Home IT management Co-Production: How To Move Beyond Token Gestures For Diversity And Inclusion In 2023

Co-Production: How To Move Beyond Token Gestures For Diversity And Inclusion In 2023

Co-Production: How To Move Beyond Token Gestures For Diversity And Inclusion In 2023


The Equality, Diversity, Inclusion and Belonging (EDIB) field has taken justifiable criticism in the past for token gestures and performance activism. Moving beyond this can tricky – in order to pave the way for general inclusion, you need to do some deliberate inclusion, which can feel forced or tread too close to positive discrimination, and lead to people thinking you aren’t acting authentically. However, decades of research into improving diversity at work is clear that representation matters. So how can we make policies based on input from representative communities, when we don’t have enough representation in our businesses to make the policies?

When we are ‘stuck’ it sometimes helps to look for examples from outside our usual circles, to gain insight. Academia, for example, has faced significant and valid criticism from the neurodiversity community, regarding the pejorative, pathologized language and approach taken in research about us. Neurodiversity-affirming language is often missing from published papers. The premise that neurodivergent people are always “broken” and in need of “healing” and “interventions” is still the dominant narrative in the literature. However, some research teams have begun operating within the ‘Co-production’ framework, which they have learned from the public service and healthcare sectors. It is working well in research, and its principles could be the method by which we operationalise authentic communication in workplace EDIB. Professor Sue Fletcher-Watson, from Edinburgh University explained what this means and how it operates:

“Co-production is one of a range of participatory methods which involve researchers from Universities working with members of communities affected by the research. So for example I have a research focus on autism and so I do a lot of co-production with autistic people. A big shift happened when I found an Autistic peer mentor – that really helped me embed participatory practice much more deeply. Instead of only recruiting specific advisors to specific projects, it means that in all the different bits and bobs I do, I can get the benefit of an autistic person’s perspective.”

Fresh Thinking

Authentic co-production means involve user voice at the design and idea stage. What do members of the community want to see happen in research? Fletcher-Watson describes the difference this has made to her work:

“I have taken whole new research directions I would never have considered without input from autistic collaborators, like a study on how autistic parents play with their autistic children. I think a major reason to do participatory work is to increase the relevance of research for real people’s lives, and to improve the potential for impact. For example, in the LEANS project (Learning About Neurodiversity at School) we created materials with neurodivergent educators, making them both authentic and practical for teachers to use. We’ve now seen the pack downloaded by over 2500 people in just 9 months since launch, which could mean we’re reaching 75,000 school pupils!”

Fletcher-Watson advises that co-production, as a principle, could be a key difference for organisations seeking to move beyond the neurodiversity inclusion pilot project. We’ve seen these grow in number and popularity throughout the past decade and yet companies seem to get stuck repeating the pilots, without moving on to a more systemic inclusion. Fletcher-Watson encourages business leaders, human resource departments and even event organisers to embrace the concept.

“There’s basically nothing that can’t be co-produced in my opinion. For example, at this amazing neurodiversity conference we’ve got coming up, we’ve worked with a squad of advisors to try to get the details right for a diverse audience. Co-production with clients or end-users can help your products or services become maximally relevant to their needs. Even for something like a law firm, it could be worth sitting down with clients and working through questions like, what content do you want to see highlighted on a new contract executive summary? What’s the jargon we need to translate – can we co-produce a glossary?

I also think co-production should be a part of internal corporate policy. For example, working with diverse staff to ensure that everything from architecture to annual reviews to social events to promotional pathways are functional and accessible. You shouldn’t need to read between the lines or know the right people to get ahead at work – that’s not going to lead to your company making sure the best talent rises to the top.”


Like many organizational change projects of value, embracing co-production in your business needs thought. Fletcher-Watson has two key messages for those willing to give it a go:

“Firstly, the key thing is to be honest and transparent at all times. Secondly, don’t promise an overnight revolution, and don’t lead co-production partners to believe they have full power over what happens next. The temptation is to over-promise, but then people make suggestions, which don’t result in change, and they become disenfranchised and pessimistic. We need to say “this is what we are able to change” and go in with a genuine commitment to doing those things differently. If you start small, it can quickly grow and become pervasive and truly transformational. That’s what I’ve seen happen over the last decade in my own work and team.”

In practice, co-production at work will mean giving Employee Resource Groups a voice in decision-making, planning and project design. It will mean bringing them in at the strategy level, pairing members with business leaders in peer/reverse mentoring arrangements. There is a plethora of advice and guidance on Co-production in non-business domains, we just need to reinterpret them for a corporate context. As many of us are planning our EDIB strategies for 2023, co-production could well be the mechanism that takes us to the next level.


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