–Gail Devers, two-time 100 meters Olympic champion
We all have dreams. But, in so many cases, our dreams often go unfulfilled or only partially realized. Some, however, do manage to achieve, even exceed their dreams in business, science, the arts, politics, sports, and medicine. How do they do it? I expect that most apply some form of the lessons learned in this story, the 8 Steps to Deliver Your Dream.
Ling Huang is president and CEO of Technology North Corporation (TN), an IT firm in Edmonton, Alberta. TN offers IT infrastructure management for local businesses as well as IT consulting services and custom application development and operations. In 2004, Ling and his wife learned their youngest son, Brian, had severe autism spectrum disorder (ASD) with very low verbal language development. ASD is a developmental disability which can cause significant social, communication, and behavioral challenges. According to Health Canada, approximately 1 in 66 children and youth is diagnosed with ASD in Canada. Brian did not appear to have a good prognosis. Most adults with ASD, up to 85%, remain unemployed or underemployed, and it seemed Brian might never have a job or a career. However, his diagnosis decisively shifted the direction TN would travel and opened not only a job but a career pathway for Brian and millions of people like him.
In 2018, Brian graduated from high school having completed the “normal” stream of education alongside his neurotypical (non-ASD) peers. Ling knew that if Brian was to gain and retain employment, he would need to work in a unique setting which would take into consideration his ASD. When Ling’s son joined TN as a junior IT helper, it became clear to Ling why over 85% of the autism population is unemployed or underemployed—verbal communication and employer satisfaction barriers essentially eliminate the opportunity before it can even get started.
To overcome these and other limitations to ASD employment, Ling developed a unique socio-technological solution, “RoboCoach”.
Ling’s long term goal has not been mere employment for individuals with ASD. He says, “Employment is not the end goal. Rather, it is a cornerstone of my dream—a sustainable live-and-work model for high-functioning individuals with autism.” Employment is a feature of a thriving community of individuals with ASD, each with opportunities to grow, and networks of helpful, caring people around them with whom to work and socialize.
In early 2019, Ling started a project called “RoboCoach”, an assistive technology platform to overcome employment barriers faced by youth with ASD. The project was partially funded by the Canadian Federal Industry Research Assistance Program (IRAP). RoboCoach is built on several ASD-focused building blocks developed by TN over the years such as TN ActiveCare (TNAC).
TNAC is an enabling platform and infrastructure for ASD service providers, schools, and parents. It was initiated in 2010 and implemented in the spring of 2011 in response to a request from the Excel Society and the Centre for Autism Services Alberta. These not-for-profit organizations provide support and advocacy for people with mental, physical, and development disabilities in Alberta. Prior to the development of TNAC, their growth to serve additional clients cost-effectively and efficiently was being impeded by their manual paper-based client progress and service delivery tracking processes. TNAC’s tools greatly improved their efficiencies, allowing web-based technologies to provide the logistical heavy lifting. Over the past decade since its adoption by social service providers, TNAC has improved the treatment outcomes of thousands of children in Canada, USA, and Mexico.
RoboCoach is also reliant on joint venture research conducted in 2014 through 2016 with a partner in Mexico called Hydralab. This TN-Hydralab research produced the masBility Framework (see figures 1 and 2, below) aimed at providing employers with tools to enable ASD employment in their establishments. The name, masBility, is a portmanteau from the Spanish word for “more”, mas, plus the English word “ability”. The masBility Framework has at its heart the philosophy that specific easy-to-fulfil actions and states can enable a stable, fulfilling, and profitable employment scenario for youth with ASD, enabling employers to deploy visible talents and unlock many latent capacities of this valuable segment of the Canadian employment pool.
In 2018, after Brian graduated from high school, TN took him on as a junior IT helper. Ling tested the masBility framework with an in-house pilot. The pilot assessed to what degree youth with ASD could successfully complete tasks in a typical IT employment environment. The pilot discovered that when unsupported, the work-task success of youth with ASD was 5% to 15%. When supported by assistive technologies, work-task success increased to between 80% and 90%. A parallel pilot conducted in Guadalajara, Jalisco, Mexico by TN’s partner organization, Hydralab, delivered similar results and has validated the masBility framework.
The masBility pilot resulted in three developments:
- The initial assistive technology stack later developed into RoboCoach;
- The masBility Stakeholder Satisfaction Framework, which has become the foundation of RoboCoach; and
- Enhancement of the masBility Inclusion Framework and Stakeholder Satisfaction Framework.
