Sapphire Now 2018 - speed up tech projects, hire people on the autism spectrum

Madeline Bennett Profile picture for user Madeline Bennett June 7, 2018
SAP, EY and American Airlines share the many benefits of building neurodiverse teams.

Autism panel SAP
Panelists at Sapphire

Typically when organizations build diversity programs, it’s gender, sexuality and race that are the focus. So it was great to have the opportunity this week at SapphireNow to hear about companies broadening out their efforts to include the differently abled, specifically those on the autism spectrum.

SAP’s Autism at Work program is just one element of its all-encompassing diversity and inclusion strategy, which covers gender, cross-generational, culture and identity, and differently-abled people (Cath Everett recently covered the latter in wider detail.).

According to Anka Wittenberg, SAP Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer, Autism at Work has been spurred on by some very practical goals. SAP is aware that its workforce needs to reflect the diversity of its customers -  within the next 10 years, 350 million people with a disability will enter the workplace - while research has shown that companies which are truly inclusive are six times more likely to be innovative and agile.

In a bid to encourage lots more companies to start their own similar schemes, SAP shared the stage during Sapphire Now with three other organizations all running their own projects to support people on the spectrum, yet borne out of quite different objectives.

Supply chain company Kinaxis rolled out its Autism at Work program two years ago, based quite closely on the SAP model. It was aimed at helping not only individuals on the spectrum, but also their families and the communities around them. But the scheme has also helped Kinaxis to solve recruitment problems it was facing. Megan Paterson, VP of HR at Kinaxis, explains:

We’re really able to access a talent pool that wasn’t readily available. Specifically in R&D in our technical areas, we really struggle with finding great talent. A lot of people on the spectrum are very intelligent and smart and motivated and great at solving problems.

It really brings a fresh perspective to our innovation. It’s been a win-win from almost every side.

Efficiency was the catalyst for professional services firm EY’s Neurodiversity scheme, which also took its lead from SAP’s program. The plan was to set up a Center of Excellence for the most time-consuming projects across various lines of business.

Hiren Shukla, EY Americas Automation Center of Excellence Leader, explains that when he started on the journey at the start of 2016, he had no personal connection to autism; he simply ran a business unit and was specifically looking at ROI. However, EY quickly realized that the benefits were much broader. Shukla says:

It has been exponential in the engagement of our own employees, innovation in solutions, actually looking at solutions and problems in a very different way than we’ve ever looked at them before. And it’s really brought a level of authenticity in the marketplace.

Every organization wants the customer base in the market to think of them as being a purpose-driven organization. A lot of companies say they are, but there are very few examples of that. Our Neurodiversity Center at EY really became this front-facing example that we take to our clients in how we say we’re going to build a better working environment.

Projects expected to take two to five weeks are now being completed in five days, thanks to the focus of individuals on the spectrum, while both teams and managers perform better when people on the spectrum are involved. Shukla adds:

We’ve been going out and telling customers about it. It’s an extremely engaging conversation. It’s almost as if I have a magic key, I can open any door or conversation because it’s genuine, it’s authentic, it’s creative, it’s innovative, it engages the heart and the mind.

Children and planes

American Airlines (AA) has taken a different tack with its program, which aims to acclimatize children with autism for flight. The airline’s Abilities Group designed the scheme in 2014, which covers everything from getting to the terminal, airport check-in, going through security clearance and sitting at the gate to boarding the plane, watching flight attendants do the safety demos, hearing the engines rev up, pulling away from the gate and sometimes even taxiing around the airport.

The entire program is run by staff volunteering their own time, and AA has run the project in 40 cities so far.

Mike Waldron, Managing Director, Inclusion and Diversity at American Airlines, says the experience has proved life changing for families with children on the spectrum, giving them the opportunity to see how their child will react to air travel, and letting them take holidays or attend milestones events they would have otherwise had to miss:

They’ve told us we’ve opened the doors to the world for them and their children.

While AA initially looked at incremental revenue returns from the scheme, to see whether those families were travelling more, the airline quickly moved away from that as a measure of success.

Continued engagement, customer service feedback and the number of cities asking to do it are now the metrics, along with the realization of the magnitude of the impact. Waldron notes that off the back of being involved in the program, one airport has redesigned how its lines are structured to accommodate people on the spectrum and those with disabilities, while another has revamped its curriculum for new hires, including a module on handling differently abled customers.

The Autism at Work schemes have brought unforeseen benefits for the wider workforce. As a result of EY updating its sourcing and training program to support people on the spectrum, the firm began organizing itself in a way that was beneficial for the neurodiverse and neurotypicals alike, giving more clarity and instructions upfront.

Managers have become better leaders to both groups as well, through communication improvements. Shukla shared an anecdote about a manager who said he’d be back in two minutes, but then didn’t come back until six minutes later. He was called out by the team:

Saying what you mean and meaning what you say is so critical. Communication is so important.

For those interested in rolling out their own Autism at Work scheme, Paterson advises ensuring it’s a continuous project, rather than put in place once and then forgotten about. Firms should also communicate with and train all employees about the scheme and needs of those on the spectrum, not just those who will manage neurodiverse people. She adds:

It requires a total shift in mindset, reimagining how you hire, train and manage people.

Kinaxis partnered with a non-profit autism specialist to set up a framework and put best practices in place. This approach has paid off: Kinaxis reached its goal of having one percent of its employees on the spectrum within the first year.

Along with partners SAP and Microsoft, EY is on a mission to see many more organizations set up similar schemes. The rewards on offer are well worth the effort required, Shukla notes:

If your company is not doing this, you are missing out. The ROI on this is three or four-fold. We’re ready to help you, we are going to open source all the information. We’re committed to building a better working world, take advantage of us. We’d love to help you guys. This is an extremely powerful story. If you’re not in this space, you need to be.

My take

What I found most impressive here was the willingness of these firms to set themselves clear targets around employing a certain number of people on the spectrum; and their eagerness to help other businesses set up their own Autism at Work programs, for no financial return.

We clearly need many more talented technology workers as we move towards 4IR and a world of automation. I hope many other organizations will take Shukla up on his offer.

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