The Talent Shortage in the World's Largest Office

HRIQ speaks with Christina SS Ooi on the challenges of recruiting and retaining top talent in Asia, which is currently experiencing fasteconomic growth. The economic power does not come without its challenges. In this interview, Ooi discusses the conditions that led to this talent shortage, as well as what the rest of the world can learn from Asia.

With more than two decades of corporate management experience, Christina SS Ooi spent a majority of these years in various senior management and leadership positions in IBM across the Asia Pacific region. Her management experience in both local and regional businesses has provided strong insight to the cross-cultural environment across the Asia Pacific region. As an author, Ooi has written extensively on the subject of talent management in the world's faster growing economy.

What geographical areas have your studies focused on, and why is there is there such intense competition for top talent in these regions?

I had focused on Asia in my study, particularly, in North Asia, South Asia, Australia and New Zealand. We are all aware of the fact that the Asian markets are currently experiencing some of the strongest economic growth in the world. Relative economic power is shifting from the West to Asia, and this shift will likely endure for a long time. This is one fact which cannot be overlooked or denied. Because the US domestic demand is shrinking, Western corporations know that their survival largely depends on international markets—particularly in Asia, which has an undying thirst for natural resources, know-how, technology, infrastructure and talent. All eyes are on Asia today. After all, "Asia…the world’s largest factory, the world’s largest office, shapes the economic landscape of the world" (as it appears in the broadcasting advertisement of Channel News Asia).

Why do you say that Asian talent shortages are "even worse than they appear?"

Companies have taken talent acquisition and management for granted for a long time. Even talent availability has also been taken for granted. That is why talent management must remain as top priority in the list of to-dos for such global businesses. Managers and executives in Asia assume that skilled talent will grow with the times as more and more people make it to tertiary education in this part of the world. That is indeed true. But when it comes to the crux of the matter, we are not talking about the millions of new university graduates each year who seek employment. The irony is that China and India are known to be the world’s most populous countries. Yet, they now face an acute talent shortage because we are talking about the right skills and right talent that fit the hiring requirements of organizations. It is a simple matter of quantity versus quality. Of course, Asia has not anticipated the pace at which its own economy is booming. No one has anticipated the imbalance between the supply and demand of the right talent for the Asian economy to continue to prosper. Worst of all, Asia has been too dependent on its Western counterparts to supply the right talent. Asia has been too reliant on talent imports versus growing its own talent.

What are some solutions for recruiting and retaining great people in North and South Asia?

One such outstanding example can be seen by creating a corporate culture that allows people to unleash their full potential in a fun, high trust, empowerment and team-based environment. Infinitus (China) Company (nee Nanfang Lee Kum Kee Co Ltd) can testify to their talent management philosophy which is based on its corporate values of Si Li Ji Ren.

The other example worth mentioning is Aditya Birla’s innovative home-grown ideas on talent management – focus on learning, incubation and nurturing talent.

You have had an extensive career with IBM. Can you share some insight into IBM’s experience across the Asia Pacific region?

It’s in the shifted focus on enhancing employee education, employee personal involvement in its innovation transformation efforts and initiatives, and employee satisfaction becomes innovation that matters for IBM and for the world. Its innovative global management programs are designed to provide job role opportunities to top talent and high performers to be exposed to global experiences through a multitude of cultures and international markets. It is the company’s belief that it is this talent that creates the greatest value and brings the highest excellence in business collaboration, no matter where they are.

How do winning companies recruit more effectively by bringing innovation to various facets of their talent management strategy, including on boarding and training, work-life balance, shaping corporate culture and leadership development?

Talent availability is something that has been taken for granted for a long time. Managers and executives in Asia assume that skilled talent will grow with the times as more and more people make it to tertiary education in this part of the world. As Asian economies continue to strive and deliver stellar performance, the Asian talent pool has not kept up with the surge of demand for highly sophisticated skills. Perhaps the best and prudent way to overcome this problem is not to leave everything to chance and to just hope for the best. Common sense tells us that for something as crucial as finding managers with real expertise experience for the success and growth of the companies, they must be in absolute control of it. In essence, they must know where to find it, how to grow it, and how to keep it for as long as possible. The simple truth of the matter is that as long as the supply side of the equation is well managed and controlled, it doesn’t matter how the demand for managers with real expertise experience rears its ugly head!

Any final comments?

I would like to stress that culture plays a very key role in talent management, where there is still a stark difference between recruiting and retention in Asia as compared to Western countries, for example, in the US, like day and night. As Asia thrives on deep cultural roots and tradition, a large part of such traits are evident in the business world. Companies recruiting and retaining talent in Asia need to be aware that local talent (Asia) today face tough challenges as they struggle to balance East and West cultures because of demands for global integration and delivery of performance at global and international standards.

These talents are strongly influenced by guanxi (relationship) and mianzi (keeping "face") elements, strong entrepreneurship attributes, and where their loyalty lies. Trust and personal relationships are critical. People must know that their managers and leaders are sincere and mean what they say. There is a common saying in Asia that employees in Asia are not loyal to the companies they work in. Indeed, they owe their allegiance and loyalty to the people who hired them and who have nurtured and mentored them. In essence, in developing innovative talent retention and talent management programs for employees in Asia, companies need to be sensitive and mindful of the element of guanxi that has been deeply entrenched in the Asian cultural traits. Simply put, it is the Asian "thing."