There’s a new frontier in diversity programs focused not on race or gender but on cognitive ability.
The growing interest in neurodiversity—hiring people with cognitive disabilities like Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)—is motivated by companies looking to tap into a largely unnoticed labor pool at a time when many bemoan the lack of skilled workers.
ASD is an umbrella term for several cognitive impairments, including Asperger syndrome. The United States Centers for Disease Control estimates one in 68 children have been diagnosed with ASD. Globally the estimate is one in 100.
“That’s part of the thinking on this idea of neurodiversity; that we do better when we mix people who think differently or are wired a bit differently.”
Social difficulties are one of the hallmarks of ASD, making it hard for those with ASD to make it through a traditional hiring process. Roughly 60 percent of people with ASD have average or above average intelligence, yet 85 percent are unemployed.
“Their intellectual horsepower is quite high,” Harvard Business School’s Gary P. Pisano says of the ASD population. “They do things differently and they behave differently, but the question is, can you turn that into a virtue? That’s part of the thinking on this idea of neurodiversity; that we do better when we mix people who think differently or are wired a bit differently.”
AUTISM AT WORK
Pisano, the Harry E. Figgie Jr. Professor of Business Administration, and his former HBS colleague Robert D. Austin, Professor of Information Systems, Ivey Business School, delve into the growing neurodiversity initiative at software behemoth SAP in their case study SAP SE: Autism at Work.
Started in 2011, the Autism at Work program grew from what was a side project by the head of SAP Labs in India into a companywide effort to have 1 percent of its workforce comprised of individuals with ASD. V. R. Ferose, then managing director of SAP Labs, was inspired after hearing about Specialisterne, a Danish software firm with 75 percent of its workforce diagnosed with ASD. Ferose, like the founder of Specialisterne, has a son diagnosed with ASD.
Specialisterne is what Austin calls the “gold standard” of neurodiversity. The software testing and consulting firm was founded in 2004 by Thorkil Sonne after Sonne’s young son was diagnosed with the disorder. From inception, it was a for-profit business, relying on employees’ talents, not diagnoses, to attract clients.
“Software testing is extremely exacting and requires a lot of precision, but it’s also kind of mind-numbingly repetitious,” says Austin. “It’s important to do it correctly, but it’s very difficult to keep your attention on it well enough to do it correctly.”
Austin wrote a case study on Specialisterne while at HBS in 2008, and invited Sonne to an executive education program for CIOs.
“He’s the only person I’ve ever seen in an executive program at Harvard get a standing ovation,” Austin says, adding that some listeners were driven to tears. “It was quite an experience.”
CIOs were excited by how the concept fits together, matching employers in need of talent with a group that has been largely unemployed or underemployed. It’s not a “charity thing,” Austin says.
“There are possibilities here to do something that is socially good and yet is still being very responsible to the business,” Pisano says.
“Whether this is the beginning of a bigger movement, I really don’t know, but I hope it does change some things. The prevalence of this kind of condition is actually quite high in our society, so it’s a real shame if we are not engaging those people.”
NEURODIVERSITY IN PRACTICE
Sonne and Specialisterne have helped several companies set up neurodiversity programs, including SAP. Partnering with Specialisterne almost implies a seal of approval, offering reassurance for companies worried about accusations of exploiting a vulnerable population, Austin says.
Anka Wittenberg, SAP’s head of diversity and inclusion, was so impressed by Ferose’s effort that in 2013 she worked to build on that success across the company. The program expanded beyond India to Germany, the United States, Brazil, Canada, the Czech Republic, and Ireland. So far about 100 people have been hired for jobs including software developer or tester, business analyst, and graphic designer, and pay is commensurate to what others in those jobs earn.
Many participants came to the program with advanced degrees and even holding patents but little, if any, work history. Pisano explains that many of those candidates wouldn’t make it through the interview process or wouldn’t bother applying because they didn’t think they’d get hired.
Because people with ASD often don’t sell themselves well, the SAP program begins with a less intimidating hangout, during which candidates work individually on Lego Mindstorms projects escalating in difficulty. They then move on to team challenges, followed by a five-week training period developed by Specialisterne.
So-called soft skills training, like social interaction and professional norms, is a crucial piece provided by public or private organizations already working with the ASD population. Issues other new hires might not have to think about can stymie a new hire with ASD. For example, when the CEO sends out a companywide email, are you supposed to reply? That’s where the soft skills training comes in.
After landing a job, Autism at Work participants are given mentors and team buddies—existing SAP employees who volunteer—as well as a job and life skills coach usually provided by a partner group. SAP employees also received autism awareness training in what Pisano calls “a lot of internal selling.”
Other companies that either have programs or are starting one include Towers Watson, Hewlett Packard Enterprise in Australia, E-Y, and Microsoft, Austin says. SAP and other tech companies have agreed informally to share qualified candidates in situations when an individual has completed training but the company doesn’t have a job for them.
RETHINKING TALENT MANAGEMENT
Just published, the SAP case study hasn’t made its way to the classroom yet. Both professors believe it holds valuable lessons for MBAs. Pisano focuses on organizational issues, given the complex and multi-layered process required. He wants students to think beyond the feel-good nature of the program and dig into how to build a successful, scalable program.
“The superficial answer is it’s win-win, and it can be win-win,” Pisano says. “But they can also be win-lose, or lose-lose. Everybody can come out worse if you don’t think through how to do these things well.”
For Austin, the main takeaway is rethinking how to manage people and talent. He points to SAP’s analogy that individuals are like puzzle pieces with irregular shapes.
“One of the things that we’ve done historically in human resource management is, we’ve asked people to trim away the parts of themselves that are irregularly shaped, and then we ask them to plug themselves into standard roles,” Austin says. “SAP is asking itself whether that might be the wrong way to do things in an innovation economy. Instead, maybe managers have to do the hard work of putting the puzzle pieces together and inviting people to bring their entire selves to work.”
That approach can benefit other forms of diversity like race, gender, and sexual orientation.
“Innovation is about finding ideas that are outside the normal parameters, and you don’t do that by slicing away everything that’s outside the normal parameters. Maybe it’s the parts of people we ask them to leave at home that are the most likely to produce the big innovations,” Austin says.
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