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Innovating for all: How CIOs can leverage diverse teams to foster innovation and ethical tech

Diversity and Inclusion in Tech

As companies innovate with growing speed for an increasingly diverse customer base, the business case for diversity and inclusion in technology has never been clearer. CIOs can fuel more effective and ethical innovation by embedding diversity and inclusion within technology teams.

MANY chief information officers (CIOs) recognise that tech teams with diverse backgrounds and mindsets can support innovation and drive transformational growth by openly sharing perspectives, focusing on user-centric design and consciously exploring potential outcomes to avoid unintended harmful results. In this report, the fourth in Deloitte’s Diversity and Inclusion in Tech series, we share how CIOs can intentionally build environments that support responsible technological innovation.

Guarding against unintended consequences

A lifesaving innovation in automobile manufacturing—airbags—entered the mainstream in the early 1990s. By October 2001, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimated that airbags saved more than 7,500 lives. But these early airbags also killed 195 people during this period—mostly children and women under 5'2".1 Shorter drivers and children sit lower in the front seat, so they are more likely to absorb the full force of a deploying airbag. Until 2011, the federal government did not require crash testing with female dummies—only large male dummies.2 If women and small passengers had been consulted, or even considered, during the design and testing, it's likely that there would have been significantly fewer airbag-related deaths during these years. Now fast forward to today. While professions such as medicine have a Code of Medical Ethics—“first, do no harm”—technologists tend to lack an overarching, consistently applied code of ethics to guide their innovations, many of which have been developed with a focus on being first-to-market and income generation.

Ethan Zuckerman, director of the MIT Centre for Civic Media and associate professor of the practice in media arts and sciences at MIT, agrees, “Technology has always been a catalyst for change, but technology has also been capable of harm. It sometimes causes harm even in situations where people are cognisant of its ability to cause harm.”3 Companies can waste vast amounts of time and money creating something that may exclude a customer group or providing a service that customers want but with undesirable side effects that must be fixed after deployment. Perhaps even worse, they may build solutions that undermine customer trust—think of the many problems that have resulted from lax data security and confusing privacy controls.

The good news is that many organisations are starting to recognise that innovation and ethical tech need to be taken into consideration together. The fifth annual MIT Sloan Management Review and Deloitte study of digital businesses found that companies who innovate more are more likely (76 per cent) than companies who innovate less (43 per cent) to have adopted policies that support their organisation’s ethical standards for their digital initiatives. However, in companies who innovate more, a smaller percentage (57 per cent) believe their leaders spend enough time thinking about and communicating the impact the organisation’s digital initiatives have on society, while only 16 per cent of companies who innovate less agree with this statement (figure 1).

While the need for ethical tech design is not new (see the sidebar, “From our vantage point: Ethical tech”), what is new is the accelerating speed at which companies can churn out technology-based innovations, many with unintended societal and business risks. In addition, artificial intelligence (AI) and descriptive analytics and data mining identify patterns can aid breakthroughs, but they can also perpetuate stereotypes and biases that are hidden in the data.

According to Ray Kurzweil, author of The Singularity is Near, our overall rate of progress is doubling every decade: “We won’t experience 100 years of progress in the 21st century—it will be more like 20,000 years of progress.”4 With this exponential growth rate, laws and regulations intended to protect individuals from harm likely cannot keep up. Perhaps the key is to ensure that the needs of all potential customers are considered from the beginning of the design process. But codesigning with customers is easier said than done, especially for large organisations. Instead, Zuckerman encourages CIOs to focus on “ensuring there is a diverse set of voices at the table so that their collective understanding is less naïve and less biassed.” He explains that diversity can help design teams detect unexpected problems and develop understanding of others’ sensitivities. “It can be helpful to have people in a team who are trained not just to say, ‘here is a problem I will solve it,’ but also to say, ‘how did that problem come about?’ This is really what it means to think critically about technology.”

From our vantage point: Ethical tech

Ethical tech refers to discussions, practises and decision-making behaviours that can help organisations explore, understand and mitigate the potential consequences of disruptive technologies. These discussions are the natural evolution of tech savviness, whereby nearly every individual operating in business today benefits immensely from increasing their fluency in the language of disruption. By extension, organisations can also reap rewards from their employees’ enhanced ability to recognise and debate the potential effects of applying emerging technologies, as well as to weigh alternatives in the design, implementation and adoption of these tools.

