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Summit urges HR staff to take lead in times of change

At no time in history have societies around the world experienced the level of change that is currently taking place. From the internet and social media to robotics and 3D printing, no other generation has had to adapt so quickly to so many technological or societal changes.

These changes, however, prompt questions about the impact that they will have on businesses and whether existing business models can provide a roadmap to the future – or are already obsolete. For the human resources (HR) function, issues are also being raised on the implications of these technological and societal changes, and the role that HR can play in helping companies adapt.

These were just some of the topics addressed at the Singapore Human Capital Summit 2013, held in September in Singapore.

Tan Chuan-Jin, acting minister in Singapore’s Ministry for Manpower, kicked off the summit with an opening address in which he urged businesses to take decisive steps. “We must start by strengthening our resilience and future-proofing our fundamentals [by] nurturing and developing our people to achieve their fullest potential, and tapping on their expertise to bring our organisations to great heights,” he said.

“We say that people are our most important resource. They do the work, they drive businesses, they innovate and design automation and processes. Our people create value by bringing about increased productivity and growth. The question is, what do we really do about it – how do we translate that belief into action?”

Tan added that as the world becomes increasingly complex and unpredictable, old rules cease to apply and there are no antecedents to which to refer. “Business cycles, as we all know, are getting harder to predict. The cycles are becoming shorter as well, and the ‘new normal’ is fairly chaotic,” he said.

Another challenge, he explained, is the changing composition of the workforce. Talent is becoming more diverse, and national borders are becoming increasingly porous.

“We know that both capital and labour are mobile, and this is increasing at accelerating rates,” he said. “Consumer trends and technological advancements are also developing rapidly.”

He explained that the key to adapting to transformational global forces is to develop people so that they can achieve their full potential, while helping their organisations grow.

“We need to understand that people are our engines of growth, our adaptive tools and our ballast to keep things on an even keel,” Tan said. “We often talk about maximising our capital investments. But when it comes to our human capital, we need to also consider the human nature – how we all as individuals feel and want to be treated and respected.”

When thinking about how to develop talent, Tan explained, HR professionals should not just think about those in leadership roles. They should also think about how they can help their companies implement good HR practices across the organisation.

He added that the focus should not purely be on large organisations and that small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) should play an important role. In Singapore, SMEs employ about 60 per cent of the workforce and account for about half of the city state’s GDP.

“We must develop leadership and awareness of the need for good human capital management in SMEs,” Tan said. “It is not always easy for smaller companies with tight resources to manage the human capital dimension.”

To do this, he explained, the approach must be different than that used to drive other business fundamentals, and that translating words into deeds required dedication. “When you talk about capital, you talk about maximising resources,” he said. “But with people, it is really about nurturing, engaging, valuing, respecting and caring for them. In many ways, all of us as employees want that.”

Professor Gary Hamel, a business expert, author and speaker, gave the summit’s keynote address. He spoke on the need to rethink assumptions about management and organisational life and touched on five key issues: values, innovation, adaptability, passion and ideology. He agreed that the world was in the throes of unparalleled change, and that companies choosing not to adapt did so at their peril.

He also said that companies were not doing a very good job of engaging their employees. “Only 20 per cent of human beings around the world are really engaged in their work,” he said. “The world is becoming more turbulent and our organisations need to become more resilient.”

Looking forwards, Hamel said that bureaucracy was one of the biggest obstacles preventing organisations from embracing change. “I’ve never met a leader, manager or minister who said, ‘We need more bureaucracy.’ Bureaucracy has to die. We have to find an alternative. It exacts a very heavy cost on organisations,” he said.

The problem, he added, was that people in power generally want more power rather than less, which creates a kind of “soft tyranny” in organisations where bosses fail to delegate effectively.

During a panel discussion following Hamel’s talk, Peter Cheese, CEO of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, asked whether HR was part of the solution or part of the problem. “HR tends to create HR practices. If HR thinks their job is enforcing compliance, they are part of the problem,” he said.

The goal, Cheese added, was not to do away with control, but to create a system that allowed people to be creative. “We have to measure not just what people do, but how they do it,” he said.