Driving innovation through diversity at Amazon
- 5 Min Read
For a company like Amazon, innovation is crucial to our success. Having a diverse workforce gives us a better understanding of customers’ needs and is key to unlocking ideas. Here are a few ways that true diversity helps drive that innovation.
The creative process is more robust and productive when a diverse range of voices can be heard around the table. As Frans Johansson explained in his book The Medici Effect, “All new ideas are combinations of existing ideas. When you bring together diverse teams and perspectives, you have the ability to create an exponential increase in ideas.”
In my experience as a STEM champion and a leader working at the intersection of computing and storage, new ideas are generated by looking at an existing situation through different lenses. We do this every day at Amazon. Take for example the work being done combining artificial intelligence and fashion to enable customers to find and discover apparel that works for them, or using machine learning so customers get personalised product recommendations. At Amazon Web Services (AWS), we also share our learnings and machine learning capabilities as fully managed services, and we put them into the hands of every developer and data scientist.
Innovation and diversity
Innovation can happen anywhere and, without a diverse workforce, opportunities could be missed. Diverse teams are better prepared to spot opportunities from a variety of sources and inputs. Just having a diverse team, however, isn’t enough. You also need an inclusive environment and the capacity to receive and act on feedback. Inclusivity is important because your diverse workforce must feel comfortable in order to contribute ideas. Additionally, we have to encourage everybody to contribute to the creative process in order to think and act innovatively. Fostering a diverse and inclusive workplace culture means that those voices are not only confident in speaking up, but that they are heard and their recommendations are properly considered. The result is a better product for everybody involved.
Diversity can be categorised in three ways: as inherent (traits you are born with), acquired (traits you gain from experience) and cognitive (differences in perspective). Diversity does not always refer exclusively to our familiar ideas around age, race or gender. Diversity of thought can also be achieved by bringing design thinkers together with analytical professionals, for example, giving both viewpoints the confidence they need to share and critique ideas constructively.
The business case for diversity is now well established at boardroom level, as research from the Harvard Business Review, McKinsey, KPMG and Forbes, among others, has corroborated the idea that diversity can have a positive impact on a company’s bottom line. In purely business terms, a diverse workforce provides a competitive advantage, and companies are more successful when they commit themselves to diverse leadership. In a global economy where competition for top talent is fierce, more diverse companies are also better able to attract talent, improve brand perception, boost employee satisfaction and broaden decision-making. This helps to create a virtuous circle of positive change, both internally and externally.
It’s also important to remember that cultivating a diverse organisation is not easy. For example, in the UK the industry suffers from a STEM skills gap among both genders, and this shortage of future STEM professionals is most pronounced among young girls. That’s why we have launched programmes such as the Amazon Women in Innovation Bursary, and AWS re:Start, a training and job placement program designed to educate young adults, military veterans and their spouses on the latest software development and cloud computing technologies, and we sponsor initiatives that shine a light on female innovation success like the Women in Tech Awards, Scotland Women in Tech Awards and the TechWomen50 awards.
‘Diversity’ and ‘innovation’ may be terms that are used so often and so loosely that they risk losing their meaning, but for global businesses they are more relevant than ever before. Innovation is a prerequisite for growth, and diversity has always been a key ingredient in creating a workplace where innovation can thrive.
According to the World Economic Forum, “At current rates of progress, it may take another 217 years to close the economic gender gap globally”. We need to make better progress at all levels in all sectors. Although there have been campaigns in the public, private and third sector focused on getting more women specifically into technology roles, I have not seen these address the innovation economy more broadly to provide a roadmap for boosting the number of women in the innovation economy.
That’s why, last month, we announced a new partnership between Amazon, WISE (the campaign for gender balance in Science, Technology and Engineering), and Anglia Ruskin University, Cambridge, to conduct new research to inform the creation of a roadmap to increase the number of women working in the innovation economy. We received more than one thousand responses from women working in STEM careers across the UK and,we believe, the final report will help policymakers and companies across the UK increase diversity in technology and develop the next generation of female technology leaders.
Much like the creative process, achieving diversity is a process of continual improvement rather than a destination, and so I hope this report among the other initiatives we have launched will help to deliver the positive change needed to foster greater diversity in the innovation economy.
By Lauren Kisser, Director, Amazon Web Services (AWS)