Do Hong Kong companies need more ‘multi-potentialites’ or do specialists reign supreme? |
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Do Hong Kong companies need more ‘multi-potentialites’ or do specialists reign supreme?

Published on Saturday, 02 Apr 2016

Even in Hong Kong, it’s probably safe to say that not many young girls and boys go to bed dreaming of being an accountant or a corporate lawyer when they grow up.

However as they get older, those with the necessary educational smarts – even the ones with a variety of creative or academic interests – eventually focus their career aspirations on a specific area. Usually they’ve recognised the potential rewards and security that comes from such specialisation, and go on to have satisfying working lives.

The less single-minded, who instead work in different fields and develop a broader range of talents, have often been branded skittish and seen to have damaged their future prospects.

But with today’s fast-changing job market, is the future any brighter for people who span several fields, or “multi-potentialites” as they were dubbed by career coach Emilie Wapnick in her TED talk last year? And how will this vary from sector to sector?

Traditional professions

Wapnick claimed that multi-potentialities have unique “super powers” and are becoming more important because “we have a lot of complex, multidimensional problems in the world right now, and we need creative, out-of-the-box thinkers to tackle them.”

Technology is one such complexity. Keith Pogson, senior partner, EY Asia-Pacific financial services, says that while his business looks for people who are going to be creative and flexible, there are obviously limits to the degree – and nature – of the creativity and flexibility accepted within regulated industries.

“We’re talking about people who are creative in the way they use technology and the way they solve real business dilemmas and problems,” he explains.

He adds that in his industry, advances in digital technology mean that increasingly sophisticated processes can be now be handled by computers. This has have removed the need for specialist human skills at certain levels. Rather than negating the need for specialists, this development has expanded that need further up the value chain.

“There are increasing levels of automation, both within EY and in the finance industry in general. As the nuts-and-bolts tasks are increasingly handled by automated processes, this allows us to spend more time on core accounting skills, analysis and the understanding of why things are the way they are and why this may be different from what we expected.”

He points out that this trend has not led to fewer jobs in his company; instead, it has freed up employees to do other work, and produce higher quality. There has, for example, been a growing demand for people with the ability to analyse, and communicate the meaning of, the enormous amounts of significant data generated today.

“At a junior level, we just need smart people; at a senior level, specialism is very important,” he says. “As automation replaces normal basic skills, it is the specialism that differentiates and brings the value.”

Tom Albrecht, managing partner for the Asia Pacific region with international law firm Sidley Austin, believes that lawyers will continue to need a specialised education that is further refined through on-the-job training. and experience.

Rather than being more open to generalists, Albrecht believes that future success in his profession may not only require specialist knowledge of the law, but additional skills as well.

“The world is changing very fast and over-reliance on one narrow specialty may run the risk of finding oneself in a declining market for that speciality,” he says. “But more importantly, clients do want lawyers who understand the big picture. Understanding and discussing with a client the economic and financial underpinnings of a transaction, rather than just the legal issues, will make a lawyer a better counsellor. That is highly valued by most clients.”

A knowledge of geo-politics, an understanding of different cultures, and fluency in several languages, are some of the attributes that can help in the development of the sort of broader perspective required in this counselling role, he says.

New and emerging industries

Because of the frequency with which innovations disrupt the digital industries – and the fact that innovation frequently comes from the synthesis of ideas from different fields – it would seem likely that this sector is more welcoming to multi-potentialites.

Adam McCarthy, senior director and general manager, Asia, at cloud computing company Rackspace, says the need to be flexible and creative in the tech field is more important than knowing any one platform, tool or programming language. “All these things can be obsolete in six months,” he explains.

Since Rackspace provides IT services, it does still look for a degree of technical aptitude or capability. “[However] I think what we look for first and foremost is an aptitude for service, and the willingness and desire to help others and work as a team serving others, internally as well as externally.”

Leo Ng, the Hong Kong general manager of data storage company NetApp, also highlights the importance of flexibility.

“It is more important than ever to have the right people who can adapt quickly to the way in which our internal and external business changes,” he says. “Today, IT is competing against a customer-centric world of unlimited external technology options and it is digitally transforming all industries. Add in explosive data growth, decreasing budgets and increasing demands, and IT faces a seemingly insurmountable challenge to stay relevant. Hong Kong is no different from other digitally connected cities within the region.”

Education’s role

The structure and culture of the educational system in Hong Kong have traditionally encouraged specialism. Pogson believes that a lot of the decision-making surrounding career choice goes on earlier here – when students are in their late teens, rather than when they’re leaving university.

“[Students in Hong Kong] are effectively saying I will be interested in a career in finance and accounting by selecting an accounting degree,” he says. “This does have advantages for us because we need to train them less.”

There are further regional differences, he adds. “In other parts of the world, where young people are being highly entrepreneurial, we end up having to run a very different recruitment and retention model,” he says. “We might have people who are working on our IT security practice who, in the evening, are writing their own apps for sale by their own business.”

McCarthy thinks that it is a good idea for students to explore different paths in the early years at university to discover their strengths and interests. He also believes Hong Kong’s dependence on specialists varies from industry to industry.

“I think finance and fintech might be a little more dependent on certain types of specialists, but I think what you see with Hong Kong, as we continue to evolve, is the need for a broader range of skills as well,” he says. “As Hong Kong looks to grow more non-financial-services industries, you’ll probably see a wider variety of skills in the market.”

Ng believes that those aiming for the top in Hong Kong’s business world also need to broaden their skills and experience, a process which is best started early.

“The ability to understand and adapt to different cultures and environments is essential for anyone looking to join leading multinational companies,” he says. “A broad range of expertise and experiences will definitely place an individual in good stead to bring a fresh perspective and flexibility to any organisation.”

This article appeared in the Classified Post print edition as Spreading talents.

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