Intel released its diversity report this week and it has made some impressive progress in improving the mix of minorities in the firm. It clearly showcases that if a tech company wants to focus on diversity it can make progress; however, since the underlying problem of not having enough diversity in certain areas of education remains pronounced, the ability to spread or even sustain these efforts remains at risk. In addition, when you focus on diversity where there is a shortage of diverse applicants, there can be unintended consequential results. Let me explain.
One of the most important parts of Intel’s effort isn’t its progress; it is its transparency with regard to it. You can’t move a bar like this unless people can see it and are reminded not only that this remains a goal, but that it is one that is important to executive management. In every company there are a lot of goals management has on its plate—generally far more than it can possibly address—and if something has languished (which in the industry, diversity has), it requires an extraordinary effort to make it relevant. Reporting progress publicly, good and bad, is a key part of that effort.
In addition, market leaders like Intel can drive the industry to emulate them if they can showcase benefits from efforts like this either economically or through an improved brand image. While the economic impact likely won’t be seen for some time, if at all, Intel’s focus is generally being well received, and if it continues to improve the perceptions that surround the company, other firms are more likely to follow to gain the same benefit.
The problem for Intel and the industry in general is that the education pipeline for the kinds of skills that Intel and other technology firms prefer is still largely male and either white or Asian. The other minorities are under-represented, which means the supply of diverse employees is very limited. Intel and other large companies can afford to buy, through higher offers, more than their fair share, but like any scarce resource, unless you eventually address the supply side of the problem substantively, you’ll hit a wall when the resource is used up.
In addition, as with any group, there will be a bell curve of quality with few truly excellent candidates, few really bad ones, and a lot of folks in the middle. Tech firms like Intel like to hire from the top, but the pool of candidates starts off being a fraction of the size of the pool they normally pull from, so the risk is that the quality of the candidate will degrade significantly. Even if these candidates don’t perform well, there will be a lot of pressure to retain them so these new metrics don’t degrade. I’ve run into this type of predicament in the past, and it often results in a pool of underperforming, dissatisfied employees who can’t be directed or fired. If that happens, the metric is effectively corrupted, because it doesn’t note that a pool of employees are basically just there for the metric and aren’t truly productive employees. And, if such under-performing workers advance within the company, they become a growing problem for the firm.
But, some of the most powerful technology leaders in the world never actually finished college (Bill Gates and Steve Jobs come to mind). This suggests that developing a bootstrapping program in the firm might better address the overall effort and reduce the risk of forcing underperforming employees into and up within the firm. Rather than just looking for existing skills, look for hardworking behaviors and unique problem-solving abilities, and then hire these candidates in lower positions, but more aggressively mentor and train these employees in the firm. Instead of just aggressively hiring and then lamenting the lack of qualified employees, seek out people with the potential and fund them in getting the qualifications while they work for the firm.
You could end up with an even higher quality worker, because it is often far easier to learn something if you see its immediate application. Also, growing someone within the firm can result in a far more focused set of skills. This might seem to cost more, but only because the cost of problem employees usually isn’t aggregated and reported. If these costs were, companies would likely find this assurance step was far cheaper than the alternative.
Doing this would also address one of the little discussed big problems in tech: Truly, firms like Apple and Microsoft would never hire people like Steve Jobs or Bill Gates in today’s market. Fixing this issue should be higher priority than it is.
Intel should be praised for aggressively going after an industry problem and reporting its progress. With some exceptions, it has made strong progress. The exceptions appear to be tied to the relatively low number of qualified targeted minorities in the prescribed job applicant pool. I’m suggesting that rather than reducing the criteria in terms of quality, once the qualified candidates become excessively scarce (which is what often happened with EEOC compliance), a better path would be to reduce criteria in terms of required education, because you can always take a highly motivated person and train him, but fixing a problem employee with a bad attitude, questionable ethics, or one who is lazy is far more difficult and has a far less certain outcome. Back in the 70s, the EEOC showcased the problem of doing this the wrong way; I’m just suggesting what should be a better path.
In the end, the goal should be to have a more diverse and representative employee population and a very successful company. Trust me, you don’t want that “and” to ever become an “or.”
Rob Enderle is President and Principal Analyst of the Enderle Group, a forward-looking emerging technology advisory firm. With over 30 years’ experience in emerging technologies, he has provided regional and global companies with guidance in how to better target customer needs; create new business opportunities; anticipate technology changes; select vendors and products; and present their products in the best possible light. Rob covers the technology industry broadly. Before founding the Enderle Group, Rob was the Senior Research Fellow for Forrester Research and the Giga Information Group, and held senior positions at IBM and ROLM. Follow Rob on Twitter @enderle, on Facebook and on Google+.