Can Neurodiversity Enable Scotland’s Pursuit of Data-driven Innovation?

Neurodiversity Scotland Data innovation

Kate Burnett, MD of DMA Talent, discusses why businesses should become more neurodiverse-friendly to tap into an underutilised talent pool.

Kate Burnett - MD of DMA Talent

In recent years the Scottish Government has been a strong supporter of the technology, data and marketing industries.

The value of the digital economy in Scotland was estimated to be £4.45 billion in 2014 and data-driven innovation alone has the potential to deliver £20 billion of productivity benefits for the economy over the next five years. A talented, diverse talent pool will be a key component that will help businesses realise this potential.

However, while there is an increasing demand within the data and marketing industry for analytical, data-minded individuals, this could lead to the talent pool becoming stretched.

The Institute of Direct and Digital Marketing’s (IDM) ‘Professional Skills Census 2018’ report highlights ‘data-related skills’ as a key area within skills gaps that need to be addressed. There are a number of areas within ‘data-related skills’ that marketers identified as growing in importance in the future, including analysing customer data/insight, data analysis & reporting, data & database management.

An Underutilised Talent Pool

According to the National Autistic Society, there are around 700,000 people on the autism spectrum in the UK, of those, just 16% of autistic adults are in full-time, paid employment.

Senior decision-makers, line management and HR teams are unlikely to be experts on neurodiversity, as there is limited research, best practice and training for this.

That is why DMA Talent is working with subject matter experts to help define best practice and we have been advised on a number of straightforward adjustments to recruitment procedures and working environments that can be made.

Matthew Trerise, who has 15 years’ experience working with individuals on the autism spectrum, will be leading the training workshops. Since 2009, he has worked in a specialised NHS diagnostic service to help develop their diagnostic programme and assist businesses with their training.

He has advised multiple employers, including the HMRC, on alterations they should make to become more ‘neurodiverse friendly’.

Industry Perspectives

Ed Downham, senior ETL developer – DLG Data Team at Direct Line Group, was diagnosed with autism as an adult and has become an autism awareness advocate over a number of years for the Group. He is now a valued member of the neurodiversity strand of their ‘Diversity Network Alliance’ which promotes diversity and equal opportunities within the company.

More than 20 years ago, Ed Downham joined Direct Line Group in their Customer Contact Centre. He has witnessed a number of changes in his working life and to public perceptions of autism over the past 20 years, both in terms of general awareness and understanding.

“When I first applied to work for Direct Line Group more than 20 years ago, I was entered into a four-stage recruitment process for a position in the call centre. As with a lot of recruitment processes back then, even to this day sadly, I strongly believe that many of the tasks asked of us were not relevant to the role and would not help someone like me to thrive,” he says.

“For example, the phone interview asked a series of questions that were rather long-winded and didn’t necessarily link to the stated day-to-day activities. Not only is this a challenge for anyone being recruited, but it is also especially difficult if you have autism. I tend to struggle with conversations where someone isn’t being direct and transparent with what they are asking of me.”

Unfortunately, Downham encountered a number of challenges throughout the recruitment process and some of these issues still exist today in the professional world.

“Another example comes from the next task, the assessment day”, Downham says. “We were required to get into groups for this and enter into various discussions – guided by pre-determined questions. Not only were these group exercises not relevant to the role, but the questions also weren’t particularly beneficial to our learning of what would be expected of us if we were to be successful.

“I asked myself, ‘What is the point of all of this?'”

Downham adds: “They then followed up with a spelling test and competency-based interview. I felt that the interview was basically telling me – ‘here are our values, do you fit in with us?’

“In terms of the group task, I was told that I had weaknesses in understanding conversation cues and that I was strongly opinionated, sometimes without listening to others. To this day, I can sometimes struggle with this because I don’t process subliminal signals like others.

“This isn’t me being arrogant or ignorant, I just don’t interpret cues as others perhaps expect. During the interview, I also struggled with small talk, expressed minimal eye contact and couldn’t really process the interviewer’s facial expressions.

