Posted : 2013-01-27 19:13
Updated : 2013-01-27 19:13

Global talent war

A group of foreigners take the Korean proficiency exam. Many Korean firms employ foreign workers but most of them fail to take advantage of the foreign workers' know-how due to the culture and practices which are not friendly to outsiders. / Yonhap

In their incessant pursuit of new technologies and business opportunities, companies around the world have concluded that their nation's talent pool is not deep enough quantitatively or qualitatively to sustain success and thus have engaged in a global talent war. According to a 2011 survey on 25,000 employers in 39 countries, 25 percent were looking abroad to fill skills gaps in their workforce. Even in Japan, where a strong culture of ethnic homogeneity prevails, 48 percent of Japanese companies in the survey expressed an urgency to seek talent outside their national labor market.

Korean companies are also importing more workers but fully utilizing their know-how and retaining them are matters that require more attention. One foreign-born technology worker said in an interview that it is difficult to develop sustainable competence with a long-term vision due to Korean business culture and practices, and even large companies fall short in their preparations for retaining and utilizing foreign workers.

Success points

Global Talent War 2.0, as used in this report, refers to the shift from competing to obtain talent to the competing to effectively use talent. To realize the contributions that foreign talent offers, companies need to provide new employees enough time to adapt to a different culture and an environment. This will promote mutual learning and cultivate adaptability. Then, the overall company environment must be upgraded so as to ease difficulties of foreign workforce. Finally, support measures must be devised to stimulate the continuous growth of foreign workers by drawing on the opinions of experts who can measure intercultural adaptation and their performance.

Many companies simply hire foreign talent and expect that it will grow naturally. Some hope that a single crop of new employees from abroad can make their companies global. However, this assumption is problematic in non-English speaking nations, where linguistic and cultural gaps are wide. What is necessary is an intensive process of nurturing and acclimation that can reduce any anxiety over cultural separation and help instill a sense of belonging.

This process is akin to transplanting rice. In rice farming, seeds are first sown in a nursery, and the appropriate temperature, moisture and nutrients are maintained until the seeds sprout. The seedlings are then nourished and supported until they are ready to be transplanted in soil outside. When they are planted, three to five seedlings are placed together to support each other as they grow.

According to one study, more than a year is normally needed for foreign workers to adjust to a different culture. During this period, foreign employees can rely on each other for support, resolve language barriers and acclimate to the company culture, making them far more effective when dispatched to the field.

Healthcare supply giant Johnson & Johnson, which draws on talent worldwide, provides diverse networking and study opportunities to ensure a "soft landing" in its company culture. A diversity management program voluntarily organized by Johnson & Johnson worldwide employees provides mentoring, career development and cultural understanding programs, which promotes mutual learning between employees from different nations and furthers acceptance of cultural diversity and tolerance.

IT network equipment maker Cisco runs an Inclusive Advocacy Program that provides mentoring from its executives to global talented workers. In 2009, 30 individuals with the highest potential were selected from 16 countries and paired with senior level executives pursuing projects around the world. Cisco gave them a year of coaching and mentoring, and began holding an annual Diversity and Leadership Symposium for executives to announce the results of their mentoring activities. As a result, job satisfaction and commitment to work increased among the employees, who also became eligible for a change of duties or promotion.

Building global environment

Even if foreign workers adapt well, they cannot flourish if their new company does not make adjustments itself. Here, the CEO must drive needed changes. In fact, the alterations to the corporate culture need to be entrenched before foreign personnel are recruited. This may involve communication policies, human resources management system and infrastructure.

A series of departures of foreign-born CEOs of Japanese companies have raised criticism that Japan's corporate culture is facing limits in accommodating global leaders. Sony's first ever non-Japanese CEO Howard Stringer who stepped down in April this year pointed out Japanese companies' language and cultural barriers and closed corporate culture as problems. This is not only the problem of Japanese companies but most companies in non-English speaking countries.

