At its annual user conference in May 2013, German multinational software giant SAP AG announced plans to hire hundreds of people diagnosed with autism, with a target of having people with autism represent 1% of the company’s work force by 2020.1 The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines autism as a developmental disorder associated with “impairment of the ability to communicate with others” and “preoccupation with repetitive activities of restricted focus.”2 Companies don’t typically seek out these characteristics in new hires. In fact, the social struggles and behavioral patterns that accompany autism often make individuals on the autism spectrum unemployable.3 So why did SAP take this unusual step? As a charitable gesture? An act of corporate citizenship?
Actually, there was a strong business rationale for the decision. “We share a common belief that innovation comes from the ‘edges,’” one SAP executive stated in the company’s press release. “Only by employing people who think differently and spark innovation will SAP be prepared to handle the challenges of the 21st century.”4 More specifically, the company had discovered that some people with autism have abilities that are extremely well-suited to performing some vital information technology tasks. The motivation was to hire people who are among the best in the world at jobs other people are not able to perform as well.
We believe this kind of thinking can be extended much further, to provide significant benefits for companies and society. SAP’s move embodies an emerging management principle — we call it “the dandelion principle” — and offers an alternative way of thinking about human resources management. In some ways, it turns some of the basic tenets about how to recruit and manage people inside out.
Discovering a Gift for Software Testing
SAP’s initiative was inspired by the experience of Danish consulting company Specialisterne, which was founded by one of the authors of this article (Thorkil Sonne). Specialisterne’s clients have included Microsoft, Cisco, SAP and other multinationals. About 75% of its skilled employees have some form of autism spectrum disorder, which makes them well-suited to certain jobs, such as software testing, quality control and security monitoring.
It turns out that there are good reasons for this.
1. See D. Klobucher, “Autism and Asperger’s Are Assets, Not Disabilities, at SAP,” June, 3, 2013, SAP News Center, www.news-sap.com; and “SAP to Work With Specialisterne to Employ People With Autism,” press release, SAP, May 21, 2013.
2. Merriam Webster Online: Dictionary and Thesaurus, www.merriam-webster.com.
3. A. Fradd and I. Joy, “A Life Less Ordinary: People With Autism, A Guide for Donors and Funders,” New Philanthropy Capital (September 2007).
4. “SAP to Work With Specialisterne,” SAP.
5. K.L. Sckerl, “Her kan jeg være mig selv,” Urban, Copenhagen, Denmark, Oct. 10, 2005, 6.
6. “Dandelion Tea Touted as Possible Cancer Killer,” CBC News, February 16, 2012, www.cbc.ca; and “Cancer-Killing Dandelion Tea Gets $157K Research Grant,” CBC News, April 20, 2012, www.cbc.ca.
7. See, for example, J. Jack, “‘The Extreme Male Brain?’ Incrementum and the Rhetorical Gendering of Autism,” Disability Studies Quarterly 31, no. 3 (2011), http://dsq-sds.org/article/view/1672/1599.
8. See R.D. Austin and R.L. Nolan, “Bridging the Gap Between Stewards and Creators,” MIT Sloan Management Review 48, no. 2 (winter 2007): 29-36.
9. “The Organizational Dilemma of Stewards and Creators,” Seattle Innovation Symposium video podcast, released April 23, 2008, https://itunes.apple.com.
10. B. Sterling, “The Wonderful Power of Storytelling” (speech at the Computer Game Developers Conference, San Jose, California, March 1991), http://lib.ru/STERLINGB/story.txt.
11. “Organizational Dilemma,” Seattle Innovation Symposium.
12. J. McGregor, “Zappos Says Goodbye to Bosses,” Washington Post “On Leadership” blog, January 3, 2014, www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/on-leadership.
i. For a more detailed version of this story, see R.D. Austin, J. Wareham and J. Busquets, “Specialisterne: Sense and Details,” Harvard Business School case no 608-109 (Boston: Harvard Business School Publishing, 2008).