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Companies are prejudiced by design (EA food for thought)

Sogeti Labs
April 02, 2019

Recently I was at a party and we discussed the culture in various companies and the wellbeing of employees. Our conversation moved from people suffering from burnout, the importance of purpose at your work, to the topic of diversity and discrimination in the workplace. We discussed how discrimination in the workplace still exists and what it stems from.

In my personal view, the world has changed a lot between now and our parents’ generation… For example, for many years in the Netherlands now the number of female graduates has been higher than those of male graduates. Also, the conversations in the public domain, commercials etc, are more and more gender and ethnic agnostic. So, I was surprised that we are still having these talks about discrimination at parties as our parents did in their time.

As an Enterprise Architect, I ask myself the following question::

Are we designing companies in a way that only a very specific type of person can thrive? In my experience, the present structure suits the white male homo economicus?

To answer that question immediately:
I think the design of western society companies is a prejudiced one. Let me explain it further.

In the last 20 years, we as a society in the Netherlands have been focusing on increased female participation in the workforce. We discussed how to make child care affordable; how to increase the paternity leave of man; if we should make a law for enforcing the female participation in higher management of companies and organization; introducing laws that make it illegal for companies to pay higher wages to male employees than to female employees when the work is the same, etc. Some laws were implemented but without an undisputed success.

Since 2006 the number of female students at the universities in the Netherlands is higher than the number of male students. Thirteen years later, you would expect a higher representation of females in management than the male. The target for the participation of females in higher management was set to 30% in 2003 but did not rise above 11% in 2016.

Is this just a matter of time for this percentage to rise above 50%, or is there a more fundamental issue at hand?

I am someone who believes that most things are not the result of a simple cause and effect “algorithm” but are an outcome of a complex combination of factors. I like to focus on the human factor in enterprise design trying to include theories such as “system psychology” and “personality types”. The concept of “Homo Economicus” is something that I think has been proven to be wrong. Classical factors that influence work participation are education and wage.

In the previous 12 years, I have been assigned to 20+ clients. Most of these clients were international companies that applied mature governance structures and processes.

I noticed a pattern between the social mix of the workforce at a company and the way the governance was implemented. The companies that implemented a very rigorous governance system were also the companies where the workforce consisted of white male employees that loved to think and organize in a strict hierarchy, complex spreadsheets, and the conviction that all questions could be formulated in a deterministic way so that it could be answered with an algorithm. The companies with a diverse workforce had more pragmatic governance with fewer hierarchies and more decentralised autonomy.

The more algorithmic driven organizations also tend to have leadership whose behavior was similar to that of a surgeon: decisions were quick, clean and without too much empathy. When I talked to people in these organizations, they mentioned that a lack of empathy and stress were drivers to switch companies to take the next step in their career development.

For me, this was an eyeopener. I decided to look at a company as a (social) ecosystem where the culture and governance favored a special and specific type of manager and killed the people that could not thrive in this culture. And again, in these type of organizations the higher management where almost all white man of the type homo economicus.

The influence of this culture and governance goes beyond the mix of the management workforce. It also affects the products these companies provide to the market, and as a side effect, influence the happiness and wellbeing of the consumer.

An example of this are the banking apps. During a hackathon in the Netherlands, I compared some competing banking apps. All the apps provided some information on the amount of money in the account and also provided some functionality to manage your budget.  And all these apps looked the same.

We interviewed an expert that has 20+ years in debt counseling of citizens by the government on how we could help the needing population with a banking app. His feedback was that the average person in the Netherlands and almost all the people he met at his work could not work with the app. It contained many information per screen, only text, and even frightened people! So the apps provided by the banks all looked the same and could not service more than 50% of the population in the Netherlands and could not even serve the real financial needing population at all. How is this possible?

I asked around at the various mobile teams at the banks and these were all highly motivated professionals, but also here mostly a white man of the type homo economicus.

And this is the pattern I noticed:

When we have organisations that have a culture and governance that enforces hierarchies and communicate only indeterministic questions then we filter our workforce to one type of person and then we, as a result, will only build products that serve a similar kind of person.

This is the influence of Enterprise Design on the diversity of a company.

This is why I think that we design enterprises to be prejudiced by design.

Can we fix this easily: no. This is because on one hand enterprise design is done by people that are part of the system and thus influenced by the enterprise design and bias. On the other hand, not all factors that influence the design are in control of the enterprise. An easy to understand example of this is the regulation. In the Netherlands, we have strict regulation that demands from companies to prove they are in control of their processes by providing proof by metrics. This empowers people that love strict processes and metrics. This is killing for small business in the creative sector or for people that deliver care to the elderly.

How to act as an Enterprise Architect now we know this?

  • When creating apps for your company, think about multi-branding and asking expert users that are not affiliated with your company. Accept that it might not be possible to create one app (or customer experience) that fits all users groups.
  • Try to hack the goals of a company in a way that metrics represent value and not just a performance indicator. For example: when you have a KPI “average minute for an incident to have status open” you can change this into “when we did not have a priority 1 incident for 3 weeks, our department and supplier will have a barbeque together”. This hack is not perfect, but it changes the game so that it becomes a group effort with positive reinforcement for the group on something that is more natural for a service team to want to achieve.

We should rethink how we design companies. The world is too big to let it be run by white male homo economics only. There are to less of them and this drives away empathy by design. This is a too fragile approach to enterprise design. How to do this? I don’t know yet……

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About the author

SogetiLabs gathers distinguished technology leaders from around the Sogeti world. It is an initiative explaining not how IT works, but what IT means for business.


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