Ethical tech may often be confused with business ethics—which is covered by compliance, legal and risk. Ethical tech can be aligned to these entities, but the policies in place often do not provide a method for how to deliberate and address ethical tech dilemmas that take into account the diverse needs and demands of larger user bases (figure 2). Catherine Bannister, US development and performance leader at Deloitte US, says, “It is important to determine whether and where an organisation might apply checks and balances in order to pivot or pause a technology initiative if potential problems are identified.”5 Not only can a framework for ethical tech decision-making allow a company to anticipate and avoid potential landmines, but setting clear parameters around how to identify and evaluate tech dilemmas can also enable a company to innovate faster.

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Some CIOs, such as Sabina Ewing, chief information officer of Pfizer Upjohn, understand the importance of taking an ethics-first approach to tech design by building diverse teams that reflect the myriad mindsets and backgrounds of the end consumer. She explains that “technology today is ubiquitous and, in and of itself, it’s nondiscriminatory.” However, she stresses that as “customer demographics expand, CIOs and IT leaders have to be careful to think about the potential outcomes—and that comes by ensuring that the people building and designing technology have varying opinions.”6

Many forward-thinking companies and universities are taking the lead on defining an ethical foundation to guide tech design and innovation.7 Judith Spitz, PhD, founding programme director of the Initiative for Women in Technology and Entrepreneurship in New York (WiTNY) at Cornell Tech says, “Diversity is more important than ever. A diverse workforce is your first line of defence against algorithmic bias.”8 Having people with a wide range of experiences and mindsets at the table who are free to question, build and govern technology design can help avoid unintended biases before deployment, sidestepping possible harm to individuals and the company’s brand and reputation.

Being the voice of the customer

Deloitte’s Centre for Consumer Insights reports a seismic shift over the last 50 years, from a homogenous US population to one that’s incredibly diverse and heterogenous across all key demographics: race, age, generation, health, ethnicity, economics and education (figure 3). It’s important for companies to understand these changes to identify pockets of opportunities for innovation.9

Many forward-looking companies are creating teams and roles that reflect their diverse customer base to help organisations innovate to drive transformational growth. Mindy Simon, CIO of Conagra Brands, believes diverse teams create a competitive advantage by fuelling disruptive innovation—leading to better products and solutions for customers. She says, “We believe diverse teams create a competitive advantage by fuelling disruptive innovation. When our team’s diversity reflects the diversity of our customers, we are able to create products and solutions that consumers will use every day.”10

From our vantage point: Necessity is the mother of invention

Diversity is important for enabling both innovation and ethical tech. Nishita Henry, chief innovation officer at Deloitte Consulting, affirms that “diversity catalyses innovation.” She points out that diversity often uncovers opportunities for innovation, as well as solutions: “Multiple viewpoints from different industries, economic backgrounds, educational experiences, genders and ethnic backgrounds can provide the perspective on what should be innovated on—and solving those problems requires that same diversity.”11 Leveraging diversity in innovation becomes even more important in this day and age, where we should make sure that emerging tech—such as AI and automation—are applied equally and consistently. She agrees that CIOs should focus on the diversity of their workforce, but also advises CIOs who are looking to partner within the technology and innovation ecosystem to consider a set of diversity criteria and culture that they want to see in their partners.

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A 2013 Harvard survey identified two types of diversity: inherent and acquired. Inherent diversity traits are ones you are born with (gender, race, sexual orientation, etc.). Acquired diversity traits are gained through experience (education, places where you’ve lived, socioeconomic background, etc.). The study showed that organisations with leadership teams that have a combination of at least three inherent and three acquired diversity traits out-innovate and out-perform the others; these organisations are 45 per cent more likely to report growth in market share and 70 per cent more likely to report capturing a new market. Perhaps more surprisingly, when even one member of the leadership team shares the targeted customer’s ethnicity, the entire team is 152 per cent more likely to understand the customer.12

Organisations with diverse leadership teams out-innovate and out-perform the others; these organisations are 45 per cent more likely to report growth in market share and 70 per cent more likely to report capturing a new market. Even when one member of a leadership team shares the targeted customer’s ethnicity, the entire team is 152 per cent more likely to understand the customer.

