09 Feb 2017
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Turning Disorder into Opportunity

Groundbreaking program introduces people with autism into the IT workforce.
Re: Kerry Clarke (AMP 167); Gary Pisano
by Jennifer Myers

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Photo by Lisa Saad

Michael Fieldhouse (AMP 177, 2009) ran past the Anderson Memorial Bridge every morning and took note of the sentiments affixed to its parapet:

May this bridge, built in memory of a scholar and soldier connecting the college yard and playing fields of Harvard, be an ever present reminder to students passing over it of the loyalty to country and alma mater and a lasting suggestion that they should devote their manhood developed by study and play on the banks of this river to the nation and its needs.

In that spirit, Fieldhouse, the director for Emerging Businesses and Federal Government at Hewlett Packard Enterprise Australia (HPE), launched the Dandelion program in 2015, introducing people with autism spectrum disorders into the IT workforce.

Dandelion—an innovative collaboration between HPE and the Department of Human Services and Specialisterne, a Danish social enterprise organization—taps into the talents common among those on the autism spectrum, which include attention to detail, highly focused concentration, perseverance with repetitive tasks, pattern recognition, problem solving, and honesty. These traits are ideal for testing software, as well as for working in the areas of cyber-security and analytics.

“These employees have found errors, faults, and gaps in IT systems that have gone undetected for years,” Fieldhouse says. “This even happened in the first week after their on-boarding.”

In a video produced about the Dandelion Program, Specialisterne founder Thorkil Sonne explained that children are attracted to dandelions, intrigued by them, but as people get older they begin to see them as weeds.

“A weed is really a plant in an unwanted place. If you take that plant to a wanted place you’ll find it’s one of the most valuable plants in nature,” Sonne said. “We are putting people in places where they are comfortable and can excel.”

Forty-five people have been employed through Dandelion, bringing their talents to Australia’s Department of Defence, Department of Human Services, and Department of Immigration and Border Protection. Eleven new recruits are scheduled to start by the end of 2016.

“The Dandelion program is focused on building careers, resilience, and independence for the individuals involved,” Fieldhouse says.

He credits his time at HBS—where he interacted with a diverse group of people, thus opening his eyes to differing perspectives—for the success of the venture. Fieldhouse says HBS professors constantly challenged him and his classmates to think big and consider the impact of their actions.

“I clearly remember the lectures from Michael Tushman about leading organizational change,” he says. “That absolutely contributed to the success of our program.”

From Case Study to Practice

The Dandelion seed was planted three years ago.

“Plop. Plop. Plop.”

Fieldhouse watched as his friend’s non-verbal autistic son dropped pebbles into a pond, one after another for two hours straight.

At first, Fieldhouse was annoyed. But then he paused to listen, realizing that the boy was releasing the small stones at consistent intervals. The young man had a terrific gift for precision and a keen focus, revealing capabilities that reached beyond his disabilities.

The encounter transported Fieldhouse back to his HBS days. He recalled reading a case study about Specialisterne, an organization that was introducing people with autism spectrum disorders into the labor force.

“I started thinking, why not let HPE and our clients benefit from these talented people as well?” Fieldhouse says. “We were potentially leaving talent behind and not enhancing our competitive advantage.”

Late in 2013, Fieldhouse shared the 2007 HBS case study about Specialisterne with Mitch Levy of Australia’s Department of Human Services (DHS), who in turn shared it with his boss, Gary Sterrenberg, chief information officer for DHS. The following day, Sterrenberg asked Fieldhouse to develop a workable concept for a launch of the program.

Fieldhouse connected with Specialisterne to help build Dandelion, and formed an external pro bono advisory board that included fellow HBS alumnus Kerry Clarke (AMP 167, 2004), to assist in defining the outcomes of the initiative, identify risks and issues, and develop the business case.

The two-month recruiting process for the first cohort included reaching out to organizations such as Autism South Australia, targeting verbal individuals age 20 to 30, either with some or no employment experience.

