Cutting-Edge Change

How new technologies are revolutionising HR in an Asian icon.

By Michael Switow

Shirley Fong is the vice president of human resources at Li & Fung, a trading company that started from very humble beginnings exporting Chinese porcelain and silk and which now operates one of the most world’s extensive supply chains. The company employs some 17,000 people in more than 230 offices across 40 markets.

Fong’s career did not start in the HR department, though. She applied her analytical skills to managing supply chains for a global chemicals company. However, when she was presented with an offer for a regional HR leadership role, she cast aside self-doubt and jumped at the opportunity.

Since Fong joined Li & Fung 12 years ago, her responsibilities have grown from HR operations to fostering innovation in the employee experience and driving the digital transformation of the company’s HR function. Her efforts and ingenuity led HRO Today to name Li & Fung the 2019 APAC Talent Acquisition Team of the Year Award winner.

SharedXpertise CEO Elliot Clark caught up with Fong to learn more.

Elliot Clark: Shirley, your background is quite different from many people who work in HR. How would you say that this impacts your approach to your current role as the number two person in HR at Li & Fung?

Shirley Fong: I was born into a big family and love to interact with people, so I always wanted to find a job where I could address people matters. When I started my career in HR, my peers realised that one thing is very different from my predecessors. I usually start my presentations talking about the business—looking at the profit and loss and the major business challenges—before discussing my people strategy. I find that my supply chain experience and business acumen give me an advantage in that I can play the role of a real strategic partner. Subsequently, my previous company realised they needed a more diverse team. They began to hire people who had risen not just through the HR department but from other business areas as well.

Clark: Li & Fung has a three-year plan focusing on speed, digitisation, and innovation to create the “future of the supply chain.” How has this technology focus changed what you do in HR?

Fong: Li & Fung is investing a lot in automation and digitalisation. We strongly believe these are enablers. They’re not the enemy of the workforce. Automation enables people to do their job in a more efficient way. We want to give them time to do quality work and focus on human interactions instead of operational and transactional matters.

Let me share a few examples of how technology has replaced processes in our organisation. Three years ago, we centralised all the transactional activities into one shared service centre and we used robotic process automation (RPA) to process these tasks. We’ve also automated contract signage and partnered with DocuSign to ensure a paperless system. This creates a very good candidate experience. A lot of candidates just find it so convenient, plus data can be easily accessed from the system. And we’ve introduced HireFit, which helps us screen candidates based on Li & Fung’s leadership competency framework. Now our recruiters do not need to spend too much time doing competency analysis. Instead, this AI prediction tool comes up with a recommendation.

Without adding extra head count, we get things done in a more efficient, effective and innovative manner.

Clark: As you go through this digital transformation, how do you balance Li & Fung’s history and tradition with the need to have a modern culture?

Fong: We identify a group of early adopters in our organisation across different generations and management levels. We use them as pioneers and ambassadors to deliver quick wins. These then become selling points to the rest of the organisation to embrace the change and take action.

Clark: Returning to HireFit, it’s a culture assessment, automation-based tool that uses language analysis to predict a cultural fit. Tell us more about how you’re using the system and what the experience has been like.

Fong: Computational linguistics uses language to provide insight into human beings’ thinking and intelligence. Language becomes a tool to evaluate candidate performance and predict whether they can perform well in a role.

Applicants need to answer three open-ended questions and their written replies to each one must be at least 100 words. People applying for the same position all answer the same questions. We developed a kind of database as a benchmark. The AI tool then compares each candidate’s language with the benchmark. Another input into HireFit is the personality assessment. By putting all this together, we can come up with a score to assess whether this candidate will fit our culture and be able to perform in the role according to our competency requirements.

We still rely on humans to make the final judgement, though. So, the hiring manager and HR still play a very important role on top of the HireFit output. We also realise some candidates have a high score while others have a low score. These are the two groups of people we want to study. We will not say no to all these low score candidates. We want to understand why they have a high or low score.

It’s been about 16 months since we launched HireFit, focusing first on the leadership level. Initial results demonstrate improved retention. Usually, the highest rate of attrition is within the first 12 months, but after introducing HireFit, our attrition rate has dropped. We are having better cultural competency and job matches.

This year, we launched the system to the next level: middle management. By the end of this year, we’ll be able to further share whether the system proves successful.

Clark: You’re at the cutting edge of research. At one level, language processing predicts intelligence by evaluating whether a person can coherently make an argument. But most companies are well behind you in terms of the way you are applying it.

As an aside, research about to come out in the Harvard Business Review indicates that computers are better at predicting successful hires than human interviewers. A recent poll, meanwhile, indicates that more than half of all candidates have absolutely no interaction with their hiring manager between the date of their last interview and their first day of work. No text, no WeChat, nothing. Shirley, since you took over talent acquisition at Li & Fung and now own the candidate experience, how are you approaching this?

Fong: At Li & Fung, I think our hiring managers are quite keen to support new hires but sometimes they don’t know how to do it, and there was no structure to assist them. So, from the fourth quarter of last year, we introduced LF Adventure, a 90-day onboarding experience based on gamification. There are three elements:

  1. “Buddy programme.” The hiring manager and HR team invite new team members to be in a buddy pool. We developed an app in-house that uses profiles to match new hires with a buddy on their first day in the company. We also want the new hire and hiring manager to collaborate during this 90-day journey, so the app enables the new hire, the hiring manager, and the buddy to interact together.
  1. “Discovery track.” The app engages new hires to sign up for company activities, such as becoming a member of a running club or dragon boat club. They’re also required to attend a conference from outside their functional area so they can learn more about other roles. Thanks to the app, new hires know how to contact these communities and they become more engaged with Li & Fung culture.
  1. “Treasure hunt.” We require new hires to complete some tasks, such as finding a landmark, taking a photo, uploading it on the app, and sharing it with their hiring manager. In the process, they earn points. For example, they might be required to find the CHRO and take a photo with him. It’s fun, engaging, and hiring managers are also involved.

At the end of the 90 days, we organise a graduation to celebrate with them and the hiring manager. This is how we are improving the whole partnership.

Clark: Let me ask you one last question. This is a big one, because I’m going to ask about the whole span of your career in HR. As you look to the future of HR, what’s the biggest change you’ve seen thus far and what’s the biggest change that you think is coming?

Fong: Compared to many people in the industry, my experience is not significant enough. But I did see big changes in the last 12 years, the biggest being automation.

Automation has created a big fear in the HR community, but for me, it is a challenge. If you strongly believe in yourself, are an open-minded person, and willing to learn, it is an opportunity. It provides you a space to drop all the transactional things and focus on real HR from day one.

Looking forward, hierarchy is a barrier for innovation and collaboration. Technology companies are introducing a new way of working with an agility-based methodology to change the organisation structure. So if everybody is going to go in this direction, sooner or later, HR will have to manage this. The workforce is no longer sitting in the same place. Titles are no longer relevant. Development is no longer a plan. It is a more personal kind of arrangement, tailor-made according to employees’ potential. These challenges to our HR community force us to learn and change every day.


This interview was conducted in front of a live audience at the 2019 HRO Today Forum APAC. It has been edited for length and clarity.

Posted August 26, 2019 in Enabling Technology

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