'Asian values' are the future
It’s a concept that is so last century that the young may be forgiven for confusing it with the great seasonal sales in Singapore or Hong Kong. Yet, not so long ago, the debate over “Asian values” and its derivatives was an ideological ground zero.
However, with the “victory” of capitalism and democracy, and the economic surge of the East in relation to the West, the Asian-values debate went into some kind of deep freeze.
Now, a thaw may be happening, thanks to the hot findings of a research jointly organised by the London-based Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) – which has 135,000 members across 120 countries – and the Hong Kong Institute of Human Resource Management (HKIHRM).
The research – the first outside the United Kingdom after the financial crisis – is based on 27 case studies across Asia, covering such firms as Standard Chartered Bank, Shui On Construction, China Mobile, MTR Corporation and the Founder Group.
“One of the key messages from our research is that there is a distinctly Asian take on what the future of HR will look like – and that to allow established Western HR orthodoxies to push out innovation and Asian values would risk putting a brake on growth, whereas the distinctly Asian approach offers the opportunity to turbocharge it,” says CIPD CEO Jackie Orme.
She says the most insightful HR practitioners in the region have “turbo-charged” growth in their organisations through a uniquely Asian approach that is “leapfrogging best-practice” among their Western counterparts.
“We’ve been struck by the way many of the most successful firms we’ve looked at are combining a relentless ‘can-do’ drive for growth with traditional values that place a premium on the family and the community, and which often successfully appeal to a higher order purpose. This approach is helping these firms to win the fierce ‘war for talent’ in the region,” Orme adds.
The research defines an Asian approach to HR as having four core characteristics: tackling individual underperformance despite a sprawling and rapidly expanding business, relying on a sense of community to promote unity and respect within the company, inculcating a higher sense of purpose among workers, and understanding the complex dynamics between corporate culture and commercial success.
The research notes a tension between the traditional Asian style of running a business and the expectations of a younger generation, particularly for greater openness and a sense of fairness. However, Orme says the most impressive HR leaders covered by the research have cleverly combined these conflicting factors.
This approach draws elements from the concept of “family” – a focus on the collective good, shared purpose, mutual caring, loyalty and community service – and marries them with the younger generation’s expectations.
“By building on both these strong foundation stones, many businesses manage to both respect tradition and embrace the future, in a way that is delivering superior growth,” says Orme. “Organisation cultures are being built that respect family, but also reward strong performance and challenge poor performance in clear and transparent ways, and without being distorted or derailed by an over-focus on seniority or length of service.”
Orme says that these cases of ‘next practice’ Asian-style HR are remarkable in a region where the concept of human resources is oftentimes just emerging and underrated.
“It is clear to us there is much the Western organisations we are familiar with can learn from their counterparts in Asia,” she says. “Perhaps most striking for us is the value of balancing an aggressive drive for success with a long-term sense of corporate and community purpose. This is in contrast to the often more individualistic Anglo-Saxon business model.”
Some may say the research findings are just fodder for academic mastication. But an intriguing implication involves the issue of succession, particularly among Asia’s conglomerates owned or controlled by clans.
In Hong Kong, the domestic dramas involving Stanley Ho Hung-sun and his brood, Nina Wang’s will, or the quarrelsome Kwoks of Sun Hung Kai Properties, point to the minefield that HR managers must crawl through.
Robert Blevin, head of external affairs at CIPD, points out that the concept of family as used in their research is a “descriptor of value” and should not be taken in terms of business ownership.
In any case, Orme acknowledges that family and blood lines in many businesses can have both negative and positive implications.
“The strength of family and blood lines in many businesses was simply another factor that could sometimes mitigate against robust and honest performance management,” says Orme, adding that “the importance attached to family in Asian businesses creates many strengths, including a focus on collective good, loyalty and service to the community.”
Eddie Ng, former president of HKIHRM and present chairman of its international committee, says some clan-owned Asian conglomerates are facing a dilemma – they are running well but some of their scions may not be that interested in taking over the business.
“Some companies have responded by running parallel operations – hiring external professional managers to run the business, as in the case of TSMC in Taiwan and Li & Fung in Hong Kong – while also grooming the willing members of the next generation to take over the business eventually,” Ng says.
The CIPD research did not delve into the succession issue, but Ng believes the study – which he says will now be done yearly – will offer something groundbreaking for HR in Asia. “It is the methodology, not the content. Hopefully, though this research, we can work with CIPD in coming up with benchmarks for HR practitioners in the region,” he says.
The way ahead
- CIPD and HKIHRM will work on a leadership training programme next
- It aims for some East-West cross-pollination of ideas
- About 20 leaders will be chosen globally, with 10 from Asia for the first time