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DMA : Why neurodiverse individuals could help plug skills gaps within the data and marketing industry

by on February 13, 2019 in Digital Marketing, Latest News, Lead Article, Lead story, News you can use, Nuggets, Research

DMA : Why neurodiverse individuals could help plug skills gaps within the data and marketing industry

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

There is increasing demand within the data and marketing industry for analytical, data-minded individuals, which 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 with 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

Neurodiversity is essentially a collective term used to describe people who think differently to the majority and is often used in relation to neurodevelopmental conditions such as ADHD, dyslexia, dyspraxia and autism – to name a few.

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. Over three quarters (77%) who are unemployed say they want to work.

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 are 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.

A poll conducted by CIPD in 2018, the professional body for HR and people development, found that 10% of HR professionals in the UK say consideration of neurodiversity is included in their organisation’s people management practices.

Alarmingly, 72% of HR professionals said that consideration of neurodiversity wasn’t even included. Given around 10% of the UK population is neurodivergent in some way, more needs to be done to support neurodiversity at work.

There is a huge opportunity for data and marketing teams across the UK. As summarised by Robin Huggins, Head of MBN Academy / Data Lab MSc. Placement Programme at MBN Solutions.

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

Robin is Talent Chair for DMA Scotland and has been working with the DMA Group to raise diversity awareness within the data and marketing industry.

A neurodiverse perspective

Ed Downham, Senior ETL Developer – DLG Data Team, Direct Line Group discusses his experiences over the past 20 years

Ed was diagnosed with autism as an adult. He has become an autism awareness advocate over a number of years for Direct Line 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).

Over 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, in terms of general awareness and understanding.

“When I first applied to work for Direct Line Group over 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.

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, it is 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, Ed 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. 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, the questions 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?’

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.”

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 names of places and find them on a map. Both my memory retention and attention to detail are beneficial with tasks that I am engaged with.

I have an 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 so 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.

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, Ed 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.

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.”

Adjustments that will make an impact

By making some straightforward adjustments to recruitment procedures and working conditions, employers can make their organisation more welcoming for all employees, not just neurodiverse individuals.

A proactive approach will help send a positive message throughout your organisation that individuality is respected. Additionally, it could prevent unnecessary costs and logistical difficulties that could arise when implementing changes at a later date.

It has been estimated that the average cost of adjustment for a person with dyslexia is £727, the average cost of replacing an employee is over £4,000.

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’.

Most of the recommendations that Matt makes during his training workshops encourage communication, improve productivity and reduces stress.

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 aims to help the data and marketing industry bridge a number of skills gaps, while gaining access to an untapped, highly skilled talent pool at the same time.

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