Today’s public debate on the EU refugee crisis is characterised by unfounded fears. Without any base in statistics or historic developments, Europeans appear to be afraid of cultural dilution, of Islam and of financial insecurity. The reason for this is straight-forward: in an era of technological change, jobs are less secure than ever. Many established companies across the continent fall behind because they are unable to embrace innovation as they fail to internationalize their workforce and, hence, recruit from a more diverse pool of people. Ironically, the most important prerequisites to overcome these hurdles are cultural diversity and immigration.
I have been working at a truly diverse workplace for the past three years. When I joined one of the big tech players in 2013, my biggest motivation was pure curiosity: I wanted to identify and understand that distinct part of a Tech firm’s DNA that truly makes it different from other companies. The part that makes it different as it continuously strives to revolutionise commerce, the use of data and access to content and information.
The strength of these companies, in my view, was born from necessity. The big tech companies are forced to continuously reinvent themselves to remain competitive across a variety of markets. This skill is what I would refer to as their ability to pioneer. It requires all employees to embrace a paradigm of radical innovation and change. At the same time, they need to continuously widen the boundaries in order to define and build ever better products and services. Most importantly, pioneering requires diversity at the workplace.
Respect for cultural differences
Diversity can be interpreted in two ways. It can either be gender-specific, or it can focus on origin, religious and ethnic background. For this contribution, we shall focus on the latter but I believe that any kind of diversity over time makes a stark difference in how companies act, think and develop. At the same time, commitment is crucial to drive a climate of innovation and change. This is what most old industry incumbents fail at. Their workforces are often far too homogenous and therefore resistant to change.
In my role in product management, I have worked across all the continents and with teams not only from Europe and the United States, but also from India, China, Japan, Korea, South Africa and South America. Approx. 80% of my verbal communication is held in English. On the Munich campus and in my team, there is a plethora of different nationalities and even mechanisms to enforce diversity in recruiting. Changing teams, job roles and locales is not only simple, but actually encouraged.
This continuous focus on diversity has made my workplace truly international. Our employees rarely settle for social compromise. Instead, they challenge each other in the quest to design the most customer-centric solutions. Yet this is always accompanied by a level of deep respect for the cultural differences they bring along.
How the refugee crisis can be beneficial
International teams tend to collaborate more professionally and – coupled with continuously changing team compositions and settings – organise themselves in a more pragmatic and efficient way to deliver quicker, better results. Old paradigms or beliefs are rarely carried over to new projects. Given that people always bring different approaches, techniques and viewpoints to the table, established boundaries or clear-cut responsibilities do not exist.
Tech firms always strive to build global products and services. Diversity is a distinct ingredient for more rapid expansion. An international workforce helps when you want to define the company’s customers in a more universal sense. This will make it easier to identify the adaptations necessary in particular markets from day 1. Employees with a foreign background often bring in significant international expertise. They are capable of rapidly adapting to change and new challenges.
Can diversity help European companies to master the current wave of technological change? And can it help to make European citizens understand that the refugee crisis can also be beneficial to them? I believe so. We will have to equip refugees with the necessary skills to allow them to actively participate in the EU labour market, jobs with a technological background. This means investing heavily in bilingual German-English language training and educating them as technicians, software engineers and web designers. These are all professions European companies will be in dire need of in the years to come.
An opportunity for the whole continent
While governments across Europe need to lower the current regulatory boundaries to facilitate refugees’ entry in the job market, companies need to commit themselves to take in a set quota after successful completion of their professional training. The full potential of these people can only be unleashed if companies start to staff their departments more internationally. This new hiring approach will need to be integrated into the corporate recruiting routine.
A more international and diverse workforce will allow companies to equip themselves with more agile talent for the many challenges of digital transformation. A joint initiative between the public sector and the private economy has, in my view, the best chances to help bridge the existing skills shortage in many technical professions, one of the key impediments to further growth in Europe. My hope is that we can create the political and economic momentum to turn this crisis into a real opportunity for the entire continent.
Dr. Caspar G. Schauseil is an economist and member of United Europe. He is Head of Product Management in a big tech company in Munich.