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My Surprising Realization About Talent Management in China

December 1, 2014, Emily He - I recently traveled to Beijing to speak at the China E-Learning Forum and Exhibition (CEFE) – the biggest learning event in China. The organizer asked me to deliver a presentation on the topic of effectively managing the millennials.
My Surprising Realization About Talent Management in China

Surprised that this would be a topic of interest to Chinese companies, I dug into as much research I could find about talent management in China and talked to many of my local friends, colleagues, customers, and partners.  I thought I’d uncover a host of fascinating cultural differences, but instead, I realized that there many astounding similarities between the U.S. and China, especially when it comes to talent management.

The desire to humanize the workplace is universal

In researching millennials, I noticed that they have a lot in common with their cohorts in the U.S., with many shared experiences, expectations, values and attitudes for the workplace. Globally-minded, well-traveled, and connected across boarders by the internet and social media, they are keenly aware of how companies in other parts of the world are structured and managed.  They sport a reputation that combines questionable traits such as neediness, selfishness, sense of entitlement, and disrespect for their elders with admirable qualities such as honesty, confidence, ambition, creativity, and entrepreneurship.

Currently, there are over 300 million millennials in China, many of whom hold leadership positions in companies of all sizes.  As a percentage, they are set to grow at rocket pace.  They desire opportunities to learn, grow, and experiment; value transparency and sense of purpose and mission.  They expect to take control of their career paths and jump from job to job much more frequently than prior generations.  Collectively, they’re challenging the traditionally hierarchical, bureaucratic and rigid management approach that is the legacy of state-owned enterprises. They’re pushing companies in China – local or multinational – to adopt more modern approaches to talent management by focusing more on culture, mission, open communication, and treating employees as human beings.

Innovation as the top business priority

China's spectacular economic rise has produced some of the world's biggest and fastest-growing companies, such as our customers Huawei, Haier, China Construction Bank, and PetroChina.  The Chinese, however, are very conscious of the fact that they have fashioned very few powerful brands that stand for quality, creativity, and ingenuity. Now, China's leaders openly talk about the need to shift from exports to domestic consumption, and of the need to enhance products and boost services. They are targeting innovation as a national priority, in the hope of speeding the shift from brawn to brain that is required to prosper in this new century's knowledge economy.

One company that is hailed as the epitome of innovation is Alibaba, whose recent IPO raised more than $20 billion and gave it a market cap of $240 billion. Its kinetic leader Jack Ma achieved this feat by blending the best of Western and Chinese technologies, culture and management to create the world’s largest ecommerce company.  A long-time admirer of Silicon Valley as the cradle of innovation, Ma closely studied many iconic management practices from U.S. high-tech companies and infused them in his leadership style.  He advocates the importance of agility and adaptability, clearly articulating your mission and values, communicating openly and inspiringly, and prioritizing experimentation and execution over excessive planning.  In an interview with Diane Sawyer, Ma said, “I think it is the American dreams that make America different.  Today, Chinese people have the dreams. ... Many years ago, we would wait for the government, now we don't wait for the government."

At the Beijing Xinhua Bookstore, the largest bookstore in China, an entire section on the main floor was devoted to Ma’s management philosophy and communication style.  Looking at the crowds of people devouring these books, I can’t help but think that Alibaba is a precursor to what’s to come in modernizing management and leadership practices in China that will fuel the next wave of innovation.

Technology as an enabler and equalizer for talent management

It’s apparent from all the conversations I’ve had when I was in Beijing that local and multinational companies alike are looking for ways to hire the right talent, develop leadership bench strength, and skill and reskill the workforce so that they can accelerate innovation, enhance products and services, and compete more effectively on the global stage.  They see technology as a critical enabler of modern talent management practices and a great equalizer that will allow them to leapfrog their Western counterparts. Additionally, with one of the highest mobile penetrations in the world and national obsessions with social tools such as WeChat, the end users in China are very savvy when it comes to technology and social media.  A CEFE, the business and technology trends that were discussed were virtually identical to those highlighted at the HR Tech event in the U.S. – social, mobile, cloud computing, predictive analytics, artificial intelligence, employee engagement, talent development, and coaching and mentoring.  And the number of start-ups bringing new innovations to all areas of the talent management is equally dazzling.

APEC and its implication on talent management in China

Last month’s APEC meeting in Beijing shone a light on China’s rising economic clout and political prowess.  China unveiled a series of measures aimed at strengthening financial ties with neighboring nations and the Western countries.  It pushed up the heavily controlled value of the country’s currency, the Renminbi – a gesture that makes goods from other countries more competitive in the Chinese market.  A landmark Stock Connect program was announced that will allow foreign investors to trade stocks listed on the Shanghai and Hong Kong stock exchanges directly for the first time, further opening its capital market

As part of his overall call for improved economic ties between the two nations, President Obama announced during APEC that the United States has reached a bilateral understanding with China on eliminating tariffs for a wide range of information technology products.  He also introduced a new plan to extend Chinese student visas to five years and business and tourist visas to 10 years – a move that he says will boost jobs in the United States.

The liberalization of China’s capital market and strong ties with the U.S. will mean tighter integration and collaboration between the U.S. and China, and more changes in the talent landscape that has already undergone significant transformation in the last 10 years.  As China further opens up its market and tightens relationship with the U.S. and other countries, strategic people management will be ever more pivotal in determining a company’s long-term success in the global economy.  I’m incredibly excited about the opportunity of working with our Chinese customers to modernize their HR practices and realize their “Chinese dreams” with our intelligent talent management solutions.


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