Figure 1: masBility Key Stakeholder Satisfaction Management Matrix
The masBility Stakeholder Satisfaction Framework (above) identifies the significant outcomes and the elements which can make or break the employment scenario for a particular stakeholder. The masBility Inclusion Framework (below) describes the steps to be taken and the required elements to be in place for employers to reshape their employment contexts to enable inclusiveness in hiring and supporting youth with ASD.
Figure 2: masBility Inclusion Framework
With these fundamental components in place and adding value each day, Ling launched the RoboCoach project in 2019. One of the significant barriers to employing youth with ASD is the cost of job coaches. Job coaches provide the social-empathic bridge between youth with ASD and their line managers in addition to job skills and social skills training. In most ASD employment scenarios, job coaches are typically assigned to work 1:1 with individuals with ASD. With RoboCoach, job coaches can work with a higher number of individuals with ASD, helping keep the work performance of up to 10+ employees at a predetermined level.
RoboCoach provides workers with ASD, their team (job coach, line manager, and guardians) with:
- Multiple tools and channels for team communication;
- Task calendars for family and work to keep track of important events to remember;
- A built-in wiki providing task instruction;
- An incorporated RoboCoach AI chat bot to understand wellbeing.
RoboCoach ensures workers with ASD and their line managers, or paying employers, have many opportunities to strengthen the employment opportunity, enabling satisfaction in performance.
RoboCoach is configurable to tie into work process channels and determine performance in real-time, allowing job coaches and line managers to compare different task performance metrics across timeframes and individuals. When attention wanders, as determined by lengthening time periods between task signposts, RoboCoach redirects attention to the task at hand. Further, TN’s vision is evolving RoboCoach as the enabling infrastructure for independent living. According to Ling, “Independent at work is the same as independent at home.”
In August 2019, Ling started Digital Services (TNDS). Their first offering was a focused autism employment program that hires youth with ASD to perform document digitization using RoboCoach software. TNDS demonstrates how these technologies can assist youth with autism to succeed in the workplace and to achieve the goal of scalable, repeatable, and sustainable employment of youth with ASD.
For most firms, document digitization is a task assigned to a company’s staff on a one-off basis. It suffers from several key challenges. The work is typically approached unsystematically and off the side of workers’ desks. It is frequently perceived as difficult, dull, and endless and it can easily break the spirit of the typical worker. And then there are the staples, the eventual lost pages, the receipts of assorted tiny sizes, and the overall perception that the digitization job was left in an incomplete state and an absolute mess. TNDS resolves all these issues through a well-designed, systematic, scalable approach employing youth with ASD managed through RoboCoach.
TNDS digitizer teams composed of a job coach, an assistant job coach, and four youth with ASD work together to transform physical documents into digital ones. Digitization is an excellent type of work for youth with ASD. Its repetitive nature, requirements for attention to detail, moderate task complexity, and task staging allow youth with ASD to perform high calibre work in a short space of time with very few to no errors and with a minimal of training. TNDS document digitization engages job coaches as team leads who can catch and resolve challenges to ensure team work quality remains at the highest levels.
The quality and speed of service provided by TNDS employees with ASD has positively surprised the social service and business communities in Edmonton. In a few short months, TNDS has started to take off. Law firms, accounting firms, and government agencies are either already signed up or are in the process of signing up to have their documents digitized by the TNDS team. TNDS customers have been showing their appreciation of the teams’ skills with their dollars. TNDS revenue has rocketed from $2,000 in December 2019 to $20,000 in February 2020—evidence that autism employment is not only feasible, but very beneficial for business.
Perhaps the greatest testament to RoboCoach’s impact comes from the parents of one of the document digitization team’s members:
“Our son is a higher functioning young adult with autism and has been employed with TNDS since December 2019. He got introduced to TNDS and this employment opportunity after completing a work place experience program sponsored by the Alberta Autism Society and Employment Works Canada in the summer of 2019. The results of him integrating into and thriving in this position have been nothing short of fantastic! TNDS has created a supportive and nurturing environment for these young adults to complete their work efficiently and competently. For our son, this is his opportunity to engage in meaningful employment and truly have a long term career with TNDS. The mechanism for him to earn money, have a daily purpose, learn team work skills and support his goal of living independently is beyond measure. We are so blessed to have him involved with TNDS and can’t thank the management and staff at TNDS enough in providing him this opportunity!”
