How Can Companies Promote Innovation with Diverse Employees?

WHY SHOULD COMPANIES USE DIVERSE TEAMS TO PROMOTE INNOVATION?

Diverse work teams can improve innovation, problem-solving, and productivity, according to several recent studies. The London Business School found that work teams with equal numbers of men and women were more likely to experiment, be creative, share knowledge, and fulfill tasks. Similarly, an NCWIT study, revealed that mixed-gender teams produce IT patents that are more highly cited. Additional studies indicate that, under the right conditions, teams comprising diverse members consistently outperform teams comprising “highest-ability” members (Page, 2007).

WHY DO DIVERSE TEAMS OFTEN PRODUCE BETTER RESULTS?

The answer lies in the connection between “identity-group diversity” (e.g., race, gender, class) and “functional diversity.” Functional diversity refers to the way individuals frame and solve problems differently. Life experience significantly influences functional diversity, and an individual’s membership in particular identity groups influences her or his life experiences. Thus, teams with members from different identity groups are also likely to be rich in functional diversity. Less diverse teams use similar problem-solving methods, missing solutions that diverse teams discover.

THE CASE OF FEMALE IT PATENTING - CAUSE FOR CONCERN; INDICATIONS OF HOPE

While patenting is not the only measure of diverse innovation, it is one important measure. Between 1980 and 2005, female inventors accounted for only 4.7% of all U.S. IT patents. While these rates are quite low, they have improved over time. In 1980, women accounted for only 1.7% of patents, but they accounted for 6.1% by 2005.

 

WHAT CAN COMPANIES DO?

An NCWIT study found that mixed gender teams produced the most highly cited patents, with citation rates 26 – 42% higher than the norm. Companies can take several important steps to help them benefit from female patenting.

  • Establish a norm of assembling mixed gender/diverse project teams
  • Educate employees as to the benefits diversity brings to innovation
  • Demystify the process: Develop innovation communities or similar programs that teach “how to patent.” Target these programs to underrepresented groups.
  • Make information on innovation and the patenting process a part of mentoring programs

Furthermore, female patenting rates vary widely across companies. Some companies have produced large increases in female patenting rates, while these rates have decreased approximately 4-6% in many other companies, with some companies showing as much as 25% fewer female or mixed-gender patents. This evidence suggests that company practices can have a substantial effect on the rates of diverse innovation.

Several studies illuminate potential reasons for the low rates of female patenting (Murray & Graham, 2007). For example, women tend to judge their accomplishments more harshly than do men, leading them to believe their work is unworthy of patenting. Furthermore, women experience discrimination in assignment of work tasks, being assigned to lower profile projects less likely to produce patentable products. Addressing these conditions is important if companies are to benefit from diverse innovation.



References

  • Ashcraft, C. & Breitzman, A. (2007). Who Invents IT? An Analysis of Women’s Participation in Information Technology Patenting (NCWIT). Executive summary available at http://www.ncwit.org/pdf/PatentExecSumm.pdf
  • London Business School (2007). Innovative Potential: Men and Women in Teams. Executive summary available at http://www.london.edu/assets/documents/Word/Innovative_Potential_NOV_2007.pdf
  • Murray, F. & Graham, L. (2007). Buying science and selling science: Gender differences in the market for commercial science. Industrial and Corporate Change, (16) 4, 657-689.
  • Page, S. (2007). The difference: How the power of diversity helps create better groups, firms, schools, and societies. New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

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Author: Catherine Ashcraft