How Can Organizations Recruit Diverse Talent in Ways that Promote Innovation and Productivity?

Diversifying the IT workforce is about much more than fairness and equitable representation. Significant evidence now suggests that diverse work teams also produce tangible benefits, including improved innovation, problem-solving, and productivity. In a recent study by the London Business School, work teams comprising equal numbers of men and women were more likely to experiment, be creative, share knowledge, and fulfill tasks. Similarly, a study by NCWIT on gender & IT patenting revealed that mixed-gender teams produce patents that are more highly cited. A wealth of additional evidence also suggests that diverse work teams produce better results in a variety of contexts (see below for more information).

Why do diverse teams often produce better results? The answer lies in the connection between “identity-group diversity” (e.g., race, gender, class, among others) and “functional diversity.” Functional diversity is the extent to which individuals frame problems and go about solving them in different ways. Life experience significantly influences functional diversity, and an individual’s membership in particular identity groups significantly influences her or his life experiences. Thus, teams comprising members from different identity groups are also likely to be rich in functional diversity.

Diversity trumps ability: Functionally diverse teams often outperform “high-ability” teams. Recently a research team set out to address the following kind of scenario: When an organization has a significant problem to address, is it better to assemble the 20 top-scoring candidates or 20 diverse candidates randomly selected from a reasonably qualified applicant pool? Using a series of computational experiments and mathematical models, the researchers confirmed that given a large enough sample size, a team of diverse agents produces better results than a team of the “highest-ability” agents. This outcome occurs because the highest-ability agents use similar problem-solving methods and miss potential solutions that the diverse set of agents ultimately discovers.

Of course, in organizational settings, communication processes and group conflict may limit diversity benefits; therefore, implementing practices that foster productive group communication is also vital. The potential productivity of diverse teams underscores effective communication as an important and worthwhile goal.



Organizations interested in benefiting from functional diversity first need to seek it out actively. There are several ways to do so:

  1. Modify any existing hiring and selection practices that focus exclusively on “highest score” measures

  2. Recruit and reward people for being able AND relatively different

    • Develop recruiting, interviewing, and promotion criteria that stress the importance of diversity and creativity in problem-solving
    • Develop strategies that can identify and keep track of diversity in problem-solving
  3. Be explicit and make employees aware of the company’s philosophy about functional diversity and its benefits — a first step toward fostering productive group communication


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Author: Catherine Ashcraft