The human face of business

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 22 January, 1995, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 22 January, 1995, 12:00am

Good business is more than budgets and statistics: it is also the individuals in the company. In this new column, corporate experts examine such 'soft' issues .

HISTORICALLY, businesses have managed the bottom line based on the 'hard' issues of budget, manufacturing, marketing, distribution and head count. For decades these had been the familiar arsenals of business strategy. What they have not traditionally focused on are the 'soft' management issues of values, culture, vision, leadership, behaviour, communication, reputation, relationships, and learning.

The 1990s have seen North American and European companies make a major shift of emphasis away from the hard issues towards the soft. Even as those CEOs were making the tough decision on down-sizing and budget cuts to weather the global recession, they were also coming to grips with the even tougher decision that they would have to set into motion a complete upheaval in corporate culture.

But in hard-headed Hong Kong, the soft issues are often neglected and only belatedly are Asian CEOs beginning to realise the limitations of the hard issues. As their workforce becomes better informed and more demanding and their markets more global, CEOs are discovering that quality, value-added services initiative and commitment must come from inside the individual and can't be forced or coerced.

Two Hong Kong companies leap to mind as the leading examples of corporate cultures which foster and champion the soft issues: the Mass Transit Railway Corporation and Giordano. Their market successes and their strong customer focus have made them among Hong Kong and Asia's most admired companies.

MTRC chairman Hamish Mathers recently won the IABC Communicator Of The Year award for the second time in five years. The award recognised the corporation for a culture that has changed over the past five years from one that valued clean stations and punctuality to one that values its employees and the travelling public. Its employees have become a team whose members are individually committed to serving the customer in the safest, fastest and most pleasant way possible.

'Giordano Means Service', which burst on the scene in 1988, is not an empty slogan: Giordano employees have demonstrated service also means top business and a good bottom line. It shook up an industry where, in Hong Kong at least, service had been poor and shop assistants often downright rude. Giordano was recently voted one of the companies Asian executives most wanted to emulate. The company could not have attained such a prominent reputation without the early decision to focus on the soft issues.

Increasingly this is being recognised as the CEOs of top Asian companies note in annual surveys that managing their company's reputation is their top priority. To them this means managing the solf issues - articulating a clear corporate strategy, staying absolutely true to defined corporate values, and building strong relationships not only with customers and employees but also with investors, regulators and the community.

The five experts contributing to this column are: Anne Forrest, managing director of Forrest International, a consultancy that provides strategic counselling.

Cliff Shaffran, chairman of Quicksilver Limited, a consultancy for strategic business presentation.

Deborah O'Hara, managing director of Connective Management Limited, designs programmes to help companies build employee commitment.

Charles Steilen, a senior lecturer in marketing at the Chinese University who also counsels corporations on marketing strategy; and James Haybryne, chairman of the Strategic Thinking Group, which helps companies develop and implement strategic direction.