Don’t Leave Talent on the Table

Dandelion Have you ever made the mistake of leaving talent on the table when hiring or staffing? If so, you should consider what Robert Austin has to say in the video below about the Danish software testing company, Specialisterne. This company recruits and retains a workforce that is uniquely suited to the rigors of software testing. What’s so special about their staff?  Most have been diagnosed with some form of autism. It’s important to note is that this company’s business model is not based primarily on grudging accommodation of people outside the norm. Rather it’s built on “using the characteristics of people with autism as a competitive advantage.” Here’s the company’s extraordinary story in its own words:

At Specialisterne, people with autism work in an environment where they are presented with the best possible opportunities to reach their potential. They don’t have to learn to adapt to the usual working-environment norms, such as being a good team player, being empathetic, handling stress well and showing flexibility. These are not the usual characteristics for people with autism; a fact that usual[ly] results in their being excluded long-term from the labour market. Instead, Specialisterne welcomes the very differences and character traits that are so often seen as a stigma.

Putting it simply; at Specialisterne, not fitting in is a good thing. The traits that usually exclude people with autism from the labour market are the very traits that make them valuable employees at Specialisterne, such as attention to detail, zero tolerance for errors and a persistence to get the job done. We don’t see them as people with an autism diagnosis; rather, we see them as true specialists, which is why we refer to them as “specialist people”. Imagine a world where someone who was once defined by their diagnosis, would instead be defined as a “specialist person” ?

As Austin notes in the video, companies that pass over idiosyncratic talent in favor of more well-rounded or complete talent end up “leaving talent on the table.” They may settle for uncomplicated and reasonably good over slightly more challenging but brilliant.  According to Austin, one way to ensure that you don’t leave talent on the table is to check yourself every time you find yourself sacrificing talent for ease within your context when hiring and staffing.  To explain the importance of context he paraphrases Thorkil Sonne, founder of Specialisterne, who uses the metaphor of a dandelion:

The dandelion is generally considered to be a weed. However, dandelions can be valuable: they have medicinal properties and can be used to make a salad, a coffee substitute and wine, among other things. Therefore, the dandelion’s essential characteristics are not what makes us view the plant as a weed, but rather the context in which we find it. A dandelion in a lawn is unwelcome, while a dandelion in an herb garden is likely to be nurtured. Similarly, companies may consider people with autism to be unemployable because those companies have been forcing these people into inappropriate and unsupportive contexts. Change the context and then you realize the benefits.

In these days of shrinking budgets, do you want a minimally competent but unremarkable team, or should you be thinking about the competitive advantage you gain by hiring idiosyncratic talent? While idiosyncratic talent may require gifted managers, Specialisterne demonstrates the benefits of this unconventional approach.

They don’t leave talent on the table.

[Photo Credit: Code Poet]


Staffing is a KM Issue

We’ve been told for years that half of the battle of management (of any sort) is to ensure that you hire the right people for the right jobs. When you do, there’s no need to supervise them obsessively or breathe down their necks. This is because they generally know what needs to be done and, more importantly, want to do what needs to be done. So your objectives and theirs are perfectly aligned.

Now we have a stunning example of what happens when a particular job is perfectly matched to the skills and temperament of an employee. The case in point has to do with software testing — a task that few creative genius code writers like to do. As a result, we’re told that far too much software gets implemented before the bugs are found and fixed. This results in unnecessary cost and unnecessary end-user abuse.

The Harvard Business School’s Working Knowledge has published a summary of a fascinating case study, entitled “A Surprising Right Fit for Software Testing,” focusing on an innovative Danish company, Specialisterne. This company carries out software testing on behalf of other organizations that have written the code and need to be sure it is ready to implement. The company undertakes testing that its clients cannot do simply or inexpensively using available automated testing methods. Specialisterne’s strength is that unlike most IT organizations, its employees have a special gift that allows them to excel at testing: 75% of its employees have Asperger’s syndrome or autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Software testing involves tasks code writers might describe as repetitive or tedious. Their prejudice aside, these tasks in fact require “high intelligence, precision-oriented skills, deep concentration, and patience” all of which sometimes accompany Asperger’s or ASD.

The study, Specialisterne: Sense & Details, is a wonderful example of how careful hiring and staffing can have an enormously positive impact on the quality of the work done. Specialisterne’s testing is more thorough than that undertaken half-heartedly by code writers or other software specialists who would rather be doing anything other than testing. Moreover, through careful hiring and staffing, Specialisterne is able to deploy people who have a predisposition to enjoy the work they do.

So why is this a KM issue? To be fair, it’s an issue for every discipline. However, knowledge management seems particularly prone to failure in this regard given the wide range of KM job descriptions, and the fact that KM jobs often shapeshift mid course. Further, very few KM jobs involve conveyor-belt type tasks. Often they require deep substantive knowledge, flexibility, a willingness to operate in ambiguity, the ability to absorb, process and connect seemingly unconnected information, the gift of establishing order from chaos, and superior interpersonal skills. And if you hire someone who doesn’t have the right skills and temperament, they either don’t last or they stay and compromise your knowledge management systems by their deficiencies.

Drawing on the experience of Specialisterne, I wonder what type of person makes the best knowledge manager?