The Payoff from DiversityUntil omniscience becomes a common human trait, there is good reason to consciously build diversity into work groups in order to maximize the odds of reaching sound decisions about complex issues.
As Claudia Dreifus explains in her introduction to a January 8 New York Times interview with Scott E. Page, professor of political science at the University of Michigan, it has now been shown mathematically that, under plausible conditions, better decisions emerge from a diverse group of colleagues working a problem than from a same-size group of unusually smart people.
In the interview, Page explains that the reason diversity pays off is that
diverse groups of people bring to organizations more and different ways of seeing a problem and, thus, faster/bettter ways of solving it.Note that Page is referring specifically to diversity in ways of thinking. To the extent that such diversity is correlated with demographic diversity, the diversity payoff will be realized by forming work groups that cross racial, gender, ethnic, and age lines.
People from different backgrounds have varying ways of looking at problems, what I call "tools." The sum of these tools is far more powerful in organizations with diversity than in ones where everyone has gone to the same schools, been trained in the same mold and thinks in almost identical ways.
The problems we face in the world are very complicated. Any one of us can get stuck. If we're in an organization where everyone thinks in the same way, everyone will get stuck in the same place.
But if we have people with diverse tools, they'll get stuck in different places. One person can do their best, and then someone else can come in and improve on it.
Note too that Page is not saying that ability is irrelevant. Rather, he and his colleague Lu Hong (professor at the School of Business Administration of Loyola University in Chicago) show that "when making predictions a group's errors depend in equal parts on the [average] ability of its members to predict and their diversity."
For a group's diversity to pay off, it is also necessary that the diversity be relevant to the problem at hand. As Page explains in the prologue to his 2007 book, The Difference: How the Power of Diversity Creates Better Groups, Firms, Schools, and Societies, "we cannot expect that adding a poet to a medical research team would [better] enable them to find a cure for the common cold." A final point is that a diverse group of people who can't get along are not going to be very productive as collaborative problem solvers.
You can read the 2004 Hong/Page paper "Groups of Diverse Problem Solvers Can Outperform Groups of High-Ability Problem Solvers" here.