American Express is elevating its commitment to understanding the customer through its diversity and inclusion (D&I) strategy, which includes regular reviews of its goals, metrics and the diversity within its workforce. Licenia Rojas, senior vice president and unit CIO at American Express, is proud of helping to create a workforce that reflects a diverse customer base and being part of an organisation where D&I is part of the company’s DNA.13 Rojas leads a team providing technology support for the organisation that is responsible for all of American Express’ external and internal servicing functions, with a focus on driving a best-in-class servicing experience for customers and colleagues.

For American Express, having a diverse team and allowing everyone to share from their perspective is a strategic imperative. She explains, “The diversity of the teams at American Express results in being able to get representation of different customer segments and customer needs across various markets, enabling them to drive innovation and growth.” For example, her team continually considers facts such as that women control 75 per cent of discretionary spending worldwide and that the spending habits and incomes of millennial consumers may not allow them to make buying decisions similar to other generations.14

Rojas shared a recent example of a previous small business owner who joined the team and has been able to bring great perspective from being on the other side of the table. This has benefited the entire team as they think about their digital transformation initiatives that impact their small-business-owner customer segment. She says, “These diverse perspectives also are helping us consider new ways to use disruptive and emerging technologies—machine learning, blockchain, robotics/automation—to create the best experiences for our customers. When you have individuals from diverse backgrounds, they will drive innovation and transformation—it’s a fact.”

Deploying the transformational power of all

Many design dilemmas began with a homogeneous group of people designing products, processes, or services without thinking through how other types of people might be affected by or prefer to use the technology. Now, IT leaders of leading companies are proactively changing that dynamic by seeking individuals who represent the full range of stakeholders—customers, employees and other end users—to foster innovation and help ensure their voices are heard from the beginning of the design and decision-making process.

Our conversations with CIOs and other leaders, who are committed to embedding diversity and inclusion within technology teams, led us to several suggestions for other CIOs and IT leaders on how to leverage diverse teams to foster innovation and ethical tech.

  • Avoid “just checking the D&I box.” “Diversity isn’t a silver bullet. It’s important to encourage varying opinions; gender or race alone doesn’t determine that someone will think differently,” says Ewing. Diverse thinking spans socioeconomic backgrounds, generations, education, geographies, cultural differences and more. Effective leaders encourage each person to summon the courage to express their unique perspectives, secure in the knowledge that their insights are contributing to a better outcome. Even when opinions are not fully changed, progress towards more ethical and innovative tech outcomes can be made when individuals leave with a broader perspective than when they came in. She emphasises, “There must be a legitimate dialogue, not just diversity for name’s sake—which requires all voices can be heard.”
  • Ensure all voices are at the table. If you have a technology that removes human discretion from human problems, you may have a higher obligation to design in such a way that the end users are involved in the requirements of the system. Educating and raising awareness to help teams ensure that the team represents the customer demands and expectations is fundamental—and often requires looking at all levels within the organisation. Sheree Atcheson, head of diversity and inclusion at Monzo, says, “Most of the diversity within an organisation—women and underrepresented minorities—is still typically found in mid- and junior-level roles. Leaders need to ensure they are bringing mid-management along on the journey to understand the benefits of diversity and inclusion and providing junior-level team members an opportunity to speak up as well.”15
  • Increase awareness of biases. Diverse teams and defined processes are critical, but overcoming bias begins with individuals becoming aware of their own unconscious biases. Companies are increasing awareness using tools, workshops and tests—such as those offered by Project Implicit, a nonprofit organisation led by international researchers to help teams uncover biases across many categories, from race to religion to sexuality to weight. Its goal is to educate the public about hidden unconscious biases.16 Other techniques, such as focus groups or partnering with organisations who speak for underrepresented groups, can also help build awareness of our biases.

    “We must shine a mirror on ourselves and raise awareness that our experience is personal, not universal.”

    —Catherine Bannister, US development & performance leader, Deloitte

  • Embed ethical design into the process. Rather than building in ethics considerations after things have gone awry, the “do no harm” thinking should be built into the process from day one with the customer in mind, with the goal of creating transformational—not just incremental—change. Angela Antony, CEO and founder of Scoutible—an AI platform designed to eliminate unconscious bias from the hiring process—practises what she preaches. As she thinks about the ethical tech design of her own system, which tackles traditional hiring practises that are mired in unconscious biases, she says, “Building ethical technology doesn’t have to be time consuming if it’s integrated from the start.”17

While “tech ethics” and “ethical tech” have recently entered the business lexicon, there’s nothing new about the need for considering potential unintended consequences to others when designing innovative products, processes and solutions. But as technology becomes omnipresent and pervasive in our lives, it is the CIO’s responsibility to create technology that delivers innovative benefits without unintended harmful outcomes.