Dandelion began in 2015 with 11 trainees, chosen through the Specialisterne Assessment process, in Adelaide. During the assessment, candidates completed individual and team projects using Lego Mindstorms, as well as undergoing psychometric testing for high-functioning roles such as cyber security, to look at their pattern-recognition, numeric, mechanical, and abstract skills.

Once chosen, the trainees were employed by HPE and then deployed to client sites.

With 1 in 63 Australian school children on the Autism Spectrum, according to Autism Aspergers Advocacy Australia, half of whom have average or higher cognitive abilities, it makes sense to find a way to integrate them into the workforce, Fieldhouse explains.

“Information from our research indicated the employment churn rate for people on the spectrum is extremely high—around 50 percent within three months,” he says. “We didn’t just want to provide them with jobs; we wanted to make the program sustainable, with the hope in the future that the program itself would not be needed, as an organization’s culture and fabric would be able to support this neuro-diversity from recruitment to on-boarding, development, and job progression.”

An analysis of the program prepared by PricewaterhouseCoopers for HPE compared the lives of two people with autism living on their own—one in Dandelion, one not. The person not in the program collects $16,838 a year in government welfare benefits, while the one in Dandelion earns $55,000 annually and pays $9,422 in income taxes, creating a net benefit per year of $28,740 for the individual and $26,260 for the government. Over a 20-year career, for 39 participants, these benefits would generate $67 million in benefits to the government and a total economic benefit of $173 million to the GDP.

The main challenges, Fieldhouse says, came in adapting the culture of the workplace to accept the autistic employees. This was done through autism-awareness training sessions for all employees, and management training for workers engaging directly with the team, to help them understand the talents their new coworkers possessed and the challenges they face.

Because people on the autism spectrum often suffer from sensory issues, workplace assessments were conducted to determine the needs of each Dandelion participant.

“Distraction can come from lighting, noise, and even their chairs. Lighting was adjusted, noise-cancelling headphones provided, and different chairs procured,” Fieldhouse said.

Training sessions were developed to assist the autistic employees with life skills, such as travel planning, financial awareness and nutrition, as well as professional skills like organizational skills, meeting techniques, and email communication.

In addition, attention was focused on strengthening an organization’s ability to sustain neuro-diversity in the workforce.

“This was most challenging, as there had been very little evidence or information on how to build sustainability; but it eventually just becomes part of the norm within the organization,” says Fieldhouse. “We built a manager’s training course; individual development plans that focused on adaptive and executive function skills; workplace performance scales; and transition and career movement plans.”

Fieldhouse says the Dandelion program has been life changing for participants and their families, as the trainees have become more self-confident, as well as financially self-sufficient, giving them a new outlook on life and filling them with an excitement about their futures they had never had before.

The effort has also been an eye-opener for the neuro-typical employees at HPE, including Fieldhouse, who have seen preconceived stereotypes shattered.

“I believe it has made me a better leader and manager, providing clearer communication and becoming better at setting expectations and objectives,” he says.

Earlier this year, Fieldhouse’s Dandelion program became a HBS case study, published by professors Gary Pisano and Robert Austin. It was also honored by the United Nations on World Autism Day.

Fieldhouse is currently piloting a work-experience initiative for college students on the autism spectrum and a primary school Autism Intervention Unit that is based on robotics.

“The goal is for us to identify talent early, so that we can attract students into our graduate program and provide hope to primary schools kids and parents that there will be jobs and an employment future,” he says.

The Dandelion methodology is being open-sourced through Cornell University’s Institute on Employment and Disability, in order to make it more accessible to other organizations interested in implementing the program.

“We have now built a brand, knowledge, and a way of working with the talent, that is only going to strengthen our delivery of products and services to our clients,” Fieldhouse says. “My advice: Don’t think about jobs; think about how to attract and retain talent.The program is not really different from a graduate recruitment program; if you want it to succeed, you need to think long term and invest.”

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