Stop Treating Diversity Training Like an Antibiotic

As widespread attention is centered upon the quest for diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI), organizations are realizing that they must change the dynamics of the workplace in sustainable ways — and not only through programs and training. Companies are recognizing that they must address issues by rebuilding systems, processes, and cultural pillars that have allowed bias, discrimination, racism, sexism, and all disempowerment of marginalized groups to take root.  

With this renewed focus on systemic DEI, all eyes are on the programs and training that we have so heavily invested in — and that many believe are no longer effective in enabling change and progress. That is, they’re just check-the-box activities. 

So why do we still view DEI training this way? 

It comes down to two core problems: 

  1. A false perception about what training can and should be
  2. A lack of strategic investment and resourcing in the right types of experiences, at the right time, delivered and offered at the organizational, team, and individual level

Learning Is a Journey, Not a Cure 

Learning and development is a lifelong journey — for individuals and organizations alike — that can and should provide transformative experiences. As we embrace more such experiences, we become more aware and agile. Too often, leadership development programs and trainings are treated as events, moments in time set aside to learn something new. In this reality, the learner is finished with their learning process and cured of their weaknesses upon the completion of a workshop or course. 

Unfortunately, this never works. When we treat our DEI training (I would argue all training) like a round of antibiotics, we devalue the capacity of learning to inspire and ignite change.  

Learning experiences continue to be some of the most effective tools we have, especially during this time of disrupted work. But if they are to be effective, leadership development must be designed, delivered, and reinforced strategically with the proper context, built on experiences, and focused on strategic enablement. There is a classic framework that I always go back to for training — the 70-20-10 rule. 

For those who don’t know, this is a verified path of thinking indicating that people learn best when 70% of information gained is through experience, 20% through social collaboration with others, and 10% from formal training. If we consider this ratio when developing training, we are designing a journey, not an event. 

A journey that starts with assessment, involves accessing and experiencing content from leaders, experts, peers on the topic, and has built in collaborative, reflective, and developmental experiences that translate beyond the moment. 

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Some organizations have found success in “whisper” campaigns that run after a more intensive training. These involve sending leaders and employees daily emails with reflective questions, a video or article, or recommendations for small actions to take to become less biased or more inclusive over an extended period of time. The key takeaway is that we need to stop looking at DEI training as a “just-in-time” event designed to solve a problem. It should take many forms, build on itself, and be thoughtfully applied where and when it is most needed.

Programs and Systems Must Journey Together

Both the organization and the individual need to feel ownership over this journey to make a real impact. Lessons and values presented in trainings need to be fully integrated into broader goals and long-term strategy, role-modeled consistently, and actively reinforced through all organizational mechanisms. True behavior change occurs only when we are personally committed to action, when we are motivated extrinsically and intrinsically to evolve the way we behave. 

The marriage between systemic and programmatic DEI strategy and deployment is essential to the advancement of diversity, equity, and inclusion in any organization or community. DEI needs to be a guiding principle for designing systems if we are ever to be held accountable for our actions. A well thought-out program can help us evolve our thinking on how to make our systems more equitable and inclusive, and allow us to sustain our values in real time.

We Must Never Lose Sight of the Road Ahead 

Right now, we as a society and a workforce have a unique opportunity to permanently alter the world of work. To a certain extent, we have been forced into a new way of working and interacting during this global pandemic. Many of us are operating in a virtual context like never before. In its essence, this moment in our history will help us remove barriers of entry for those actively seeking DEI learning resources. It presents both a challenge and an opportunity for employers to invest in the right learning experiences for their employees and leaders. 

There are a myriad of free resources available online that have democratized DEI learning, unlocking opportunities to provide equity where it is needed most. However, open online learning alone cannot move us. In this moment of opportunity, organizational leaders must do more than invest in the right training resources. It is time to curate a path to progress through various blended learning modules and approaches — and then continually assess their effectiveness and impact. Ultimately, the best DEI learning experiences give us the ability to provide knowledge, guidance, and access in order to advocate for change and drive meaningful progress. 

Elisa M. Vincent is the vice president of global talent enablement at Skillsoft, provider of digital learning, training, and talent solutions to help organizations unleash their edge. A transformational human capital leader, Elisa drives measured business results through HR, talent, learning and development, and organizational effectiveness strategy.

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