The Befuddled Dragon

So, I was in Singapore for the HRO Today APAC conference the week of May 14, when I had an uncomfortable realization. I was that “guy” everyone was complaining about. Not that I am surprised when some people are complaining about me. I am just surprised when it is everybody. And it if was not personally me—it was metaphysically and metaphorically me. You see, I was the “guy” visiting from corporate home office back in the West. I was the “guy” confusing the Dragon (of commerce) that lives in the East.
Singapore is one of my favorite cities in the world. It is a financial and commercial hub that has become an economic hothouse. Having evolved from a shipping crossroads in its colonial days, Singapore is now competing to be the mercantile capital of Asia. Our conference attracts the best and the brightest executives from both the HR practitioner suite and the top service companies headquartered in both the East and the West.
Running HR as a global enterprise is as much a challenge in Boston as in Beijing. In Eastern-based conglomerates, HR was a regulatory and compliance function a decade ago and is emerging as a much more strategic function in today’s modern APAC-based company—similar to its role in the Western-based businesses. And for Western-based companies with divisions operating in APAC, HR is more pervasive and strategic, but also stretched very thin. HR is a global victim of economic restructurings, and APAC operations might be the brightest spots for economic prosperity.
So, why is the Dragon scratching its scaly head and exhaling a fiery breath of frustration? For Eastern companies, confusion exists around the direction of business. But the real confusion is for the Western-based conglomerates—the people reading this magazine need to understand the issues—and yes, that means you over there in the corner.
Both providers and practitioners must cope with the significant revenue and employee growth curves that APAC represents. One of the complaints we heard from local HR APAC leadership was that not all corporate HR executives understand the pain and challenges of keeping up with growth and economic realities such as wage inflation and employee retention in some Asian markets. Asia is also many different countries, cultures, and languages, which adds to the complexity. The ratio of HR professionals to staff is low compared to other regions.
HR leadership in APAC is just now embarking on the long and arduous task of investigating external solutions. This might entail extensive calculation of current costs, building of a business case, and an ROI analysis. Most times, the local HR leaders will go to their corporate headquarters to apprise the global HR leadership of this investigation. Their goal is to get the “green light” to proceed with an RFP, and they are told that any approval will be subject to the final proposals as submitted.
The bid process can be time consuming and exhaust resources and energy. Many delegates recalled getting close to a deal, only to have the approval hung up in London and/or New York. In fact, these cities were most frequently cited as a place where APAC initiatives go to die. What happens in New York or London? In addition to lovely performances on Broadway and the West End, APAC executives related that what “goes on” is a lack of understanding and communication. Then, headquarters conveys to the branch executives that—as satellites—they do not have autonomy. Hence, their frustration with the “home office” and my realization after arriving from our offices just outside of New York that I was, in fact, that “guy.”
There is no question that corporate headquarters has to have oversight, or anarchy prevails. However, there needs to be better communication and better processes for understanding the business problems unique to Asia. That requires a “pre-approval system” at many of these companies to determine what can and should be done locally.
This would streamline governance and improve morale and local decision making. The energy and excitement of APAC is electrifying, and the growth is impressive. But we all learned in management courses years ago that the happier we keep the fire-breathing reptiles, the more productive (or less destructive) they will be.

Tags: Consultants & Advisors, HRO Today Global, Professional Contribution

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