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A Conversation with Margaret Regan, CEO of the FutureWork Institute: The Future of Diversity, from Brain Chips to Virtual Worlds
Tell me a little bit about the institute. What does Future Work do?
The FutureWork Institute was originally the Global Diversity Practice of Towers Perrin and we spun is off to create our own entity about nine or ten years ago.
We are a full service diversity consulting firm with a special niche around researching future trends in the marketplace and the workplace. We research, talk about these topics, and teach people about the next ten years. We don’t make any of it up. It’s all based on research. The way we make the business case for diversity is to get people to see the future and help them realize that if they don’t change now, they will not be ready.
The full service consulting that we do includes organizational assessments globally. We set up diversity counsels. We’ve trained thousands of people over 25 years. We have all different kinds of training environments. We have a new specialty in the last three or four years; we are a leader in immersive learning virtual worlds around diversity.
We have three platforms that we operate on: Unis Fair, Pronis Fair and Second Life. We bring our clients in to have diversity events through these simulations and learn in an immersive way versus just regular learning.
Second Life is a virtual world that has about 15 million inhabitants all over the world. When you enter Second Life, you enter with an avatar which is a three dimensional representation of yourself. And for me, as a diversity practitioner, my Second Life name is Futura Cosmos. Futura has 30 different avatars in Second Life that I’ve actually created. I can morph into a Muslim woman, traditional dress and Indian woman in a sari, an African American woman at work or an African American woman in Africa, and I go around and I talk to people and I go through different simulations. Since it is an immersive environment, I experience what I’m experiencing in this virtual world myself as this persona.
It gives people an opportunity to see what it might feel like to walk in someone else’s shoes. Someone has created an experience of walking through the passage of the gate of no return to slavery. And to go through that experience I changed into an African woman in her village in Africa, went through the gate of no return, went onto the boat, heard all the voices from the time, got to the new world, changed out of my native clothes into that of the slaves and actually went through the experience of having to climb up and be sold into slavery with my children, while I learned about what went on at that time. There was actually the experience of it, which is very different than reading about it or seeing it in a movie.
I learned more in that two-hour immersive experience, than I have ever learned about slavery. The interesting thing was going through it as a white woman with a black female colleague and to see how our experiences were different and the dialogue that that brings about. It’s a very different experience, and many diversity people are not aware of it. You’re no longer kind of just sitting on your couch. You really are going through the experience.
What does the future look like, specifically the future of diversity?
Since we look at the next ten years, I’ll comment on diversity 2020. Why ten years? I am a member of the World Future Society and the research that we have done shows that you can’t get people to think out of the box about today unless you take them out ten years. Five years is really not enough.
What we did here at Linkage’s summit is an entire session on going deeper into diversity dialogues, and we had people look at conflict around generational issues, around race issues, and around LGBT issues. And then we taught them how to apply debate versus dialogues, so that they got to dialogue but not debate which was not easy—how to apply courageous conversations and then how to apply the dialogue when you have a values conflict, like religion and LGBT issues.
We’ve got to talk at a deeper level around some of the more traditional issues while we broaden the discussion around multicultural, multigenerational while we push forward into the future on new ways of work and learning. We see that it is a mistake to just broaden and ignore the traditional issues. We also think it is a mistake to just look into the future and not see that there are women and people of color and other groups who are still feeling excluded in all organizations.
I’ve started to talk about what futurists have known for years, which is that the next generation of diversity really changes because we will have the joining of artificial intelligence and computers with humans; you will have enhanced human beings coming into the work force.
Explain what you mean by ‘enhanced.’
‘Enhanced’ means we are coming to a point where computers are going to get ahead of what human beings can do. We’ll have, for example, brain chips implanted in people. If we only use ten percent of our brains now, you can put a brain chip in and be able to use 40, 50, and 60 percent. You will be able to compute faster. You will be able to do several things we saw on Star Trek.
The question for diversity practitioners is: are your successors in diversity able to deal with the next generation where race or gender might not be as important as the fact that I’m enhanced and you’re not enhanced? The analogy that I make is that a lot of my clients went from being the Chief Diversity Officer in the U.S. to being the Chief Global Diversity Officer in one day. They were not prepared and did not have the skills to do that. It was a big jump for them and it still is.
What is the reaction when you start talking about these ideas?
It’s very interesting. If you talk to Microsoft, Cisco—some of the technology companies—they’ve known about this for a while. If you talk to a regular company that’s not technology-focused and doesn’t have a research group, people have one of two reactions: they’re either fascinated by it, or they’re scared.
If you can’t figure out inclusion now, it’s going to be much more complex, multigenerational, multicultural, and enhanced people starting to enter the work force.
I actually included two slides [in my presentation at the 2010 Summit on Leading Diversity], because the cover of Future Us magazine this month says, Managing the Enhanced Work Force of the Future.” It’s getting out into the popular press, so if I don’t introduce it to people, they will find it someplace else. It will scare people, and I’m basically saying it’s our challenge, as diversity practitioners, to deal with all kinds of inclusion.
That’s fascinating. This is the 11th annual Leading Diversity Summit and when we get to the 21st we listen back to this and we’ll see how much is correct.
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