How new technologiesÂ are revolutionising HRÂ in an Asian icon.
By Michael Switow
Shirley Fong is the vice president of human resources at LiÂ & Fung, a trading company that started from very humbleÂ beginnings exporting Chinese porcelain and silk and whichÂ now operates one of the most worldâs extensive supplyÂ chains. The company employs some 17,000 people in moreÂ than 230 offices across 40 markets.
Fongâs career did not start in the HR department, though.Â She applied her analytical skills to managing supply chainsÂ for a global chemicals company. However, when she wasÂ presented with an offer for a regional HR leadership role,Â she cast aside self-doubt and jumped at the opportunity.
Since Fong joined Li & Fung 12 years ago, herÂ responsibilities have grown from HR operations toÂ fostering innovation in the employee experience andÂ driving the digital transformation of the companyâs HRÂ function. Her efforts and ingenuity led HRO Today toÂ name Li & Fung the 2019 APAC Talent Acquisition Team ofÂ the Year Award winner.
SharedXpertise CEO Elliot Clark caught up with Fong toÂ learn more.
Elliot Clark: Shirley, your background is quite different fromÂ many people who work in HR. How would you say that thisÂ impacts your approach to your current role as the numberÂ two person in HR at Li & Fung?
Shirley Fong: I was born into a big family and love toÂ interact with people, so I always wanted to find a jobÂ where I could address people matters. When I startedÂ my career in HR, my peers realised that one thing isÂ very different from my predecessors. I usually start myÂ presentations talking about the businessâlooking at theÂ profit and loss and the major business challengesâbeforeÂ discussing my people strategy. I find that my supply chainÂ experience and business acumen give me an advantageÂ in that I can play the role of a real strategic partner.Â Subsequently, my previous company realised they neededÂ a more diverse team. They began to hire people who hadÂ risen not just through the HR department but from otherÂ business areas as well.
Clark: Li & Fung has a three-year plan focusing on speed,Â digitisation, and innovation to create the “future of theÂ supply chain.” How has this technology focus changed whatÂ you do in HR?
Fong: Li & Fung is investing a lot in automation andÂ digitalisation. We strongly believe these are enablers.Â Theyâre not the enemy of the workforce. AutomationÂ enables people to do their job in a more efficient way.Â We want to give them time to do quality work andÂ focus on human interactions instead of operational andÂ transactional matters.
Let me share a few examples of how technology hasÂ replaced processes in our organisation. Three yearsÂ ago, we centralised all the transactional activities intoÂ one shared service centre and we used robotic processÂ automation (RPA) to process these tasks. Weâve alsoÂ automated contract signage and partnered withÂ DocuSign to ensure a paperless system. This creates aÂ very good candidate experience. A lot of candidatesÂ just find it so convenient, plus data can be easilyÂ accessed from the system. And weâve introduced HireFit,Â which helps us screen candidates based on Li & FungâsÂ leadership competency framework. Now our recruitersÂ do not need to spend too much time doing competencyÂ analysis. Instead, this AI prediction tool comes up with aÂ recommendation.
Without adding extra head count, we get things done in aÂ more efficient, effective and innovative manner.
Clark: As you go through this digital transformation, howÂ do you balance Li & Fungâs history and tradition with theÂ need to have a modern culture?
Fong: We identify a group of early adopters inÂ our organisation across different generations andÂ management levels. We use them as pioneers andÂ ambassadors to deliver quick wins. These then becomeÂ selling points to the rest of the organisation to embraceÂ the change and take action.
Clark: Returning to HireFit, itâs a culture assessment,Â automation-based tool that uses language analysis toÂ predict a cultural fit. Tell us more about how youâre usingÂ the system and what the experience has been like.
Fong: Computational linguistics uses language to provideÂ insight into human beingsâ thinking and intelligence.Â Language becomes a tool to evaluate candidateÂ performance and predict whether they can perform wellÂ in a role.
Applicants need to answer three open-ended questionsÂ and their written replies to each one must be at least 100Â words. People applying for the same position all answerÂ the same questions. We developed a kind of database asÂ a benchmark. The AI tool then compares each candidateâsÂ language with the benchmark. Another input into HireFitÂ is the personality assessment. By putting all this together,Â we can come up with a score to assess whether thisÂ candidate will fit our culture and be able to perform in theÂ role according to our competency requirements.