Japanese casual clothes maker Uniqlo stands out for breaking down language and cultural barriers and building a globalized business environment. Chairman Tadashi Yanai articulated the "Global One" and "Zen-in Keiei" principle, which means all group companies operate as a single entity, creating a culture where local and foreign employees work together without barriers. In June 2010, he made English the official workplace language and installed a policy that blocks non-English speakers from job opportunities. In employing 1,300 people, Yanai hired 300 Japanese and 1,000 non-Japanese, and has each employee work overseas in rotation.

It is also crucial for CEOs to take the lead in understanding the native workplace culture of his foreign employees. For example, some may expect to hear explicit orders and feedback. An interview with a US planning personnel shows top performers believe meetings with or direct reporting to the CEO are an important element in their career development. However, some CEOs in Korea lack understanding of these features and are reluctant to meet them one-to-one.

Introducing a globally universal HR system that applies to all employees regardless of nationality is also crucial. To this end, a standard HR system should be introduced to ensure foreign talented workers that they are not used for special purposes but are allowed to compete and develop themselves under fair conditions.

The "Global 21" program of Toyota applies a universal HR system to handle the automaker's executives around the world. The carmaker based its global HR on the principle of providing equal opportunities in career development, job assignments, performance evaluation and compensation, without regard to nationality or place of origin. By doing this, it was able to manage all of its talent using fair standards of performance, language competence, professional technologies and management capabilities. This accordingly helped foreign top performers set up their vision and enhanced loyalty to the company.

Toyota evaluated employees on a level plane in terms of performance, language competence, professional technologies and management capability. This helped top foreign performers establish career goals and enhanced loyalty to the company.

The final step is to manage talented foreign employees through a scientific and systemic approach by experts, who diagnose and study the degree of intercultural adaptation, devise plans to manage diversity and implement adaptation programs.

Cultural sensitivity of foreign-born employees should be enhanced for the long term. In one survey, 73 percent of top executives of leading global companies responded "cultural sensitivity" was the most important attribute for foreign workers' successful adaptation. It is therefore necessary to assess the degree of foreign workers' cultural sensitivity and provide tailored support for each individual based on their degree of adaptability.

Prudential Financial, a US-based global insurance firm, has a talent management arm called the Intercultural Group. With "Overseas Assignment Inventory," a cultural assessment tool, foreign skilled workers are constantly reviewed and offered customized training programs. Training programs focus on intercultural competencies in three key areas: awareness, knowledge and skills. With an extensive global training network in over 100 locations, its programs have boasted consistent 99 percent satisfaction rating since 2003.

It is important to first devise mid -to long-term strategies before international recruiting. Clear strategic directions should be established for new technology and new markets, before recruiting abroad to fill skill gaps in the workforce. Recruiting foreign workers simply to meet a quota will result in a loss for both the company and the employee if no long-term plan is in place to fully tap their talent and know-how. Considering the high costs attached to recruiting a foreign worker, an early departure would be a considerable financial loss as well as forfeited input.

For companies in non-English speaking countries to utilize global talents effectively, the most urgent matter is the CEO's will to use foreign talent and a change in the company's overall corporate structure, including its culture. The CEO should take the initiative in promoting policies for foreign personnel to become acclimated to the company and continuously embed his will throughout the organization.

The heads of departments or divisions who have skilled foreign workers should set up goals and manage these workers via key performance indicators of utilization performance and cultural sensitivity, etc. They need to constantly monitor whether these workers are effectively used.

Finally, policy support should be made for foreign workers to grow in a stable manner and become global leaders. Companies will have to shift from the practice of selecting leaders within the country or from headquarters, and make successful cases of foreign workers succeeding as leaders.

The "Global War for Talent 2.0" refers to moving beyond attracting talent to raise these workers' competence with every possible means, in order to create corporate performance. In this context, the key is not the number of foreign employees a company has hired. Rather, it is whether they have stayed and contributed to the success of the company.

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