AI and then explores the value of machine learning and how it works. It provides insights on building a predictive model and how to use such a model to make decisions, as well as ethical implications.

Dialectic team takeaways:

  1. In the short term, machine learning will add jobs, rather than suppress them.
  2. Algorithms can be biased or even racist… if the people who create them are.
  3. Algorithms are fantastic tools for analyzing vast amounts of data and making predictions about the world — such as sales forecasts — but humans are still needed to interpret and act on those predictions.

Also see our advice on getting your workplace machine-learning ready: Machine Learning, AI and Change Management: 3 Ways Leaders Can Prepare Their Organization for Success.

The Dialectic team regularly meets to discuss books that contribute insights to our work designing e-learning, organizational change and customer experiences. Next up, we’re reading Cathy Moore’s Map It: The Hands-On Guide to Strategic Training Design.


Is Your Workplace Culture Machine Learning Ready?

Machine Learning, AI and Change Management: 3 Ways Leaders Can Prepare Their Organization for Success

For decades, futurists have been predicting that the workplace will one day be radically transformed by artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning.

But it’s only fairly recently that the technology has begun to demonstrate its potential. AI and machine learning technologies are becoming more and more accessible and affordable thanks to the exponential growth in computing power, the development of more and more sophisticated algorithms, and the massive amounts of data generated by billions of people every day.

“One day” is here.

Parts of the financial sector, such as mortgage approvals, have been automated for years. Chatbots and virtual assistants are taking over many customer service functions traditionally handled by people. Automation in factories has eliminated jobs in some areas while creating employment in others.

While AI and machine learning is benefiting businesses and organizations in every sector, the inevitable disruption also brings major challenges. Too often, the conversation focuses on the extremes: whether human workers will become obsolete, or that AI will relieve people of repetitive or dangerous tasks and increase profits while allowing humans to pursue more creative pursuits. Organizations need to shift that conversation.

The difference between success and failure will depend on how well leaders prepare their workforces for a world where employees work with — rather than compete against— AI, machine learning, robots and other “smart” technologies.

What are machine learning and AI?

What do we mean by AI and machine learning? People often conflate the two concepts but there are key differences.

In a nutshell, machine learning is the use of mathematical procedures (algorithms) to analyze and find patterns in data which can then be used to make predictions about the world. For example, retail stores use machine learning to analyze customers’ purchasing history in order to predict which products will be in demand and make appropriate decisions about things like inventory or pricing. As more and more quality data are made available to the algorithm, the greater the reliability of its predictions. The algorithm “learns” without requiring the intervention of a computer programmer to tell it what to do next.

It’s a lot like how people learn. You observe what goes on around you, drawing conclusions and identifying patterns about how the world works. You then use this knowledge to deal with new situations as they arise. Machine learning’s advantage over human learning is its ability to process much more data, to deploy more sophisticated algorithms to identify patterns, and to do this at great speed. This leads to fast, reliable predictions that can exceed human decision-making capabilities and mitigate unconscious bias (which we will discuss in more detail below).

Machine learning is a subset of AI. AI is the replication of human analytical and decision-making capabilities through the application of sophisticated machine learning. There are AI applications that can perform as well or better than humans at a variety of tasks, from playing chess to assessing creditworthiness to spotting a cancerous tumour on an x-ray. AI is a form of intelligence, but it is not conscious in the way that human minds are.

