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24th Annual AmCham Human Resources Conference – 

The Innovation Imperative: Igniting Advantage through People and Culture

Luncheon Speakers: Times are Changing

By Leon Lee

When it comes to innovation, it tends to be associated with the younger generation of leaders and employees. That’s not to say that the seasoned workforce are incapable of being innovative, but the younger staff are not as used to the old ways of doing things since they have not done it that way before. And their behaviors, whether it’s as an employee or consumer, are changing the ways companies do business.

The millennials

Crown World Mobility helps move people of corporations and organizations all around the world. They work closely with companies from the selection of international assignees to repatriation as well as linking their mobility programs to diversity and talent initiatives.

According to Lisa Johnson, Global Practice Leader, Consulting Services at Crown, with the rise of the millennials, the company has to look for ways to be more creative.

“In a study conducted with 4,000 millennials from all over the world, 80 percent of them said that they want an international experience. What does that mean? It means that we have to come up with low-cost and creative ways to move those millennials around because they’re not going to go on that expensive international assignment that costs between two and eight times their annual salary.”

As the needs of their customers change, they too must adapt their traditional way of doing business. Rather than rejecting the disruptive innovations, they are acknowledging and embracing them to figure out how to remain successful in the changing market.

Disruptions in mobility

Normally when people have to relocate to a new country for work, it involves packing and shipping lots of boxes and furniture in a shipping container. However, a pattern emerging now is that companies are preferring furnished housing for their employees as younger staff members typically don’t own as much and there’s not a great need for them to ship too much.

Another option is that companies are offering a lump sum of money for relocated staff to furnish their new home rather than ship anything.

“We have a client that moves a lot of employees here to Hong Kong. They have a lot of young, creative employees so one of the things they do is they say, ‘You could either ship your household goods and furniture or we’ll give you US$5,000 when you arrive in Hong Kong. You can go shopping, fix up a cool flat you’re going to live in, and just have new things,’” says Johnson.

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Lisa Johnson

“They’re really creative and a lot of them are taking that $5,000. That’s a big disrupter [because] we’ve always made a big part of our money on household good shipments.”

If workers do decide to ship their things to a new location, they typically stay in temporary housing while waiting for their household goods and furniture to arrive. Crown could make these arrangements for them, but today many people are using Airbnb instead. With the app, they can pick and choose the neighborhood they want to live in and how the place is furnished, under a cheaper budget.

Technology has also affected their customer service, another key area of Crown’s business.

“Mobility is an industry that really values high-touch relationships with people who are going through an intense moment in their lives. Next to death and public speaking, [moving] is one of the most stressful events you could ever go through whether you are motivated or not,” Johnson says.

In the past, Crown employees would help expatriates ease into the move via phone calls or voice mail. However, many of the assignees nowadays don’t want to deal with phone calls. They prefer to get information in a text or email. As phone calls and voice mails disappear, the business loses a form of connection with their customers and needs to find ways to provide the same type of care with future relocations.

An innovative education

While some businesses are playing catch-up with innovations, it is a subject already on the minds of the younger generation even before they join the workforce. As corporations and businesses are looking for more people with more integrative and soft skills, educational institutes are evolving in what they offer to students in order to better prepare them.

“We provide knowledge and intellect in the classroom, but a lot of times what we see with our students are sometimes not demonstrated,” says Sean Ferguson, Associate Dean of Master’s Programs and Director of MBA Programs at HKUST Business School. “So just teaching them finance, organizational behavior or marketing isn’t enough. There’s a bunch of other skills that need to be displayed.”

He sees four main trends in higher education in creating students who can think a little bit differently and outside the box.

The first is experiential learning which aims to integrate various courses and skills together, instead of teaching them as individual components.

“This kind of integrative learning really drives a lot more innovation because people have to think about how finance relates to marketing, how it relates to the people decisions you make, how it relates to the strategy or the accounting that you have in various organizations,” Ferguson explains.

Schools like Harvard and UCLA run field case studies where students are sent to companies all around the world, conduct field research and then bring that research back into the classroom to come up with real-life solutions that companies can use to fix their problems. It provides students with a practical understanding, and the results have been very positive.

“Because the context in which they were evaluating things was different than everything they had seen before, it made for a much more robust learning experience.”

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Another trend that can be seen throughout business schools, at both the undergraduate and graduate levels, is the offering of relevant courses based on current marketplaces and situations locally and globally.

“Every school focuses on providing fundamentals in their core curriculums but then when you get to the elective course, we have to be relevant for what’s going on there,” Ferguson says. “The core provides a foundation that helps you [with] all the tools you need to make decisions, and then when you get to the electives, it’s more about the applications, trends and specific topics.”

At HKUST, an elective associated with financial technology has recently been launched as many of their graduates enter into the finance field.

Ferguson sees the next trend of EQ (emotional quotient) to CQ (cultural quotient) particularly relevant for Asia. Besides the large market in China, there could be value coming from other places like Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, etc, all with their own unique culture and ways of doing things.

While EQ is basically being aware of it, CQ is focused on understanding cultural sensitivities at the group level. At Nanyang University Business School in Singapore, it is incorporated into their MBA program as it highlights blind spots for students.

The last trend is on entrepreneurial and innovative coursework, but not necessarily on starting your own company at home or with your friends.

“What companies are looking for is not necessarily the entrepreneur, but the innovator and how they can apply it in the context of their organization. They want to harness and use it to help the company achieve their goal,” Ferguson explains.

Last year, HKUST offered a course on intrapreneurship in China taught by an executive from a large MNC with experiences in creating and promoting innovation within the organization. The company had bought a Chinese company which was started by a scatterbrained entrepreneur. They wanted to keep the entrepreneurial element in the company so they had to come up with a framework to make the collaboration work.

Are you ready?

While businesses understand the need to be creative and innovative, Johnson questions whether they are really ready for it.

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“Often, we say we are really interested in innovation and 93 percent of our leaders are saying they really value innovation and creativity, there’s a lot of times they still want you to color within the lines of that coloring book,” she says. “You can play, you can be creative but not too creative.”

However, by the time they finally get around to fully accepting the innovative practice, it might already be too late. It might have become too normal and lost its cutting edge.

The social media platform, Facebook, was started in 2004 in Harvard by several young men who wanted to meet girls. In six short years, it grew to be a cultural phenomenon, of which almost everyone, including parents and grandparents, would be enticed to be a part. But nowadays Johnson’s teenage son doesn’t even go near it.

“We all have Facebook pages in our organizations. It’s just normal, it’s not cool for him. He likes Snapchat and other things but he’s certainly is not looking at Facebook. That’s old news, so I really ask, are you really open to innovation?”