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Hunting down the innovators

Published on Friday, 27 Apr 2012
David Wu
Rebecca Ray

An Asia-wide talent crunch is presenting fruitful opportunities for innovative thinkers, according to two landmark CEO surveys released in March. The Conference Board’s CEO Challenge 2012 and PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) 15th Annual Global CEO Survey 2012 show a dearth of skilled employees and innovative talent which may actually limit corporate growth in the following year, with pharmaceuticals, insurance and technology among the hardest hit. 

A noteworthy 24 per cent of the 2,158 CEOs polled in the PwC survey said talent constraints had led to cancellation or delay of a key strategic initiative while 43 per cent said talent-related expenses rose more than expected in 2011. Given theses setbacks, it is of little surprise that 79 per cent of the PwC respondents said they would adjust their strategies for managing talent in 2012.

The Conference Board report, which asked 776 CEOs to rank their greatest challenges, revealed similar findings. Of the respondents polled in Asia, most cited innovation and human capital as their leading concerns.

The US-based Conference Board is a global, independent business membership and research association.

David Wu, PwC China’s lead partner for Beijing, surmises that the problem in this part of the world is largely historical, with a weak talent pipeline supplying top positions.

“China only reopened its universities 30 years ago,” he says, noting that his own class of 1985 was probably the first to take any kind of Western management masters’ programme.

Wu says the situation is not improving. Of the seven million university graduates that China produces every year, the brightest will join government, he says. “It’s an amazing trend that’s very different from other countries.”

This desire to serve in government exacerbates the shortfall for corporations, especially private local companies, says Wu. Short of a government post, graduates tend to opt for positions at state-owned enterprises, multinationals and international professional-services companies.  

Rebecca Ray, senior vice-president for human capital at The Conference Board, draws  similar conclusions about the rest of Asia,  bar India, but says  corporations only have themselves to blame.

“If CEOs bemoan the lack of current available talent, what is going to change that in the next few years? This is not a quick fix. I don’t see many speaking concretely about the work they do in partnership with academic institutions,” she says.

Aside from sheer numbers, a shortage of skills – leadership and the ability to innovate in particular – also plagues much of the region, especially China.

Wu attributes this to the Chinese education system, which he feels is not built to produce innovative leaders. “Our education system is designed for following, for obeying, for not standing out. That makes it a challenge for us to produce good people with the talent to lead and innovate,” he says. 

However, Ray sees a deeper – and more global – issue: many CEOs fail to regard innovation as a separate department or discipline.

If there’s an exception, it would be CEOs at Indian companies, she says, noting that many stand out for their willingness to promote a genuine company-wide culture of innovation.

As an example, Ray cites a group of Indian engineers who redesigned a multinational company’s complex medical scanner to better suit the rickety pickup trucks used to transport the product to the local market. “I’m sure those engineers weren’t part of a special innovation group that met every Tuesday in the Oak Room,” she says.

For employers wishing to nurture a truly innovative culture, Ray recommends looking for intellectual curiosity when hiring.

“Look for people whose minds wander sometimes into different things and ask an awful lot of ‘what if’ questions,” she says.

But can current employees learn to become innovative? Ray says the important thing is to get a wide breath of experience.

In particular, she stresses a need for “the ability to articulate a variety of interests and a variety of experiences, and to let that become part of the fabric of how you think about things.”

This, she says, will give you the ability to take an innovative process from one industry and think about how it could be applied to another.

For Hong Kong professionals seeking opportunities stemming from the talent shortage, Wu advises taking a fresh look at mainland China.

“There are not as many young Hong Kong people working and living on mainland China as I would expect. The trend is very sad,” he says.

Wu contends this may be due to bureaucratic and cultural barriers. Nevertheless, he says that those who are able to fit into the culture and bring in their professionalism stand to benefit.

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