Machine learning is everywhere

Machine learning has been used in many industries for years. Most people engage with it in some form every day. It’s used for fraud detection and credit scoring, placing real-time ads on mobile devices and websites, web search results, spam filtering, image and pattern recognition, sentiment analysis in texts, and more. Machine learning provides the “brains” behind everything from pizza-making robots to self-driving cars to computer programs that write articles for the sports and finance pages. Sectors that are leading the way include:

  • Banking and finance: loan approvals, automating stock market transactions
  • Retail: sales forecasting, managing inventory and logistics
  • Marketing: customer insights, targeted promotions
  • Health care: diagnostics, predicting ER wait times and allocating staff resources
  • Utilities: developing smart grids to manage electricity supply and demand
  • Manufacturing: automating repetitive and/or dangerous tasks, optimizing quality and efficiency
  • Professional services: accounting, legal research services
  • Recruitment and education: application screening, customized learning
  • Call centres and customer service: automated inbound and outbound calling to support sales and marketing, answering customer queries

How machine learning can improve your business

It’s been estimated that in many fields, predictive models can outperform human decision makers by 20 to 30 per cent. Leveraging machine learning and AI can help make your workforce more efficient and deliver valuable business intelligence to improve your value proposition, customer service, logistics, marketing efforts, and more.

But simply putting more data in the hands of employees will not, by itself, translate into improved business performance. A successful transition will depend on the ability to create a machine learning-ready workplace culture. In practice, this means that in addition to investing in the latest technology, companies will also need to invest in training and enhancing the skillsets of their employees.

That’s because, in the end, machine learning is just math. It is only a tool, and like all tools, algorithms are only as good as the people who design them and use them, and the materials — the data — that they’re given to work with. Ultimately, it will be a human’s job to ensure that the data being collected are relevant and that the insights it shows are being leveraged properly.

The importance of critical thinking

So how do you position your workforce to effectively carry out the crucial role of making decisions and acting on the insights from machine learning algorithms?

You need to build a culture that values critical thinking.

Critical thinking is the ability reflect upon information in order to form good judgments and actions. To borrow from the algorithm analogy, a good critical thinker takes information as input, and outputs good judgments and actions. In this case, the critical thinker takes the insights and predictions produced by machine learning algorithms as inputs, and outputs sound judgments and actions that will move the organization forward.

Leaders need to develop the capacity for critical thinking across their organization so that as machine learning gets more integrated into everyone’s work, the organization as a whole is making the best decisions it can.

Context is everything

Machine learning is really good at making predictions about a very narrow set of things. It is a ‘vertical integrator’ of information — or, it has ‘vertical intelligence.’ Its intelligence is narrow and deep (relative to humans). Humans are really good at integrating a wide set of information. We’re horizontal integrators. Human intelligence is wide and shallow (relative to algorithms).

Since business decisions don’t happen in a vacuum, organizations need to leverage humans’ ability to integrate machine learning insights into the wider organizational and business context to make good decisions — and to avoid bad ones. For example, there are many algorithm-based market intelligence tools than can help businesses understand their customers and develop messages that will resonate with them. However, if the winning formula predicted by the algorithm is, say, already being used by one of your competitors, or is based on a small or suspect data set, you wouldn’t run with these messages because to do so could cause confusion and even damage your brand. Human intelligence and creativity are still required to fine-tune messages that connect with the right audience at the right time.

Understanding the larger context helps us identify when algorithms produce suboptimal results. Recently, Amazon abandoned its AI-powered recruitment engine when it was discovered to have a built-in bias against hiring women. That’s because the computer models used to vet applicants were based on resumes submitted to the company over the previous decade. Most of the job applicants in that period were men — a reflection of male dominance in the tech industry. Amazon’s system taught itself to prefer male over female candidates, but the machine wasn’t biased — the data set was.

So, machine learning isn’t magic — it depends on people asking the right questions to solve the right problems in the first place, and interpreting machine learning insights in a human real-world context. To make all that happen, leaders must equip their employees with three critical thinking abilities: the critical thinking mindset, skill set and tool set.

3 ways to build a workplace culture that’s machine-learning ready

1. The Critical Thinking Mindset

The core of critical thinking is really an attitude or mindset that comes down to a very simple behaviour: the ability to consider an idea without necessarily accepting that idea as true.

When you can entertain a thought without automatically accepting it, you are able to open up a space between understanding something and acting on it. And that’s precisely what you need from your workforce in order to reduce your risk-exposure when integrating more machine learning technologies: your workforce needs to be able to reflect on machine learning algorithms and insights before blindly putting them into practice.

