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From diversity to inclusion: the model of a great conference

A few weeks ago, Harvard Business Review published an essay of mine entitled, “The Posh, Predictable World of Business Conferences,” which detailed my utter boredom from most pricey annual gatherings and showed why I tend to find online networks more professionally useful and intellectually stimulating. The response to this was very positive, even spurring several conference producers to invite me to their events to prove just how cool they were. This is such a neat scam that I am writing an essay entitled, “Why Ferraris Have Lost Their Zip.” I’m hoping to have a few rides in Lambourghinis and Tesla roadsters as a way to prove their awesomeness. Perhaps I’ll follow it up with, “Why There’s No Such Thing As a True Ultra-Luxury Resort Anymore.” You can’t blame a fellow for trying…

Last week I was pleased to attend a conference to which I was invited by Nike, in conjunction with Abercrombie & Fitch and Georgetown University called “Design for Diversity and Inclusion.” The event was touted as an antidote to all that boring conference pablum of unidirectional information tranfer, airless hotel ballrooms, and stilted social interaction. I’m pleased to report – it was very cool, as advertised! But it’s the way that it transcended typical conference dullness that deserves note.

It bears remarking that I am not a professional in strategic human resources, nor a subspecialist in organizational diversity, so standard industry-insider content would have been utterly opaque to me – this event had to stand on its own as compelling. It did so. We started the first half of the day outside just off of Georgetown’s campus, right across from where they filmed St Elmo’s Fire and directly above those steps from The Exorcist, for you film buffs. There was an absolute minimum of warmup welcomes from the hosts, then we split into teams which worked together all day on a group project of how to create organizational cultures as the world moves from “diversity” to “inclusion.” It was a very active day of learning and collaboration, and eight hours flew by in no time.

The intellectual fruits of this day are what really prove my thesis as to what separates conferences from being prosaic or being unmissable. Here were a couple ideas that jumped out at me:

  • The first part of the day was dedicated to cognitive exercises showing how the human tendency categorize people and ideas is really a failure of perception across the board. The focus here was not to encourage business leaders to accept other ethnicities, cultures, sexual orientations, etc – it was to use the cognitive failings of bigotry as a window on all the other things in the external environment you get wrong. Basically, if you are closed-minded about Latinos, gay people, and those with minor physical handicaps, you probably also can’t think appropriately about what Skype means to a telecommunications company or what Twitter’s adoption means to retail stores.
  • This event revealed in ways big and small that the world of diversity is coming to an end, and the world of inclusion is beginning. The speakers and other particpants made it clear that diversity in itself is a concept for a past age. The notion of inclusion is about staffing an organization with a wide variety of brains that imbue it creativity, innovation, resilience, and for businesses – a recipe for profit. I learned at this conference that the fundamental value proposition of this group of professionals was changing for good.
  • One of the speakers at the closing ceremony presented an idea that might be scandalous in some contexts: that the American concept of “affirmative action” is actually counter to the goals of the industry. Affirmative action focuses on righting past imbalances in society, while inclusion centers around adding value to the organization while simultaneously honoring the traditions of people at the individual level.

OK, so to recap from the list of complaints in my article, this event wasn’t boring, wasn’t authoritarian, showed how the topic of the event itself was in rapid evolution, and a few potentially controversial statements got made. ROCK AND ROLL! And it wasn’t in Orlando!

So thanks again to Nike, Abercrombie & Fitch and Georgetown for offering me a very stimulating day, proving my article right, and giving me an excuse to hang out in a city I miss very much. By my count, that’s 100% success.

Eric GarlandFrom diversity to inclusion: the model of a great conference
  • http://twitter.com/teh_aimee aimee whitcroft

    Superb :) And I completely agree with you – many conferences seem to be stultifying and unidirectional (in THIS age, no less). Among the ‘cool’ ones, there’s often a cultish feel which is just as icky and, frankly, as much of a failure to be any use.

    Now, I know that one of the major reasons posited for having conferences is ‘networking’. Today, however, one can network with people all over the world, in fantastic conversations, without having to stand around awkwardly with a glass of cheap something, wondering when you can sneak away/how to start a conversation with that interesting person or speaker over there/ how you’re going to forget what you saw fellow drunk conference-goers last night doing :P

    I’m wondering – what do you think of barcamps? I’ve been to a few, and have found them to be a great way of having a conversation about something, rather than having someone just talk at one…

  • http://twitter.com/KnowNOW_Knowhow marianne doczi

    Imagine if they’d brought in the two people on whom the lead characters of The Intouchables were based on. Or the actors. A very pungent film about exclusion/inclusion, shared spirit/complementary differences.