Neurodiversity in the tech sector - SAP and Cloud9 Insight make it all about the individual

Janine Milne Profile picture for user jmilne July 1, 2020
Focusing on individual strengths and minimizing weaknesses is key to creating a thriving workplace for both neurodivergent and neurotypical employees.

(Pixabay )

Businesses have historically tended to hire people who fit in with the company , the proverbial round peg for a round hole.  And if someone wasn’t quite round enough to start with, he or she was expected to mould and shape themselves until they could squeeze into the space. Unique differences had to be left at the reception desk along with the rough edges. 

Fortunately attitudes are changing, in some parts of the tech sector at any rate. There are more and more examples of organizations looking for employees to bring their whole selves to work complete with their different attitudes, experiences and ideas. That means they are also slowly beginning to appreciate the differences that neurodivergent people - those with autism, dyslexia and many others who process information in a different way from the neurotypical majority, as discussed in a previous article

For Carlene Jackson, Chief Executive of CRM provider, Cloud9 Insight - herself dyslexic - it’s key to focus on what individuals can bring rather than following a rigid job spec:

When you have the person, the role has to be fitted round that person, not that you have a job to fill. Otherwise, you’re wasting half of that person.

It’s all about playing to an individual’s strengths and recognizing and compensating for any weak spots, whether that person is neurotypical or neurodivergent. Her own weak spot, says Jackson, rather than reading and writing as you might assume for someone dyslexic, is an inability to remember faces or names. Clearly that’s not ideal when meeting clients, but Jackson’s strategy has been to be upfront and open about it with her employees and her customers:

Dyslexics can be quite disorganized, and really struggle and need to make a huge effort to meet deadlines and to manage their time. So they could be great leaders, but from a task management perspective, shockingly bad. So, you have to be careful that you acknowledge that’s how they are, you are not going to change them, so don’t try. Instead, buddy them up with people who can support or disguise their weaknesses.

Organizations that are good at building high-performance teams value the strengths of everybody and minimize the weaknesses to the point where they are not ever discussed. So you put people in a position of where their strengths are going to come out.”

Creating an inclusive and supportive work environment is clearly key to the company culture at Cloud9. The problem is that people may be reluctant to share any issues they have at the interview stage, in case it hampers their job chances. Jackson notes that the company has a questionnaire for candidates asking if they would like any workplace adjustments to help them - but nobody ever says anything. 

Such workplace adjustments can make a huge difference to an individual’s experience. The modern open plan workspace can be noisy or overwhelming for some people - neurodivergent or not. Future workspaces should have quiet areas for people who want to concentrate, communal areas or tech-free zones, another challenge to add to the 'to do' list for a post-COVID return to the workplace. Many adjustments are very simple - a pair of headphones to minimize noise, for example - and can often cost next-to-nothing to implement.

Culture clubs 

Diversity and Inclusion Architect Toby Mildon believes that creating an inclusive company culture is key. Companies need to invest in education, build inclusive leadership and explicitly state their expectations of the way people should behave at work:

Managers play a really key role here because they are the direct interface with the employee. And I think managers have to do a very good job at listening to employees. Taking autism, for example, a good manager would be good at listening to someone with autism in the team and would also be able to read between the lines as to whether the employee is experiencing any kind of stress. Managers need to take on a kind of coaching style with people to help individuals work through their own situations. Everyone with autism is a unique individual, so it’s important for managers to approach everyone as an individual.

It’s all too easy to make assumptions about other people - that those on the autistic spectrum are good with computers. While SAP, for example, certainly does have software developers who are on the autistic spectrum, this is not the only place in the company you’ll find them, says Brian Duffy, President EMEA North at SAP:

People may think because we’re a technology company, people who are on the spectrum are probably more inclined to do well in the tech market, but we have employees who work in support, finance or operations and are not software developers, but in very different roles.

SAP began its Autism at Work program in 2013 in India. Today, it’s present in 14+ countries and has more than 150 employees working in 27 different types of role. The company partners with local organizations to identify individuals on the autistic spectrum who are looking for work. Each individual has a mentor to work with them and ensure the transition to the workplace works well. Duffy says:

It’s making sure we have the right mentors and managers in place who understand the uniqueness of each individual and the challenges that particular employee may have.

Employees who are entering the workplace don’t just want to hear about purpose, they want to see it, touch it, feel it and see it in action,so companies now have to do a lot more, whether it’s on sustainability, diversity and inclusion or neurodiversity.

Conversation needed

In Mildon’s view - one he outlined in his book Inclusive Growth - there needs to be a change in conversation about diversity and inclusion and for there to be recognition that it is strategically important for achieving growth:

Companies need to make a much better job about being bold about their inclusion aspirations. I don’t think they necessarily need to spell it out like: ‘we want to hire more autistic people’ because that can sometimes come across as a bit tokenistic...They need to be a lot bolder in terms of diversity and value all diversity.  Some companies talk about diversity and when you look at their diversity page on their website they only mention gender.

Organizations truly interestested in increasing their neurodiversity need to see it as any change management project.

If they were implementing a new HR system, like Workday or SAP,  they would have a proper change management process. They would know who their stakeholders were and have their roadmap, but diversity and inclusion isn’t often treated that way, so there’s not rigor around it. 

A lot of people will say this is an HR issue, but it involves the whole organization. You need to get marketing involved for marketing and advertising campaigns, customer service in how they deal with a diverse customer base, procurement so you have an inclusive procurement process. 

My take

It’s good that there’s a growing understanding and appreciation of alternative ways of thinking, as seen by thoughtleaders in this space such as Cloud9 Insight and SAP. But it’s only a start. What’s needed is concerted action to create an inclusive culture that is embedded in the company psyche rather than just another project with a start and end date. Companies need to be in it for the long-term. Making diversity and inclusivity a priority will create a happier and more productive workplace for all, as companies recognize the power of the individual.

Read more on neurodiversity here 

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