Career Advice HR Focus

Seeing people differently

If businesses have learnt anything during recent years, it is that attracting, motivating and retaining employees is much easier said than done.

While most organisations have at some time or another pulled out the old "people are our greatest asset" cliché, many companies fall short of successfully managing their talent objectives, says Peter Cheese, chief executive officer at the UK-based Chartered Institute of Personnel Development (CIPD).

Cheese, who was speaking on the sidelines of the Hong Kong Institute of Human Resources Management (HKIHRM) Annual Conference and Exhibition 2014, says that while organisations recognise the importance of attracting, developing and retaining talent, he questions whether the methods many employers use are compatible with the changing work environment.

He adds that an ageing workforce, the varying aspirations and expectations of different generations, the proliferation of technology, and the need to continuously upgrade skill sets requires employers to think carefully about traditional talent-management concepts.

"There needs to be a fundamental shift in the way organisations approach their talent-management issues," says Cheese, who was voted the UK's most influential thinker in HR in 2013 by Britain-based HR Magazine.

To develop a loyal, more engaged workforce, companies - especially those in Asia - could benefit from examining the way they measure productivity, Cheese explains. "Long hours spent in the office does not necessarily equate to high levels of productivity," he says. "The opportunities to use technology and the concept of flexible working arrangements could provide more efficient alternatives."

He adds that the HR function has reached an inflection point, where the opportunities to become a more important and influential part of a business are prime. "Similar to marketing or product development, the HR function needs to become a more strategic part of the overall business planning," he says. "The levers are in place to achieve a better alignment between talent management and long-term business objectives, but frequently they are not utilised in a coordinated way."

Although the issues encountered by HR practitioners vary by industry, Cheese says there are several fundamentals that are common across all sectors and locations. For instance, he believes it is imperative that companies pay close attention to the employee value proposition they offer, the way they engage with employees, and the career-development opportunities they provide.

"Organisations need to ask themselves the question: why do people want to work for us and what do we need to do to keep them engaged?" Cheese says. "If the organisation is not doing these things well, they will not be able to retain the people they need to take the business forward." The talent-management challenges companies face, he adds, have been magnified by a shortage of professionals with IT, engineering, and management and leadership skills.

As organisations look to build a strong and sustainable workforce over the next three to five years, employee engagement and development strategies could become the biggest competitive differentiators. Success, Cheese says, will require a change in the way many managers engage with staff.

"The younger generation of workers is looking for feedback, encouragement, two-way debate and clearly defined career-development opportunities," he says.

Embracing innovation

Fellow HKIHRM conference speaker Professor Ian Williamson, the Helen Macpherson Smith chair of leadership for social impact at the Melbourne Business School (MBS), also believes it is an important time for companies to review their recruitment, development and engagement strategies.

He notes that, in an ideal world, companies would hire the right people, at the right time, with the right attitude - but this rarely happens, especially in a talent-squeezed environment such as Hong Kong. The focus on talent has become increasingly critical as organisations become more service-orientated or involved in complex, knowledge-based activities which require specific skills.

Williamson says it is important that organisations understand what they need to do to add or develop the right talent. Whether that talent is recruited or internally developed, it is vital that companies have the engagement and development strategies in place to sustain them. These should include room for job ownership, creativity, collaboration and a sense of being valued.

Despite what finance departments might say, Williamson believes talent acquisition should be viewed as an investment rather than a business expense. "The investment in talent should be looked at in the same way as a company invests in marketing, equipment and other resources."

Companies, particularly smaller enterprises, could benefit from looking beyond the traditional recruitment areas to help build their talent pipelines. Universities, for example, are not the only places from which to recruit. "Companies that hire on potential and train from within, from non-traditional recruitment sources, can create a competitive advantage," Williamson says.

When recruiting, firms often take the path of least risk and look for the cheapest talent solutions, he adds. Small companies try to compete against larger enterprises by targeting their hiring strategies at the same talent pool - an approach that often ends in failure.

"Small firms, which are known for being nimble and flexible through identifying niches and finding success where large firms are not operating, still go to where the big guys are when it comes to recruiting talent," Williamson says.

Regardless of company size, the need for innovation in talent management is immediate, he says. "We applaud Facebook and Google for their innovation, so why don't we embrace innovation in the HR function?"

An example of recruitment innovation, he explains, would be hiring from the student population involved in the Occupy movement. "These are young people who are showing passion for something they believe in," he says. They are also demonstrating sophisticated mobilisation abilities, strong communication skills, teamwork, commitment and innovation - all things on a company's recruitment wish list.