Effective Ways to Design and Deliver Diversity & Inclusion Programs

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L&D professionals need to become fluent in adaptive learning design that delivers custom learning experiences that address the unique needs of an individual. Doing so will improve their organizational and team performance and help them work toward an anti-racist, inclusive culture.

Many of us in Learning and Development (L&D) are faced with yet another challenge that is rightly finally coming to the forefront even as we all cope with how to design learning during COVID-19. Of course, I am talking about the Black Lives Matter movement and the call among many organizations to reimagine their Diversity & Inclusion (D&I) programs.

The challenge—at least as demonstrated by a good dozen dissertations on which I’ve served as a committee member—is that most programs, while well intentioned, at best are placebos and often may have unintended negative consequences. The issue isn’t so much what is being designed and delivered (and organizations should be lauded for their willingness to take it on) but HOW learning is being designed and delivered.

But let me first put forth the case as to why getting inclusion right is so important. It goes beyond social justice. Having a diverse workforce that seamlessly works together is simply prudent and pragmatic business sense. Research I have done has shown that diversity matters to bottom-line performance, and workers who thrive in diverse and inclusive environments earn premiums. Diversity isn’t the ends; it is having high-performing diverse teams whose members equally value each other and work together that is the magic. This is what is really meant by inclusion—it is both a belief and a practice.

Other researchers have shown that it is prudent to have a workforce that looks like your customer base, while still others have found that companies that promote diversity score better on things like the Gallup Q12 and ranking higher in “best places to work.” Perhaps most compelling is work that came out of MIT and Carnegie Mellon that found that diverse teams outperformed others when given cognitive tasks—they simply were better at solving unstructured problems.

So given their importance, why are the D&I programs so poorly performing? Again, it goes to how these programs are designed and delivered. With the best of intentions, the programs often are designed with groups of people in mind and with whiteness as the norm; this can lead to negative unintended consequences that promote differences and don’t lead to inclusion.

The good news is that research has demonstrated some effective ways to design and deliver anti-racist programming. Even better is that such programming has all sorts of other positive benefits to individual and organizational performance.

Elements for Program Design

Here are some things you can incorporate into your program design that can have a positive impact on inclusion. This approach will be much more powerful than having a one-off, check-the-box “diversity” course. Interestingly enough, these approaches are not “Black specific.”

  • Communicate effectively and transparently. This may seem obvious, but you would be surprised at the extent to which assumptions based on cultural norms are made when it comes to effective L&D program implementation. Be very clear as to the purpose of the program, articulate the goals fully, and be transparent about the process. When possible, provide rubrics and show what effective performance looks like. Often, one sees vague descriptions that rely on assumed tacit knowledge. Surface everything.
  • Leverage problem-based learning. Create environments where diverse groups can work on problems together and provide safe spaces with feedback-rich environments. This is why the military often is lauded as being ahead of the curve when it comes to inclusion. It takes diverse groups of people and creates environments where they work together to solve problems. Paramount to this approach is everyone seeing and learning the value of a shared experience.
  • Adopt an asset-based mindset. We need to recognize that everyone brings value to the table and embrace Howard Gardner’s notion of multiple intelligences. Too often, we see learners as having deficits and work toward “closing gaps.” One can elevate performance by leveraging strengths, but one must see these strengths first.
  • Leverage personalized learning. This one is probably the most important and most counterintuitive. Rather than seeing each of your learners as part of a group (women, Latinx, Black, Caucasian), see them as individuals and design systems and programs that meet their individual needs. This notion borrows both from the work on universal design, which provides the notion of access to all, and Kendi’s work on being anti-racist. The fundamental result of seeing people as individuals and designing learning that meets the needs of all types of learners regardless of situation—permanent or temporary—is that it maximizes everyone’s performance. While it may disproportionally benefit those who would have a harder time learning in traditional designs, it is not designed to benefit any particular group. And what is really wonderful is that the approach is the proverbial rising tide and will address all perceived differences (e.g., it addresses things such as homophobia and gender issues and can deal with things such as PTSD, learning differences, etc.).

And there are finally technologies that can make real personalized learning effective. L&D professionals need to embrace adaptive technologies and become fluent in adaptive learning design that delivers custom learning experiences that address the unique needs of an individual through just-in-time feedback, pathways, and resources. Doing so will improve their organizational performance and the performance of their teams and help them work toward an anti-racist, inclusive culture.

Doug Lynch is faculty at USC. He created the PennCLO Doctoral Program.