Will Autistic behaviour help SAP?

SAP has built a business upon complex software tools and services, it’s impossible to deny that SAP has had immense success. But nothing lasts forever. Once you’ve reached the top of the technology tree, it’s a matter of time before your business is under siege.

Gartner recently revealed that SAP had lost its leadership position in the Customer Relationship Management (CRM) system market. SAP is rightly proud of its long software heritage, but perhaps it is a testament to a new digital economy that an enterprise with 40 years of history, deep funding pockets, and a team of capable and dedicated professionals can fall behind a company literally forged in the blazing furnace of the original dot com bubble.

SAP may have the people and budget to develop amazing tools, but seems to be finding it hard to muster the corporate vision, values and strategy required to meet the threat posed by an upstart entrant to the market.

To their credit, the team at SAP have recognised the threat and seem to be taking steps to combat it. One of the steps being taken is to focus upon specifically hiring workers with autism.

A stereotypical vision of any specialist ‘geek’ team has to include social misfits with communication difficulties. These and other stereotypes have formed the basis for hit comedies such as The IT Crowd and The Big Bang Theory. Sheldon Cooper, a character in The Big Bang Theory has caused controversy in that some believe his idiosyncrasies to be an unfair characterisation of a high-functioning autistic adult.

I don’t know much about autism, and most of that was garnered from watching Rain Man, but it’s generally accepted that autistic individuals have a particular set of skills – such as an obsessive attention to details and the ability to analyse complex sets of data.

The flip side of being somewhere on the autism spectrum is that autism can cause communication difficulties, repetitive behaviours, and even cognitive delays.

In explaining the decision to seek out and train autistic individuals, SAP says that:

Only by employing people who think differently and spark innovation will SAP be prepared to handle the challenges of the 21stCentury.

If that was the strategy that SAP was employing, it would be laudable, but it doesn’t look that way to me.

SAP have actually positioned the vanguard of these intelligent, innovative, detail obsessed individuals as software testers.

Now don’t get me wrong.

I’m not knocking either software testers or software testing as a career. Anybody who has spent any time developing will know that testing is a key link in the development chain. However, testing normally takes place after the requirements have been gathered, agreed, and signed off.

Conversely, innovation needs to be capitalised upon up front in the project process.

Managing the creative and technical process at the start of a software development cycle requires ‘soft’ communication skills. Working as an individual, but also contributing to the team effort, whilst also understanding the driving needs of the people and enterprises you are aiming to serve.

In short, all those things that we are told autistics struggle with are at least as essential to the creative process as pure intellect or analytical ability.

If SAP is really aiming for product innovation, they should be placing their creative thinkers – autistic or not – front and centre right at the very start of product conception and development.

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