September/October 2012
Workforce Development

Fueling innovation

By Betty Shanahan

As an automation professional, businesses rely upon you to increasingly leverage technology to realize the maximum value from their assets. Teams are challenged to holistically incorporate emerging technologies, new applications, environmental/safety goals, and profitability to deliver optimal results.

Leading professionals and managers utilize continuing education, publications such as InTech, and conferences, workshops, and seminars to maintain and enhance their skills and knowledge. This lifelong learning is necessary to continually deliver creative and competitive solutions. Of course, technical expertise is critical. But too often in the automation industries, workforce diversity, a key differentiator in driving innovation, is minimally leveraged.

Like most engineering- and technology-based industries, the automation workforce is homogenous. Largely populated by people with similar backgrounds, life experiences, approaches to problems, perspectives, and communications styles, the automation profession tends to have homogenous teams. Members of homogenous teams, no matter how technically talented they are, will move toward similar solutions. The few individuals that are different from the majority are frequently unable to provide unique insight since the team is dominated by the similar perspectives of members of the large majority. But finding dramatically new and better solutions will require different thinking. Research shows that bringing many different perspectives to a problem results in more creative solutions. Building on the saying "None of us is as smart as all of us," I turn to the European Commission's report "Diversity and Innovation" insight that for "innovation to happen depends as much on collective difference as on aggregate ability."

In a technically-based profession, it is often assumed we recruit the best capable talent, and our field is a meritocracy where individuals are judged solely by their work. In reality, each of us is a product of our society. Unconscious biases influence the decisions and perspectives. Whether the selection of a new team member is impacted by stereotypes of a technical professional or problem-solving sessions continually use the same approach, we are swayed by the traditional, and it is comfortable to remain with the familiar. But driving innovation requires stepping into new-and yes, uncomfortable-areas. To leverage the value of diversity, I challenge you to include awareness of the benefits of an inclusive environment, how to recognize exclusionary behavior, and how to foster that environment in your personal and staff development plans.

Recruiting a diverse team is only the first step in leveraging diversity to drive innovation. It is critical to foster an inclusive environment where each member of that diverse team can authentically contribute. After numerous diversity-training sessions and my personal experiences as a woman in a male-dominated profession, I assumed that I promoted an inclusive workplace. It was only when my biases became conscious and I was exposed to the foundation for the rich perspectives, styles, experiences, and values of people different from me, did I realize how much I was limiting many individuals' contributions.

For me, the first step-becoming aware of the gap between our conscious intentions and actions-is the toughest. My valued self-image as a fair colleague and manager is tarnished as I become aware that I, like most humans, make small and large decisions influenced by biases that I do not even know I hold. By becoming aware, I could become deliberate in minimizing the impact of my biases. I recommend the information and self-evaluation offered by Project Implicit at https://implicit.harvard.edu.

Beyond acknowledging biases, it is important to understand and welcome the richness offered by individuals from different ages, backgrounds, life experiences, and social values. Like most other personal development, this awareness and understanding is a journey that rewards each step with a more inclusive workplace and ultimately a more creative workforce.

The Past President of the National Academy of Engineering, Dr. William A. Wulf, said that "As a consequence of a lack of diversity, we pay an opportunity cost, a cost in designs not thought of, in solutions not produced." Power innovation by investing in the development that ensures that your workplace has the diversity and inclusive environment that fosters creative thinking and ultimately delivers new and better solutions.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Betty Shanahan, CAE, F.SWE, is the executive director & CEO of the Society of Women Engineers.