In an interview, Ingo Elfering, Group CIO and CEO of Fresenius Digital Technology, explains how different views, professional backgrounds and biographies promote problem-solving skills, and why diversity alone is not enough.
How can diversity promote innovation?
By bringing together as many different people as possible in a team. That applies to all dimensions: Gender, cultural backgrounds, but also professional experience. Creative and innovative solutions can only be developed if it is possible to link the most diverse knowledge and memory content in new ways. Therefore you have to ensure that knowledge and ideas of the individual team members are not only heard and respected, but also connected within the organization.
What are the positive effects of such heterogeneous teams?
This heterogeneity leads to a diversity of thoughts and approaches to challenges. This is how to find new solutions that a professionally and culturally homogeneous team might never have come up with.
Can you give us an example?
Yes, with pleasure. This example is about the detection of counterfeit drugs. So-called "counterfeits" are a big problem in many countries. They are often contaminated, contain no active ingredient or too much, and thus endanger the health and lives of patients. In Africa, a team from the non-profit organization mPedigree, which actually had nothing to do with IT, has developed a very simple system for distinguishing genuine medicines from counterfeits. A registration code and a telephone number are printed on the pill packets. If the buyers send this code by SMS to the specified number, they receive a message telling them whether the number is registered. This enables them to check the authenticity of the drug. The solution costs only a fraction of alternative systems that work with RFID chips, for example, and is currently being used in India, among other places. A typical IT expert from an industrialized country would probably not have come up with this idea because it is so simple. That is why I will deliberately choose a diverse range of professional experience and biographies for my leadership team, as well as include executives without an explicit IT background.
I will deliberately choose a diverse range of professional experience and biographies for my leadership team, as well as include executives without an explicit IT background.
To your example, one could say "need is the mother of invention"…
... yes, absolutely, we see an enormous capacity for innovation in developing countries, often leading to simpler, cheaper and more robust solutions than the alternatives from the USA or Europe - simply because local resources are scarce and environmental conditions are too harsh for the use of complicated technology. In India, for example, a simple ultrasound device has been developed that is much less complex and cheaper than conventional models. These "reverse innovations" can then often also be used profitably in industrialized countries.
How do we get the appropriate talents for such heterogeneous teams?
We have to create an environment in which people feel comfortable with all their differences. However, conveying a sense of purpose is also very important in the search for talent. According to a study conducted in cooperation with Koblenz University of Applied Sciences in Germany, 79 percent of young talents expect their employer to hold the same values as they do, and 65 percent want it to assume social and cultural responsibility. It is therefore no wonder that many young IT professionals choose the pharmaceutical sector because they can have a direct positive impact with their work here. It is therefore crucial that we put our Purpose first and make it clear.
We need not only diversity, but also inclusion. You can't just invite people to the party, you also have to ask them to dance.
What role does the proportion of women in IT play in the success of a company?
A very essential one. Especially in data analysis and in the development of AI models, women have advantages. According to a study by the CIA in the US, they can recognise patterns better than men. This ability is also extremely valuable in the fight against terrorism, as the memoirs of CIA analyst Nada Brokas point out, for example.
How can people with disabilities contribute to the success of a company?
There are good examples of this, too. SAP, for example, works with people with autism as software testers, programmers or in quality assurance because they work with great concentration and find even the smallest errors.
People who are recognizably different often encounter unconscious prejudices. How can you overcome these?
You should discard differences in a positive sense. If everyone is dressed in blue and someone comes with red pants and a green shirt - don't laugh, just keep going.
Have you ever been a victim of unconscious bias yourself?
I sometimes notice that my height intimidates people.
And how do you deal with that?
I try not to stand if possible, but to sit down as quickly as possible, I laugh a lot and try to signal that I'm approachable and that people don't need to be afraid of me.
What can we do to encourage our sensitivity to unconscious bias?
We have created a virtual training for employees, that points out how cognitive biases influence our decisions. We are all subject to unconscious thought patterns, stereotypes and biases that influence important decisions. In the training we will learn to recognize our own cognitive biases and thus make our decisions even more consciously.
We are all subject to unconscious thought patterns, stereotypes and biases that influence important decisions.
How can we promote diversity in our organization?
For me, it is important that the impulse for this comes from the employees. In the U.S., Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) are very successful, and the concept is slowly entering in Europe and Germany. These are groups of employees sharing certain similarities, such as origin, gender, age, sexual orientation or shared interests. The aim is to network, promote or support each other. There are ERGs for women, young professionals, LGBTQ, employees with disabilities or employees from different cultures.
Can you provide examples of successful ERG work?
In my professional past, we had an LGBTQ group in Costa Rica that carried out some publicity-boosting activities during Pride Month. That got a lot of people so excited that we found a big increase in applications afterwards. In the U.S., a group of black colleagues got together around the theme "Dress for success" to help each other make the right clothing choices for career interviews or public appearances.
How can ERGs get support?
I welcome any new ideas and am happy to provide a budget to such groups. I have heard that in the future some colleagues would like to get together for diversity sessions, for example as brownbag meetings - informal meetings where participants have lunch together, exchange ideas on topics and deal with diversity in a playful way. Such sessions could bring together people interested in ERGs. In the future, I would also like to celebrate intercultural occasions - if Corona allows it, such as Chinese New Year.
What is the most important insight for you when it comes to fostering innovation through diversity?
We need not only diversity, but also inclusion. You can't just invite people to the party, you also have to ask them to dance. In times of pandemic we have to make it possible again for random meetings with colleagues to find each other - and not only in planned meetings.