We still rely on humans to make the final judgement,Â though. So, the hiring manager and HR still play a veryÂ important role on top of the HireFit output.Â We also realise some candidates have a high score whileÂ others have a low score. These are the two groups ofÂ people we want to study. We will not say no to all theseÂ low score candidates. We want to understand why theyÂ have a high or low score.
Itâs been about 16 months since we launched HireFit,Â focusing first on the leadership level. Initial resultsÂ demonstrate improved retention. Usually, the highestÂ rate of attrition is within the first 12 months, but afterÂ introducing HireFit, our attrition rate has dropped. WeÂ are having better cultural competency and job matches.
This year, we launched the system to the next level:Â middle management. By the end of this year, weâllÂ be able to further share whether the system provesÂ successful.
Clark: Youâre at the cutting edge of research. At one level,Â language processing predicts intelligence by evaluatingÂ whether a person can coherently make an argument. ButÂ most companies are well behind you in terms of the wayÂ you are applying it.
As an aside, research about to come out in the HarvardÂ Business Review indicates that computers are better at predicting successful hires than human interviewers. AÂ recent poll, meanwhile, indicates that more than half of allÂ candidates have absolutely no interaction with their hiringÂ manager between the date of their last interview and theirÂ first day of work. No text, no WeChat, nothing. Shirley, sinceÂ you took over talent acquisition at Li & Fung and now ownÂ the candidate experience, how are you approaching this?
Fong: At Li & Fung, I think our hiring managers areÂ quite keen to support new hires but sometimes theyÂ donât know how to do it, and there was no structureÂ to assist them. So, from the fourth quarter of last year,Â we introduced LF Adventure, a 90-day onboardingÂ experience based on gamification. There are threeÂ elements:
- âBuddy programme.â The hiring manager and HRÂ team invite new team members to be in a buddy pool.Â We developed an app in-house that uses profiles toÂ match new hires with a buddy on their first day in theÂ company. We also want the new hire and hiring managerÂ to collaborate during this 90-day journey, so the appÂ enables the new hire, the hiring manager, and the buddyÂ to interact together.
- âDiscovery track.â The app engages new hires to signÂ up for company activities, such as becoming a member ofÂ a running club or dragon boat club. Theyâre also requiredÂ to attend a conference from outside their functional areaÂ so they can learn more about other roles. Thanks to theÂ app, new hires know how to contact these communitiesÂ and they become more engaged with Li & Fung culture.
- âTreasure hunt.â We require new hires to completeÂ some tasks, such as finding a landmark, taking a photo,Â uploading it on the app, and sharing it with their hiringÂ manager. In the process, they earn points. For example,Â they might be required to find the CHRO and take aÂ photo with him. Itâs fun, engaging, and hiring managersÂ are also involved.
At the end of the 90 days, we organise a graduation toÂ celebrate with them and the hiring manager. This is howÂ we are improving the whole partnership.
Clark: Let me ask you one last question. This is a big one,Â because Iâm going to ask about the whole span of yourÂ career in HR. As you look to the future of HR, whatâs theÂ biggest change youâve seen thus far and whatâs the biggestÂ change that you think is coming?
Fong: Compared to many people in the industry, myÂ experience is not significant enough. But I did seeÂ big changes in the last 12 years, the biggest beingÂ automation.
Automation has created a big fear in the HR community,Â but for me, it is a challenge. If you strongly believe inÂ yourself, are an open-minded person, and willing to learn,Â it is an opportunity. It provides you a space to drop all theÂ transactional things and focus on real HR from day one.
Looking forward, hierarchy is a barrier for innovation andÂ collaboration. Technology companies are introducing aÂ new way of working with an agility-based methodologyÂ to change the organisation structure. So if everybody isÂ going to go in this direction, sooner or later, HR will haveÂ to manage this. The workforce is no longer sitting in theÂ same place. Titles are no longer relevant. DevelopmentÂ is no longer a plan. It is a more personal kind ofÂ arrangement, tailor-made according to employeesâÂ potential. These challenges to our HR community force usÂ to learn and change every day.