The following behaviours demonstrate when an individual has adopted a critical thinking mindset:

  • Open-mindedness – intellectual curiosity and a willingness to suspend judgment
  • Intellectual responsibility – objectivity, humility, and a commitment to the consequences of thinking critically
  • Independence of thought – intellectual autonomy and the courage to speak one’s mind
  • Respect for others – sensitivity, empathy, and a willingness to consider other points of view.

2. The Critical Thinking Skill Set

We know it is possible for algorithms to be biased, as the Amazon example above makes clear.

The reason they can be biased is an example of the “garbage in, garbage out” principle. Machine learning algorithms learn — without reflection — from data sets. So if the data sets are biased in some way — say, by containing more men than women — then the predictions that the data sets deliver will be biased in the same way.

That’s why having some checks and balances on machine learning is important. And humans armed with critical thinking skills are well-suited to this task because of our horizontal intelligence.

One way to enable your team’s critical thinking skill sets is through Pearson’s RED Critical Thinking Model. Based on a widely used test to evaluate cognitive ability, the RED model emphasizes that to think critically, we must:

  • Recognize assumptions and demonstrate the ability to separate fact from opinion
  • Evaluate arguments by analyzing information objectively and accurately
  • Draw conclusions based on available evidence.

Workers equipped with critical thinking skills can put machine learning insights to the test to see if they make sense — both in relation to the set of constraints imposed on the algorithm and to the broader context of the business or organization.

3. The Critical Thinking Tool Set

Building employees’ confidence in their critical thinking abilities will empower them to incorporate machine learning insights into their decision-making. In turn, that will drive innovation.

Organizations can help their people build their confidence by providing them with decision-making tools and job-aids such as this simple seven-step process.

Importantly, the tools you select should guide people’s thinking in ways that avoid unconscious biases. For that reason these tools should be located in the workplace environment (so they are external to the individual and therefore not subject to individual biases) and they should provide a common process that everyone can agree upon to deliver results that everyone can trust.

There are three kinds of tools and processes we recommend as a starting point:

    1. Build a decision-making workbook
    2. Provide critical thinking mentorship from already strong critical thinkers in your organization
    3. Ensure that decisions stand up to scrutiny by identifying a team whose job it is to challenge your organization’s ideas, processes and assumptions.

Machine learning and AI can deliver competitive advantages but only if the entire organization is committed and open to change, from the CEO and top IT administrators to mid-level managers and frontline staff.

Companies that invest in equipping employees with critical thinking skills to guide this never-ending process of analyzing data, evaluating insights, making predictions, measuring results and making the adjustments will achieve better business results, increase productivity and continue to drive innovation.

About Dialectic

Dialectic provides education and tools to help people transition to a partnership with the AI-enabled robot that may be in their future. We focus on the psychological, social, emotional, and cognitive needs of humans in that partnership, and how companies can help people adapt to that world through training and tool development. Contact us to learn more.

Aaron Barth Ph.D. from Dialectic working the room at a speaking engagement.

One-day Workshop: Beat Your Bias and Build a Better Team

Aaron Barth, Dialectic’s founder and president, is speaking at a one-day interactive training workshop, Beat Your Bias and Build a Better Team, presented by The Accelerator Centre and PwC Sept. 20 in Kitchener, Ontario. Barth will present alongside Michelle Rhodes, Director, Change Management and Business Transformation Consulting at PwC, and Jackie Lauer, Mentor, Leadership/Culture & HR at The Accelerator Centre. Designed for entrepreneurs, educators, and industry professionals, this workshop will demonstrate the value of combating unconscious bias in the workplace and provide practical advice on implementing best practices that are key to fostering diversity in a sustainable and meaningful way. Participants will gain the opportunity to:
  • explore their own biases
  • learn how those biases impact decision making
  • identify strategies to combat those challenges
  • implement change within their own organizations
Learn more and register. Book Aaron for your next event.