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By Steve Kelman

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Business grads, vets and workforce diversity: Who should be on your team?

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In my last blog post, I discussed some insights that surfaced at the most recent meeting of the Veterans Administration Acquisition Academy, on whose advisory board I sit. This time I want to discuss an issue that one of the board members raised.

The Defense Department, unlike civilian agencies, requires that new hires in contracting have significant prior coursework in business administration. This person said that, in her experience, there were very good young people being hired in civilian agencies who had been liberal arts majors in college, who would have been screened out by the Defense Department.

Somewhat later in the discussion, it was noted that almost half of new government hires right now are veterans, thanks to veteran preferences in the federal government personnel system. (This figure is of course considerably higher than that in the VA). Veterans, the person noting this pointed out, have been socialized into a very structured and hierarchical environment.

Both these observations got me thinking about the academic literature on team diversity. When you think about it for a second, the most-important reason for creating teams -- especially when the team’s work product is a decision or approach to a problem -- is to bring more diversity into the ideas considered for a decision. Diversity adds to the information and to the perspectives available for decisions.

Particularly with demographic diversity (gender, race, age), sometimes this advantage can be offset by the in-group/out-group tensions that often appear in demographically diverse teams. But, especially with sources of diversity that do not create these kinds of fault lines (such as diversity of college major), the benefits for a team of diverse composition are clear.

I thought about these remarks about business majors and veterans in that context. I fully understand the reason for the business requirements DOD officials have introduced for new contracting hires -- they want to get away from seeing contracting as a clerical, administrative function and make it into a business advisor function.

Nonetheless, I wonder if the rigidity of “shall” is appropriate here, rather than a weaker approach such as giving some sort of preference to people with business courses. Can liberal arts majors bring some interesting new perspectives -- not to speak of writing skills that are often otherwise sorely lacking -- to a contracting team?

The same question applies for veterans. The fact that they make up 45 percent of new hires does not yet mean that workplaces will be dominated only by a veteran’s perspective, especially since there is also a stock of people already at the workplace who don’t share that same background. But it is something for managers to keep an eye on when team assignments are given. Indeed, as a general matter, research suggests that decisions about team composition -- are the right people selected for a team in the first place? -- often determine how successful the team is even before the first team meeting.

Posted by Steve Kelman on Feb 06, 2014 at 7:59 AM


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Reader comments

Fri, Feb 7, 2014 Chuck Woodside San Antonio, TX

Flexibility to identify and hire the most likely to succeed is the key. Not every business major makes a great contract manager, and there is nothing to indicate that an exceptional liberal arts major can't do well in the contracting field. Nobody picks a winner every time, but your chances go up if you don't place artificial limits on the pool of candidates.

Fri, Feb 7, 2014 Al

We had some former musicians who did pretty well in our contracting group. There may be some gems in the fine arts as well . . .

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