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24th Annual AmCham Human Resources Conference –

The Innovation Imperative: Igniting Advantage Through People and Culture

Panel Discussion: People Power

By Leon Lee

The right culture

Mindset has to do with the culture and belief within an organization. While culture is a very important element in any company, it’s also the slowest thing to change when a company tries to become more open and innovative. When HR firm Mercer made the decision to establish innovation as a core value, it had taken several tries before finding one that worked.

“The one thing that’s probably made a difference to us is recognizing that really disruptive innovation was going to happen inside our organization,” explains Kate Bravery, Global Solutions Leader, Talent Business at Mercer.

“So rightly or wrongly, we made the choice to set up four innovation hubs three years ago, and they stimulated 40 different ideas. We’ve got six different products we’ve incubated that are now being commercialized as a result of that.”

“By doing that, it forced us to get our tool kit around innovation right. We’ve been able to play and try things and fail – something we found really hard to do in a performance-driven organization,” she adds.

“And we’ve been able to cycle people in and out so they get to feel a little differently. We got a taste of being in a start-up in a big firm. For us, that was the catalyst to change and that is beginning to influence back into our organization.”

Kate Bravery
Kate Bravery

The complicated transition from wanting to innovate to actually making it happen was something that Goldman Sachs (Asia) had experienced as well. “Most of us think that innovation is important, but how to actually get that idea into practice is what a lot of HR professionals need to do, to shape the vision,” says Paul Choi, Head of Goldman Sachs University Asia and Executive Director of Human Capital Management.

“One of our roles is to help the organization shape the vision from where we think we want to be to it actually happen. We tried many things but the one thing that I want to highlight is empowerment,” he says.

In an effort to encourage younger staff to come up with new ideas that senior staff would find compelling, the company decided to set up a forum where they felt their voices would be heard, and ran a pilot program called the Next Gen Project in Japan, a country known for a conservative culture in terms of the relationship between junior staff and senior management.

The company chose 20 young analysts and gave them the mandate to talk and come up with three recommendations to help the firm better embrace the younger generation. They were guided through research on millennial behavior within the company in Japan as well as globally, and were given the opportunity to present their ideas to the executive committee of the Japan office.

Members of the executive committee were told that they could ask questions, learn more about the recommendations and save them for future implementation but they could not say no to the ideas. In the end, that was not necessary as the committee really liked the recommendations from their younger staff.

While some companies look internally to adjust their mindset, others would look elsewhere. Annie Qiao, Asia Pacific Learning & Development Leader at EY, says her firm has studied the features of the 21st-century companies and discovered that one key feature is they have a much more direct relationships with their customers and clients, like Uber.

“In our organization, we focus a lot externally on our clients’ need rather than our strength or what we can do,” Qiao points out. “We need to know our strengths but we need to focus much more on our clients’ needs and collaboration and cross-business units. That’s the way we see innovation and ideas can come from naturally, from the clients’ needs.”

The right people

As essential as it is to have the right culture and belief in a company, so are the skills and talents of the people within an organization. Simon Galpin, Director-General of Invest Hong Kong, uses Hong Kong’s recent boom in start-ups to highlight the importance of access to talents.

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(From left): Tony O’Driscoll (moderator), Kate Bravery, Nellie Chan, Annie Qiao, Simon Galpin and Paul Choi

In the last 10 months, the number of global start-ups in the city has grown by 46 percent, the amount of people employed by start-ups has risen by over 50 percent, and the number of seats at co-working spaces has increased by 60 percent. These numbers are showing that people are choosing different types of employment and career paths in Hong Kong.

“It’s really fascinating to see how the big corporates recognize this opportunity,” says Galpin.

“You do have DBS, AIA, Swire and Accenture wanting to get close to this tremendous pool of talent [through accelerators and incubators] – perhaps recognizing they can’t necessarily through their traditional employment practices recruit these people. But what they can do is to set up a mechanism where they can get access to them and I think that’s very encouraging.”

Providing access to talent is one of the key roles of the professional networking site LinkedIn. According to Nellie Chan, Director of Marketing Solutions for South East Asia and North Asia, their mission is to create economic opportunities for the global workforce and connect professionals to make them more productive and successful.

So far, they have over 400 million members on this site with roughly 700 million addressable audience. And, in the US, they have started working on something they call “the LinkedIn city.” Working with governments, schools and large organizations to identify talent gaps, they determine whether schools are producing skillsets required in the workforce and come up with ways to address a mismatch.

“This is really a dream to help the global economy identify all the different types of resources and flow very freely,” says Chan.

Goldman Sachs’s Choi adds that besides a diversity of talents, providing a diversity of experience to develop people is beneficial too. The company runs a program connecting mid- and senior-level leaders with non-profit organizations, and executives offer ideas and suggestions for improvement in these organizations.

“That diversity of experience we try to create for our employees and leaders is actually quite important to unleashing innovations because if you only focus on the same job, same kinds of transactions every day, it’s hard for you to jump out of your box and think creatively what else you can do,” Choi believes.

Galpin believes interns can play a much bigger role. “I think we don’t make enough use of interns. We tend to bring them in and force them to do a nine-to-five job, and they learn how to work in a fairly rigid working environment but if you bring in interns from out of town and mix them up with local interns, you can learn more from the interns than they can learn from you.”

Lastly, besides giving opportunities for innovation and change, companies also need to commit the time on execution and encourage senior management to embrace the idea, Chan highlights.

“You have to give them additional time because it’s hard for them to execute all these things when they all want to make sure that they are also doing their current job well.”