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Cognitive diversity: The key to excellence?


Diversity champion Kayleigh Graham explores the importance of cognitive diversity in modern-day accounting firms and the benefits it delivers to those who embrace it.

23rd Nov 2020
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Many conversations about diversity focus on identity; diversity of ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation etc. However, something that gets talked about a lot less is diversity of thought, otherwise known as cognitive diversity. 

Cognitive diversity is profitable. For most, ‘cognitive’ refers to thinking, and ‘diversity’ is the difference between people. In this setting cognitive means having teams with lots of different ways of thinking and viewing the world around them.

Facebook VP of engineering Regina Duggan talks about cognitive diversity as getting a range of voices in one place to represent a range of people. Ultimately, we need to get comfortable with the fact that not everyone’s the same and use those differences as inspiration to grow and innovate.

So, why is it important? 

“Cognitive diversity can enhance team innovation by up to 20%,” reported Deloitte.

Diverse teams will work together in new ways to solve problems faster, be constantly looking for ways to innovate and seek ways to anticipate needs and improve the client service.

The accounting industry is constantly changing and evolving. Accepted thinking and processes from 10 years ago are now outdated. We have seen a huge shift to automation and the role of the accountant has become that of a trusted advisor to individuals and businesses across the globe. This change should be welcomed as firms that spend more time with clients and less with spreadsheets generate between two and eight times more revenue per employee.

Embracing change is vital if firms are to succeed in the future. Being open to new ideas, perspectives and challenges is at the core of this embrace, a firm's ability to move with the times and consistently innovate depends on its ability to do just that.  

In an industry going through such fundamental change, an innovative, problem solving team is key to making sure that your firm delivers an amazing service and is a valuable resource to all clients. 

Nordens CEO Mitch Hahn, a fast growing strategic consulting and accountancy firm, notes the value diverse thought brings to their business: “In order to provide a level of in-depth support, it is important that everyone within the Nordens family understand our clients personal situations, be able to have good quality helpful conversations and be able to relate to their circumstances. In order to do this, we ensure that we have diversity throughout. If you look at our teams, they are of different sex, race and background with a wide range of specialist knowledge and ability.”

Diversity in thought also creates an incredible work environment for staff to learn and develop as employees, but also as humans. Majors Accounts MD Eriona Bajrakurtaj has made a conscious effort to ensure her team is incredibly diverse in both identity and thought, and through this has created. “A rich environment that never ceases to teach us new things from different cultures and experiences which we may not have otherwise had the opportunity to be exposed to.” 

How to increase cognitive diversity?

The ICAEW report Diversity and the Accounting Profession concluded that good strides are being made towards diversity, but ultimately the industry has some way to go. If action needs to be taken, what can you do about it?

  • Reward diverse thinking: Acknowledge fresh ideas from colleagues and staff. Take a moment to recognise new perspectives and, where appropriate, reward those with opportunities to instigate and embed change in the organisation.
  • Take a zero-tolerance stance on discrimination of any kind: As Bajrakurtaj wisely said, “We are all human beings and everyone must respect each other as such – as equals. No one is superior and everyone is free to believe whatever they wish and have the right to feel comfortable within their workplace.”
  • All thoughts should be welcomed and encouraged and any form of discrimination should be called out and dealt with. Failure to do so will limit the freedom of others to express their thoughts and fresh ideas. 
  • Challenge your thinking: This goes for hiring but also more generally when thinking about tasks. Make a point of seeking out and talking to people who may have a different viewpoint than your own and don’t be afraid. Welcome the diversity in thought and use it as an opportunity to learn and develop.

Bringing lots of great, yet different, minds into one space helps to remove tunnel vision, inconsistencies in individual judgement and ultimately leads to better decision making for your business and your clients. Cognitive diversity is the key to becoming the business resource your clients need. 

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