Through word-of-mouth, parents have been calling TNDS from as far away as Calgary, Ottawa, British Columbia, and California. The challenges for creating sustainable employment for youth with ASD are universal. TN’s solution is designed to be scalable, repeatable and sustainable with significantly reduced support costs. It offers the promise of placing a very large group of youths with ASD into a respectable employment environment in the digital economy. Critically, however, TNDS employees are not merely thrust into an employment scenario with wishes and hopes for good fortune. They are trained, mentored and supported from the moment they enter the doors of TNDS. They are guided through each step of the digitization process with the RoboCoach platform built upon the masBility frameworks.
TNDS started with document digitization to clearly illustrate the many employable skills of youth with ASD, to open space for these youth to proudly stand next to their neurotypical colleagues, and to address an immediate business need. In the future, TNDS plans to offer other digital services under the same business model and brand, including software QA testing and junior IT management. The opportunities, in fact, are endless! And my family doctor, with her rows and rows of paper files, could sure use TNDS’s services right about now! I would say Ling and his team have come a long way towards delivering his dream!
How a Great Leader Delivered
Mark Cuban, the American billionaire, entrepreneur and owner of the National Basketball Association's Dallas Mavericks, once said, “It doesn't matter how many times you fail. You only have to be right once and then everyone can tell you that you are an overnight success.”
Ling’s TNDS looks like an overnight success doesn’t it? In reality, it is based on years of passion and perseverance. Ling had a dream. He has pursued that dream over more than a decade to address a need in the ASD community. As a by-product, he is also addressing a societal need and a business need. How did he deliver his dream? The following factors were major contributors:
- We know what we know and we don’t know what we don’t know – Remember Donald Rumsfeld’s speech in 2002 about the purported weapons of mass destruction leading up to the Iraq war? “There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don't know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don't know we don't know”. Ling and his team dealt with those uncertainties beautifully to arrive at the current state. They leveraged what they knew. They learned what they needed to learn. They built expertise incrementally, finding out what they didn’t know along the way and plugging those knowledge gaps while delivering real value.
- The best way to predict the future is to create it – Ling Huang could have said that. Instead, it was Abraham Lincoln. Ling just modelled the behaviour. Repeatedly. Driven by his dream and his unwavering passion.
- It's a journey, not a destination –The road to the current state was a path filled with potholes and pitfalls, continuous learning on a multitude of fronts and enough successes to keep the fire burning. Persistence was the glue that kept Ling and his team stuck to the vision.
- Know your subject matter – Ling was a business owner and technologist. He became knowledgeable about ASD though research, analysis, synthesis and action. He and his firm have become a continuous learning machine.
- Collaborate – Look at the masBility frameworks and the players and perspectives involved. TN has collaborated with their clients, among clients, and across organizations and industries. They have reused extensively, including proven processes, practices, ideas, templates, frameworks, reports, and whatever else can improve quality, accelerate results and reduce costs.
- Do it fast - It is better to deliver something of value, quickly, learn from the experience and incrementally build a solution that fits. Ling connected his dream to market reality and pursued the low-hanging fruit. RoboCoach is a perfect example. The initial implementation is yielding value now. Three more releases are planned for this year to take further advantage of what has been learned.
- Know your stakeholders – The success of the RoboCoach initiative is directly attributable to the embedded knowledge and awareness of all relevant stakeholders in the TNDS DNA. They live and breathe stakeholder engagement to the fullest.
- Build an amazing team – TNDS would not have been successful with the RoboCoach initiative without an amazing team of passionate participants, a diverse array of critical skills, and the resolute commitment of all involved.
So, if you have a dream, do as Ling has been doing: leveraging his passion and the lessons he has learned on his journey. Also remember, use Project Pre-Check’s three building blocks covering the key stakeholder group, the decision management process and the Decision Framework right up front so you don’t overlook these key success factors.
Finally, thanks to everyone who has willingly shared their experiences for presentation in this blog. Everyone benefits. First time contributors get a copy of one of my books. Readers get insights they can apply to their own unique circumstances. So, if you have a project experience, a favorite best practice, or an interesting insight that can make a PM or change manager’s life easier, send me the details and we’ll chat. I’ll write it up, and, when you’re happy with the results, Project Times will post it so others can learn from your insights.