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What's Under the Hood for Workplace Diversity and Inclusion Technology?

September 02, 2020 Leadership
By Dom Nicastro

The technology landscape for diversity and inclusion programs is relatively new. A majority of the vendors (60%) are less than four years old, and most vendors have been around less than nine years, according to 2019 research from RedThread Research and Mercer.

Now is a good time for chief diversity officers and other leaders in D&I workplace programs to take a peek under the hood at these technologies. The D&I imperative is top of mind today with growing civil unrest, calls for social justice from organizations like Black Lives Matter, and recognition of the bias inherent in workplace systems of hiring, compensation and promotion and career development.

“Ultimately the goal is to have technology to help mitigate our bias as humans and to have technology be able to in a proactive way help surface these opportunities for us to recognize some kind of bias and interrupt it,” said Katy Tynan, principal analyst at Forrester who focuses on organizational and leadership development.

“That's one of the ways that I see technology working across that entire landscape — to be a bias interrupter. It’s for us to say, ‘I didn't realize I was thinking about it that way.’ And to be able to do that at scale, as opposed to on an individual basis.”

Scalability a Key Driver of D&I Tech

Therein lies one of the strongest arguments for D&I technology: scaling diversity and inclusion across the organization, according to John Kostoulas, a senior director analyst at Gartner focused on human capital management technologies. Companies that can’t scale their D&I programs likely can’t produce business results and won’t instill a sense of confidence across the employee base that D&I is being taken seriously inside the organization, he said. Take the example of training to recognize the signs of unconscious bias.

“You can do training for 200 people and that would be an easy thing to do,” Kostoulas said. “It will take you a couple of weeks then you break them into different classes and you do the training. Happy days and you're done. But how about doing this for 10,000 people? It's not something that can be scaled.”

Technology can help scale these programs and get learning and development to the front line. That's a good thing, Kostoulas said, because D&I efforts are not only worthy in a moral sense but also a business one.

“The front line is more and more where the pulse of the organization is and for the customers, it’s the face of the organization,” Kostoulas said. “Because of the speed that business is going into, these front line employees make more and more decisions, and therefore you need different perspectives, which is diversity, but you also you need to be able to have these perspectives coming together to produce a decision and this is inclusion. And this is where technology is coming in as a critical enabler of getting D&I right toward business performance and business results.”

Related Article: Getting to the Heart of the Chief Diversity Officer's Agenda

What Is D&I Technology?

D&I technologies are offered either as standalone features or as part of a suite within human resources technology or human capital management suites, according to analysts.

RedThread Research and Mercer noted that D&I technology is “enterprise software that provides insights or alters processes or practices, at the individual or organizational level, in support of organizations’ efforts to become more diverse and inclusive.” Their research did not include technologies that improve technology accessibility for the differently abled.

What return do users of this technology want out of these investments? Scalability and making sure their technology tools are widely available throughout many geographic locations, according to RedThread and Mercer researchers.

"In our conversations with customers," researchers reported, "they often indicated that they tend to prioritize technologies that seamlessly link to and integrate with their existing HR platforms rather than adding yet another tool to the mix."

RedThread and Mercer split D&I technology vendors into three areas:

  • D&I Focus vendors: A vendor with a main use case for addressing D&I, such as reducing unconscious bias during hiring.
  • D&I Feature vendors: A vendor whose primary business includes more than D&I, such as a recruiting software vendor whose product can make applicant names and identifying information blind to minimize unconscious bias.
  • D&I Friendly vendors: A vendor whose features or functionalities could help D&I but is not marketed that way, such as a recruiting software vendor that uses artificial intelligence to recommend candidates.

According to D&I vendors in the RedThread Research/Mercer report, the problems these technologies are trying to solve include:

  • Unconscious bias: 43%
  • Lack of D&I analytics or insights: 33%
  • Inadequately diverse talent pipelines: 30%
  • Culture not adequately inclusive: 22%
  • Companies not adequately diverse: 13%
  • Lack of employee knowledge/insight: 11%

The outcomes of implementing D&I technologies comes with risks, according to the report. For example, technology may itself create or amplify bias, increase legal risks for failure to act on identified problems, enable employee perceptions of "Big Brother"-style monitoring and over-focus on political correctness.

Partnership With Technologists Is Critical

The risk of implementing a biased technology is precisely why chief diversity officers or anyone buying D&I technology needs to work closely with technology experts like IT, according to Tynan. Technology itself can reflect the biases of the people who build it.