Many leading CIOs are adopting responsible tech approaches and building diverse and inclusive teams that reflect the mindsets and backgrounds of the end customer while bringing a variety of experiences and worldviews to the table. With new technologies rapidly emerging on the horizon, this is only the beginning of the evolving conversation about how organisations can generate transformative growth through emerging technology while avoiding consequences that exclude or harm others.

But the responsibility for technological innovation that ensures human- and customer-centric design doesn’t start and stop with the CIO. They can lead their teams by facilitating conversations that go far beyond avoiding damage to others—they can help build a more inclusive world.

CIO Programme

​Many CIOs recognise that tech teams with diverse backgrounds and mindsets can support innovation and drive transformational growth by openly sharing perspectives, focussing on user-centric design and consciously exploring potential outcomes to avoid unintended harmful results. In this report, the fourth in Deloitte's Executive Women in Tech series focussed on diversity and inclusion within IT, we share how CIOs can intentionally build environments that support responsible technological innovation.

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The authors would like to acknowledge and thank all the following individuals for their invaluable contributions to this publication:

Angela Antony, Sheree Atcheson, Sabina Ewing, Mindy Simon, Judith Spitz, Licenia Rojas, and Ethan Zuckerman for taking their time to share their perspectives on the junction of diversity, innovation, and emerging tech.

Catherine Bannister and Nishita Henry for guiding our messaging on ethical tech and innovation. Jessica Sierra for her dedication and passion for diversity and inclusion within technology and her continued focus on driving this series forward with every publication. Brandi Goswick for her organisational prowess and keeping the team aligned. Leatrice Bulls for her support to our writer. Linda Holland for her storytelling ability and editorial eye.

As always, we are indebted to Junko Kaji, Rithu Thomas, and the entire Deloitte Insights Publishing team for continuous editorial support, patience, and production skills.

Cover image by: Kevin Weier

  1. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, Counts of frontal air bag related fatalities and seriously injured persons, January 2009.

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  2. Katherine Shaver, “Female dummy makes her mark on male-dominated crash tests,” Washington Post, March 25, 2012.

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  3. Ethan Zuckerman (director, MIT Center for Civic Media), phone interview with authors, August 28, 2019.

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  4. Ray Kurzweil, “The law of accelerating returns,”, March 7, 2001.

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  5. Catherine Bannister (US Development & Performance leader, Deloitte), phone interview with authors, July 12, 2019.

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  6. Sabina Ewing (chief information officer, Pfizer Upjohn), phone interview with authors, July 2, 2019.

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  7. Natasha Singer, “Tech’s ethical ‘dark side’: Harvard, Stanford and others want to address it,” New York Times, February 12, 2018.

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  8. Judith Spitz (director, Women in Technology and Entrepreneurship in New York [WiTNY]), phone interview with authors, June 21, 2019.

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  9. Kasey M. Lobaugh, Jeff Simpson, and Bobby Stephens, The consumer is changing, but perhaps not how you think, Deloitte Insights, May 29, 2019.

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  10. Mindy Simon (chief information officer, Conagra Brands), phone interview with authors, July 25, 2019.

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  11. Nishita Henry (chief innovation officer, Deloitte Consulting), phone interview with authors, October 11, 2019.

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  12. Sylvia Ann Hewlett, Melinda Marshall, and Laura Sherbin, “How diversity can drive innovation,” Harvard Business Review, December 2013.

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  13. Licenia Rojas (senior vice president and unit chief information officer, American Express), phone interview with authors, April 29, 2019.

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  14. Deloitte, Consumer 2020: Reading the signs, 2011.

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  15. Sheree Atcheson (head of Diversity and Inclusion, Monzo), phone interview with authors, July 10, 2019.

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  16. Project Implicit, “About,” accessed October 25, 2019.

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  17. Angela Antony (chief executive officer and founder, Scoutible), phone interview with authors, June 17, 2019.

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