Neurodiversity: the secret to bridging the talent gap in Australia

An untapped market of neurodiverse talent exists largely because of a lack of understanding of this group’s potential and how to include them.

A multiple-exposure shot shows a human profile with gears overlaying and representing the brain.
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Australian CIOs are facing a continuing war for digital talent, specifically people skilled in highly logical and analytical thinking, pattern recognition and mathematics. Without these skills, IT is slower to adopt new technologies in the areas of machine learning, IoT and AI.

This shortage of talent is the biggest inhibitor to digital business, according to Gartner’s 2019 CEO Survey. To bridge the gap, CIOs must seek different perspectives about hiring and look at previously ignored talent pools.

Could neurodiversity be the bridge?

Neurodivergent individuals are those whose brain functions differ from those who are neurologically typical, or neurotypical. These differences can include those labelled as bipolar disorder dyspraxia, dyslexia, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), dyscalculia, autistic spectrum and tourette syndrome.

Global technology companies such as SAP, Microsoft and DXC have well-established neurodiverse talent programs in Australia. Outside tech, organisations in sectors from banking to agriculture now have programs in place to hire and support neurodiverse workers. ANZ Bank’s Spectrum Program invites autistic adults to explore cybersecurity, testing and other roles at the bank. SunPork Farms employs autistic adults with a high attention to detail in specialist animal care roles in its Autism & Agriculture program.

Embracing neurodiversity is not a charity program or a diversity and inclusion (D&I) initiative that provides a branding opportunity. It’s known to strengthen the workforce by enhancing different shades of capability. Neurodiverse people are gifted in many skills that are essential in the digital age.

People with autism, for example, are known to have high logical and analytical thinking, exceptional focus, punctuality and dedication to specific passions or areas of expertise. They also tend to be systematic, meticulous and detailed, enabling them to share unique insights and perspectives in problem solving.

Despite these highly sought-after skills, only 38 per cent of people with autism in Australia are employed, compared with 84 per cent of people without a disability, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics. The unemployment rate for people with autism spectrum disorders was 34.1 per cent, almost eight times the rate of people without disability (4.6 per cent).

An untapped market of neurodiverse talent exists largely because of a lack of understanding of this group’s potential and how to include them. Filtering “in” neurodiverse talent has many benefits for the organisation. Not only will it help to build a bridge over the widening talent gap, but it also has reputational, cultural and social advantages.

Build a business case

The CIO is uniquely positioned to pioneer and champion this initiative. For those that see value in diversity of thought, there’s no more obvious way to gain that than to hire people who literally think differently.

Start by building a compelling neurodiversity business case at the outset — one that has clear value to the organisation. Partner with HR to create a neurodiversity talent strategy to close skills gaps with these highly skilled individuals.

A leading multinational energy corporation, for example, has found that its neurodiverse software testing teams are 30 per cent more productive than their neurotypical counterparts. Also, individuals on the autism spectrum outperform their non-autistic peers, with productivity increases from 48 per cent to 120 per cent.

Incorporating neurodiversity in the workplace does have its challenges. CIOs can’t do this on their own, so it’s critical that a detailed and thorough program is scoped out in partnership with HR for it to be a success. Like any large program of work, it requires funding, resources, deliverables, a timeline, ownership and success measures.

Hiring neurodiverse talent

Ensure the recruitment process is tailored for neurodiverse talent. A rethink of traditional recruitment methods is needed, as is accepting that the process will need to be agile and adaptable as the program evolves.

To create a more diverse IT talent pool, consider targeting and attending neurodiverse career fairs and events; joining neurodiverse online communities for job seekers; and running social media campaigns highlighting the neurodiversity program. Also, think about creating an internal campaign to raise awareness of the program for internal referrals; and reaching out directly to universities and colleges in Australia where strong relationships already exist.

The design of the interview process should enable the candidates to perform at their best. For many, this will be a very new and uncomfortable experience, so make sure proper consideration is given. The interviewers must be educated on the process and encouraged to be flexible to adjust if required.

Importantly, be extra sensitive to the emotional impact a rejection can have. Neurodiverse candidates can respond differently to hiring decisions, so a well-defined feedback plan must be in place and followed. Make sure feedback is clear and actionable, highlighting areas of improvement for the unsuccessful candidate.

Elevate awareness and understanding

As the champion for neurodiversity in IT, CIOs are uniquely positioned to become the catalyst for change, to gain influence across the organisation and to elevate themselves. Prior to neurodiverse talent joining the organisation, ensure that adequate education has been completed so that there is an elevated level of awareness around neurodiversity, not only in IT, but across the organisation.

Employees don’t always recognise how different mental processes might affect an individual’s ability to perform certain tasks. Help existing employees understand what to expect from their new colleagues and explain why they might need accommodations that seem different, so that everyone has a sense of belonging.

Rob O'Donohue is a senior director analyst in Gartner’s CIO Research Group, focusing on leadership, culture and people.

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