“It requires a fairly nuanced understanding of what the tech can and can't do and in what ways the tech itself is biased," Tynan said. "It’s well known that a lot of AI technology is biased.”

HR may understand what they're driving at from a D&I perspective but they don't necessarily understand how the technology works, whereas the IT group understands the technology and what AI can do. And they're familiar with the terminology and are able to have a more nuanced conversation with a vendor. But at the same time they may not understand the D&I issues. 

“And so I think there needs to be this real partnership between HR and IT in order to take advantage of and avoid some of the challenges with this type of technology,” Tynan said.

Related Article: How Companies Can Bake Diversity and Inclusion Into Their DNA

Breaking Down D&I Tech Categories

Gartner, in its January 2020 report “How HCM Technologies Can Scale Inclusion in the Workplace,” reported multiple ways technology supports D&I efforts. Mostly, the technologies are baked into a larger suite of offerings not marketed for D&I as a primary use but that have use cases for inclusion:

Worker Interaction and Worker Sentiment Analysis/Optimization

  • Organizational Network Analysis (ONA)
  • Voice of the Employee (VoE)
  • Employee Experience Technologies (ExTech)
  • HR Portal Activity Metrics

Leadership Awareness, Development and Recognition for Inclusion

  • Next-Gen Talent Assessments
  • Learning Experience Platforms
  • Coaching and Mentoring Solutions
  • Employee Recognition and Rewards Systems

Continuous Application of Inclusion in Daily Activities and Decisions

  • Collaborative Work Management (CWM)
  • Continuous Feedback
  • Enterprise Social Networking Applications
  • Enhancing Candidate Sourcing and Attraction
  • Artificial Intelligence-Enabled Sourcing Tools
  • Data-Driven Job Distribution

Kostoulas said oftentimes technology that supports D&I programs is not flagged as such but still can support inclusive outcomes. For instance, you can use Voice of the Employee technology to understand the sentiment around engagement as well as inclusion.

“Until very recently, many of the vendors who were delivering solutions in all these areas would not actively position the technologies around the D&I objective,” Kostoulas said. “Those who were looking for a technology to tackle inclusion, they might have had the technology already in their solution and they didn't need to go and buy anything else."

Supporting a D&I Outcome Through Tech

Ultimately, Kostoulas said D&I isn’t quite its own software category but rather an outcome for a number of software solutions to support. Gartner reports a fair share of vendors who produce these kinds of offerings such as Humanyze, Peakon and Humu.

RedThread and Mercer’s research reports 105 vendors that currently offer technology targeted at improving diversity and inclusion in organizations, including niche D&I vendors that focus on diversity and inclusion outcomes such as Advancing Women, InHerSight and Jopwell. They estimated the market worth at $100 million.

“For a good amount of time, both vendors and buyers were focused on talent acquisition,” Kostoulas said. “And it was a number of smaller solutions that had to do with how we use AI to create the job description that is compelling and has diverse candidates. Or how do we use AI to match people with jobs so we mitigate selection bias. How do we run AI-driven assessments? How do we create structured interview guides? How do we run analytics on the different sources we get candidates from? So these were very popular and they're still very popular. In the last year, there’s been more increased focus on pay equity and diversity analytics.”

Related Article: 4 Ways to Embrace the Challenges of Diversity in the Workplace

Community Building, Inclusive Practices, Disability Awareness

Of special note, Forrester’s Tynan mentioned the D&I technology category related to community building and inclusive practices. She cited a listening program through an engagement pulse survey that helps organizations understand how people feel: whether they feel a sense of belonging, discriminated against and if they feel they have the same opportunities as others.

“We’re still talking about technology embedded within another technology, specifically a pulse survey or an engagement survey in a sentiment tool, but that's another way that companies are using technology to better understand their situation,” Tynan said.

Collaboration tools like Workplace from Facebook, Salesforce Chatter, Microsoft Teams and Yammer can be used for community building and for intentional creation of inclusive communities within organizations. 

Too often, organizations think of diversity and inclusion in terms of what Tynan called the “Big Three” — gender, race and sexuality. But they often fail to look at other aspects like ability. Research indicates many people with disabilities have a problem with applicant tracking systems and struggle to complete job applications because the tools were not designed in an accessible manner.

"And so you end up with people who are marginalized in the talent acquisition process because of an issue with ability," she said. "They're unable to access the same information. And the same is true with customers. Is your actual product designed in an accessible way in order to be inclusive for people who may have disabilities? Those are the kinds of things to think about across the entire technology ecosystem.”


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