Diverse workforce helps research centre reach milestone

Canada’s cultural diversity is an economic advantage: Survey
By Shannon Klie
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 12/13/2007

More than three-quarters of Canadians believe a workforce diverse in culture and background contributes to innovation and creates a stronger business landscape, according to a recent survey.

The Xerox Research Centre of Canada in Mississauga, Ont., surveyed 1,000 workers across Canada this summer to better understand what factors contribute to innovation and business success.

“We continuously look to the factors that affect the innovativeness and effectiveness of our research centre. We believed that diversity is an important factor, but we wanted to make sure,” said Hadi Mahabadi, vice-president and manager of the centre, which does research for the document and imaging giant in areas such as colour science, computing and digital imaging.

The survey found 79 per cent of respondents feel Canada’s cultural diversity gives it a distinct advantage when it comes to fostering innovation. Nearly all respondents (96 per cent) said they seek the advice of those with a different background when solving business problems, with 92 per cent going to someone with different work experience, 82 per cent seeking out someone of a different age and 82 per cent seeking someone with a different outlook on life.

In its 33-year history, the Xerox Research Centre of Canada has prided itself on its diverse workforce, said Mahabadi. The centre has more than 130 employees from more than 35 countries.

In the process of trying to come up with new ideas for Xerox, research centre employees do a lot of brainstorming, said Mahabadi. When the people involved in brainstorming come from different backgrounds and different cultures, the ideas are more creative.

“You get a much richer pool of ideas to select from, which helps innovation,” said Mahabadi.

Research milestone: 1,000 patents

This richness of ideas has paid off. Last year, the centre reached a milestone in research: It received its 1,000th patent. As a testament to the role of diversity in innovation, three of the centre’s top performers, who have more than 100 patents each, are skilled immigrants.

Over the past few years, that high number of patents has led to an average of five to six ideas each year going to market.

“Having a lot of patents is a good thing, but taking it to market and commercializing it is much more important,” said Mahabadi.

To make the most of skilled immigrants, the centre provides courses on language, public speaking and writing. The centre also pairs a new skilled immigrant with a buddy — either someone from the same field or someone from a similar background who shares the new hire’s language.

“Our aim is that the person gets used to the system, learns the language fast and becomes familiar with the situation as fast as possible and not delay in their progress,” said Mahabadi.

Engineering firm eases skilled immigrants on board

ProMation Engineering, an engineering and manufacturing company in Mississauga, Ont., has about 80 employees, most of them highly skilled individuals with engineering degrees. About two-thirds of the workforce are either established immigrants or new Canadians from more than 27 countries.

“Having a diversified environment really helps because there is difference of opinion, there’s an exchange of opinion and that’s very valuable to us because we thrive on the exchange of opinions,” said Mark Zimny, president and chief executive officer of ProMation.

Like Mahabadi, Zimny understands the importance of helping new immigrants become accustomed to the Canadian workforce so they can be as productive as possible.

ProMation offers new skilled immigrants unpaid internships to start, usually for about two months — enough time for Zimny to assess their attitude, aptitude and willingness to learn. After that, the company pays them minimum wage, increasing the pay as the workers’ output increases.

By the end of their first year, the new immigrants are receiving competitive wages and by the end of the second year, their wages are among the most competitive in the industry, said Zimny.

Throughout this process, the company offers language and communication courses and provides on-the-job training as well as mentoring.

“In every department there are new people in supporting roles and as they grow, our business grows,” said Zimny.

Diversity also about women

But diversity comes in all forms, not just from having people from different countries. The engineering and manufacturing industry has typically been male dominated, but ProMation is starting to make changes in that area.

Most of the accounting staff are women, the machine shop quality control and supervisor position is held by a woman and there are female engineers working in the sales and design departments.

There is compelling evidence from Catalyst, a New York-based research and advisory organization that promotes women in business, that gender diversity and financial performance are related, said Deborah Gillis, executive director of Catalyst Canada in Toronto.

“Companies with more women directors, on average, have significantly higher performance than those with the lowest representation of women board directors,” said Gillis.

The Catalyst study

The Bottom Line: Corporate Performance and Women’s Representation on Boards

, which examined the financial performance of Fortune 500 companies and was released in October, found companies with more women directors had a 53-per-cent higher return on equity, a 42-per-cent higher return on sales and a 66-per-cent higher return on invested capital.

With women making up one-half of the labour force and being responsible for 80 per cent of purchasing decisions, it just makes sense to hire them throughout organizations, said Gillis.

“When we look at the bottom-line numbers, it’s safe to say that companies that leverage female talent internally in their organizations will be better able to develop products and services that could appeal to and attract their external customers. It’s the notion of hiring the market,” she said.

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