Cultural Intelligence Overcomes Tribal Identities

Irfan Khan

Sweeping changes created by globalization and digitalization are impacting communities in ways we didn’t foresee. As people look at the towns they once knew, they’re seeing individuals who dress differently, speak differently, and have very different cultures and values. All too often, these changes create fear and uncertainty, causing us to cling to what we know and to be suspicious of anything that falls outside our cultural “norms.”

It is in this type of climate that tribal identities can emerge and diversity can be seen as a threat rather than an innovation enabler and positive impetus for change. Now, more than ever, socially conscious companies must promote the benefits they receive from diverse and collaborative workforces and lead the charge in battling systemic bias.

I feel fortunate that diversity in the workplace is second nature to me. As a technology executive in a global organization, the people and teams I work with come from every walk of life. That said, I am British, of Pakistani descent, and a Muslim. Given the current political climate, there are some areas of the world where these “labels” would not be seen in a positive light.

Corporations can lead by example

I absolutely believe corporations should lead by example when it comes to diversity by helping build the supportive infrastructure to call out injustice and promote compassion. And I am incredibly proud to see that nearly 100 companies, including Facebook, Github, Uber, and Lyft, are fighting a recently implemented travel ban in the U.S. Their belief, that: “high tech needs immigrants’ creativity and energy to stay competitive,” echoes my own convictions – I believe a diverse workforce makes globally minded companies more competitive and innovative. In my experience, diversity enhances team performance and focus.

Having worked in the technology industry for more than 20 years, I have seen a lot of change in opportunities for people of color and, along with the CEOs of these 100 companies, I see workplace diversity as a fusion of the best. Individuals who own their identity – while working effectively across cultures – fuel innovation, enhance work experiences for everyone, and improve understanding of each other. A diverse workforce is critical to fighting the negative forces at play in the world today.

That said, the reality is that as we become more global, tribal identities become even more powerful, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s good to identify with your particular culture, values, and mores, but not at the expense or to the exclusion of other cultures.

This is why corporations throughout the world have a responsibility to promote the value of bringing different cultures together to solve technology and business problems. What’s more, we need to highlight the success of underrepresented groups and double down to find new ways to bring minorities and women into leadership positions through education, which is the great equalizer that gives opportunities to traditionally underrepresented groups.

Diversity in the workplace: an intelligent business strategy

In a digital and global economy, different perspectives are needed to envision novel solutions to the world’s greatest challenges. When we work with people who are different from us, we acquire cultural intelligence. According to the Wikipedia definition, cultural intelligence refers to a person’s ability to interact positively with others from different cultures. At its best, cultural intelligence allows us to recognize the importance of belonging to a particular culture, even while seeing the value different cultures bring to the equation.

I believe diversity and inclusion play an integral role in a company’s success across the global sphere. By combining culture, race, ethnicity, age, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, physical or mental ability, and unique work-life situations, businesses can create opportunities and foster innovation across teams that will benefit entire industries.

When employees are free to be their authentic selves, the end result is greater engagement and creativity, as well as a better understanding of customer needs worldwide. Different perspectives among constituencies – internal and external teams, partners, and customers – generate a greater mix of ideas and spur innovation. Indeed, a culture of inclusion not only makes businesses stronger, it enhances the countries in which we reside, making them stronger, better, and more able to compete on a global scale.

To learn more about how you can drive diversity and inclusion across your organization, visit SAP SuccessFactors’ Diversity and Inclusion page.


Irfan Khan

About Irfan Khan

Irfan Khan is Global Head of Sales for the Database & Data Management (DDM) business at SAP. He is responsible for the sales force driving SAP data platform solutions across six regions. Irfan is focused on key areas including cloud and on-premise solutions powered by the SAP HANA platform, SAP Cloud Platform, SAP Sybase databases, enterprise information management, and middleware offerings in support of SAP and non-SAP digital transformation, the Internet of Things, Big Data, and modern data warehousing customer scenarios.