“It’s not that I can’t understand emotions or have an interest in others; it is just that I need people to be direct and clear about what they want from me – if I see the purpose of something, I can then get behind it! Back then, no-one would have even thought about whether this was best practice in terms of neurodiversity.”

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It is important for businesses to realise an individual’s true potential as it may not always be a case of having the wrong candidate, it could be that the employer is not asking the right questions.

Interestingly, I had some hidden strengths that they picked up on which may now be expected with someone with autism. I scored very highly on the spelling test, for example, as we were expected to remember the names of places and find them on a map,” he explains.

“Both my memory retention and attention to detail are beneficial with tasks that I am engaged with. I have the ability to see things that others may not because I will not take things for granted in terms of expectations. I treat everything as something that is alien to me and I fixate on them as if I had never seen them before. This is great for tasks in analytics and data processing as I will often spot patterns, anomalies and differences that others perhaps may not.”

Recommended: Championing Gender Diversity in Tech: An Interview with Graeme Smith

“I was offered the role in the contact centre but soon realised that it wasn’t for me and have moved across various departments within Direct Line Group – from resource planning to data analytics. I believe my skill set has been hugely beneficial to the data team at Direct Line Group that I now work in, as I have become a mentor and source of guidance for many members of the team from a technical perspective. The Group showed faith in me back then, and I am now confident that I have paid this back in abundance with my work over the past 20 years.”

Luckily, Downham did not slip through the net and his talents are being utilised to such a degree that he is now able to mentor others.

“I am fortunate enough to have found my niche in the professional world – data programming,” he says. “Direct Line Group have really helped me here and I want to return the favour for future generations, so they don’t engage with the same struggles and, at times, difficult periods of life that I had because I wasn’t the same as everyone else in ways that were expected of me.”

Neurodiversity Awareness

Mark Evans, Chief Marketing Officer at Direct Line Group, has been a hugely influential neurodiversity awareness advocate over the past few years within the data and marketing industry. He is extremely passionate about diversity in general and is working with the Direct Line Group to reform some of their working practices.

“There is a common misconception that associated conditions of neurodiversity can often be synonymous with mental health or even social isolation,” Evans says. “This may be true for some but this isn’t representative of the majority. In any case, it is all about tailoring working environments for individuals – not just what is convenient for the majority. It still continues to surprise me today how much a person can thrive in the right conditions, given the right support.”

Evans adds: “Direct Line Group, from a recruitment perspective, are keen to create a level playing field for anyone who wants to work for us. It is something we are reviewing, and have been for some time, to ensure we are always progressing.

“Taking Ed’s example, we understand that group tasks may not be ideal or comfortable for someone with autism, or even on-the-spot questions. So, if their job role doesn’t require this from them why are we putting this in the recruitment process? Recruitment should very much be individualistic, where possible, we should be creating an environment for someone to thrive – not to catch them out or test them in ways that just aren’t relevant to their role.”

Recognising Challenges

Robin Huggins, Head of MBN Academy and the Data Lab MSc Placement Programme at MBN Solutions, is Talent Chair for DMA Scotland and has been working with the DMA Group to raise diversity awareness within the data and marketing industry.

“Embracing Diversity within talent pools is critical for organisations looking to ‘future proof’ themselves against shortages in essential skills,” Huggins asserts. “Neurodiverse individuals can contribute greatly to organisational goals.

“However, we must ensure that as a community we recognise the challenges that neurodiverse individuals may face within their pathways to employment and look to adapt and assist wherever possible.”

Looking Ahead

We need to raise awareness of neurodiversity and provide a platform where consultation is available and best practice is continuously developed. DMA Talent’s Neurodiversity Initiative may be the start of a movement that will help the industry to bridge a number of skills gaps, while gaining access to a vast, highly skilled talent pool at the same time.

DMA Talent is scheduled to run training sessions in Scotland in February 2019 – please get in touch to check availability!

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