Although employee resource groups (ERGs) may have originally formed to provide support and community for employees from minority or other special interest groups, today many are just as focused on helping the company advance the business, according to "ERGs Come of Age," a recent study of employee networks in 64 organizations by Mercer.
"Ten to 20 years ago, the main impetus was to provide a community for people not well-represented in organizations," says Michal Fineman, a consultant in Mercer's Global Equality Diversity and Inclusion practice. "That hasn't disappeared, but in addition, groups are now looking for explicit ways to service the business. And that comes in a lot of different flavors."
In consumer organizations, these groups are often involved in testing the market, giving insight into various demographic market, and even developing products and services, says Fineman. In the business-to-business (b2b) markets, these groups tend to be focused on talent management and recruitment issues related to developing fellow employees.
"In business-to-business companies ERGs get involved in providing translation services, training leaders and business people in how to do business in certain cultures, and putting together skills databases - all with the purpose of serving the company," says Fineman.
In addition, she points out that some companies are viewing involvement in ERGs as a leadership development opportunity. "Heading an ERG is a big job," says Fineman. "Some companies are seeing the position of ERG leader as an assignment for a high potential." Those holding leadership positions in these groups often interact with senior management as well as receive specialized training in business fundamentals or project management, she says.
The new commitment to ERGs is evidenced by the level of support they receive in large companies. The average annual budget for ERGs reported by survey participants was $7,203 for every 100 ERG members, and many companies spend well into six figures every year (not counting the cost of technology, facilities, staff support, and other non-financial resources provided to the groups).
Despite concerns that Millennials, who tend not to identify as strongly with gender or ethnic-racial issues, would not find these groups relevant, Fineman says that the study did not bear that out. Younger employees are joining these groups, but "we are seeing more of an impetus to inclusion," says Fineman. "Women groups are reaching out to men; lesbian-gay groups are reaching out to straight groups - there is more of an effort to build bridges," she notes. "We are also seeing generation and multigenerational groups being formed." Another new type of group being formed are groups around specific professions instead of personal characteristics. "We're seeing groups of young MBAs or administrative professionals. These seem to be obvious vehicles for training and development - even if it's sharing best practices."
She encourages learning professionals to reach out to them. "There are many possibilities for finding talentand for developing future leaders."