“I truly believe if we have an inclusive culture we will be able to cope with changes a lot better,” says Anka Wittenberg, chief diversity and inclusion officer at SAP.
There have been exponential changes in the way people communicate and consume things, part of the ongoing digital transformation across the globe, says Wittenberg, as she explains the backdrop of SAP's Autism at Work programme.
Wittenberg has been leading the SAP Autism at Work since its launch in 2013. The programme enables people with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) to find qualified work in the technology company.
The programme currently employs more than 120 staff for over 22 positions in 10 countries: Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, the Czech Republic, Germany, India, Ireland and the United States.
SAP New Zealand is the 11th country to integrate people with autism into the workforce.
SAP aims to recruit 650 people on the autism spectrum to fill various roles in the company.
SAP, with 93,000 people, is focusing on diversity and inclusion, she explains.
She points out a new research by Bersin of Deloitte finds that companies that are truly inclusive are six times more likely to cope with change and six times more likely to be innovative.
Where they excel is cybersecurity...They have the analytical ability, [are] looking at things laterally.
“Everybody has a talent, we need different perspectives, we need the diversity, the different skill sets,” she says, at a roundtable discussion to launch SAP’s Autism at Work programme in New Zealand.
We are competing for the same talent with other technology companies such as Microsoft, Google and Oracle, she adds. “Clearly, there are so many advantages for us if we take this very seriously.”
She says SAP’s focus is on diversity in four areas: gender, generations (with five different generations in the workforce), culture and identity, and differently abled (which includes disability).
Autism at Work is across two tracks - culture and differently abled.
She says the programme was started as a grassroot initiative by an SAP employee group in India. The group had sponsored iPads for children who were nonverbal. She says SAP then met with the Autism Society of India to learn more about autism. “How can we include this in an IT company that is struggling for talent?”
She says at that time, the European Union had noted that there are not enough people to fill in jobs that include software testing, quality assurance and compliance management.
We will have 350 million people with disability in the workforce over the next 10 years, she says, quoting a Gartner report on the topic.
She says this is partly due to technology, and with the school curriculum being available online, many people can now access higher education.These include people with autism, which she defines as a developmental disorder that impairs the ability to communicate and interact.
She says 85 per cent of people diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders are unemployed even though 60 per cent have average to above average cognitive abilities. Many of those employed are also under employed or partially employed.
More males are diagnosed with autism, with one female for every four persons diagnosed with autism.
She says the Autism at Work programme at SAP has impacted the organisation in many ways.
Wittenberg says mainstream recruitment processes look at people who have good communication skills and who are team players. “We learned through this programme this may not work.”
“This means we have changed the way we recruit, the way we onboard, the way we prepare our employees and create awareness on autism.”
“It looks wonderful on paper, but we have had so many bloodied noses,” she says, on the challenges of running the programme.
She says the programme has been used as a business case by Harvard Business School and this is now being used in 90 per cent of MBA programmes worldwide.
She says Gartner has also cited the programme in a 2016 Mavericks report From Disability to Superability, Society and the Workplace Are Changing.
Global enterprises are starting bold plans to hire people with disabilities, wrote Gartner analysts Melanie Lougee, Andrew Johnson and Pete Basiliere.
The Gartner report says the SAP programme aimed to create competitive differentiation by attracting unique talents of people with autism while also helping this under-represented talent pool to join the workforce.
Three years later, SAP has hired 104 people to perform diverse tasks in HR, finance, IT, marketing and development, among other departments.
Within a year of being at SAP, one of the employees hired through the programme won the Palo Alto (California) Hackathon, after having been underemployed for 13 years. Another employee hired through the programme filed for a patent with his manager, having also been there less than a year.
A four-person team, which included an employee with autism, created an innovation that will save SAP US$40 million annually and will save customers thousands of dollars annually, according to Gartner.
SAP NZ will work with the DXC Dandelion Programme, Life Without Barriers and JobLife Employment, a social enterprise working in more than 440 communities in ANZ, in implementing the programme.
Dr Hilary Stace, researcher, Health Services Research Centre at Victoria University, says the autism spectrum is very wide. One may be nonverbal and needs help, and one can be a university professor.
Predictability and order are important, and repetition will help them with understanding. All sorts of triggers can cause anxiety, she points out.
“Clear and predictable rules and routines can help,” she says. “These are key to successful employment.”
Dr Rosamund Hill, Researcher, Minds for Minds, Autism Research Network New Zealand, explains why persons with autism may find a natural affiliation to IT. For people in the autism spectrum, the world is unpredictable, but computers are not. And if those computers don’t work there is a reason they don’t work, she says.
Clear and predictable rules and routines can help...These are key to successful employment.
Michael Fieldhouse, DXC Dandelion Programme executive, says the company employs seven full-time employees with autism.
He says roles people in the autism spectrum can perform include cybersecurity, software testing, machine learning and artificial intelligence.
"Where they excel is cybersecurity,” says Fieldhouse. “They have the analytical ability, [are] looking at things laterally. That is very very important in understanding if an event happens, what happened three years ago?”
They are persistent, constantly going through things and are meticulous, he states.
Wittenberg says it is important for organisations hiring these differently abled people to provide ongoing high quality support.
This is also highlighted by the Gartner report.
It calls on organisations to work with their CTOs and HR leaders to "prepare for new technologies and programmes that mitigate deficiencies (perceived or real) that have been keeping people with disabilities from the workforce".
They are also urged to develop relationships with recruiting and support organisations that specialise in placing people with disabilities.
"Ensure that technology, transportation and program budgets are created to support the success of people with disabilities within your workforce, and that benefits policies and programmes are attractive to people with unique needs," advises Gartner.
Organisations must understand that technology is shifting to address disabilities, and embrace the changes by identifying areas in which they would benefit from an additional perspective or alternative work arrangements.
“Change hiring practices to ensure that the ability of candidates is most prized,” the report states.
“Consider whether your definition of an ideal candidate could be a barrier to a qualified person with a disability — either on paper or in programmed candidate searches. Allow for innovative interview and hiring practices that could help people with transportation challenges or social anxiety.”