Diversity can be a stimulus for companies on the go

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 26 June, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 26 June, 2007, 12:00am

There is a war for talent going on in Asia as companies continue to offer higher salaries and better packages in their scramble to find good people in a limited pool of local candidates.

In India and China, and among growing economies, the demand for middle to senior management far exceeds supply, making retention a key point for multinationals and other large companies.

Studies suggest that diversity is key to good company performance. Diversity at the top, in the form of a good mix of male and female executives with varying cultural or ethnic backgrounds, results in a broad range of views and a richer creativity.

Inside and outside the boardroom, words like 'culture' and 'ethnicity' can be divisive, but there is a recognition that cultures can also be cohesive and stimulating to healthy business growth.

But the goal of diversity and inclusion can be elusive in some Asian countries. In Japan and South Korea, for example, where centuries-old cultural attitudes prevail, the corporate world tends not to have women in middle to senior management positions.

The mainland, which introduced anti-discrimination legislation last month, has serious discrimination problems, with people being turned away from jobs for assorted but grossly unfair reasons.

Discrimination aside, the way multinationals in Asia approach the issue of cultural values and differences in the workplace is haphazard at best, according to experts.

Tom Verghese, the Australian-based director and founder of the consultancy firm Cultural Synergies, said multinationals should be looking at ways to blend organisational culture with national culture.

When multinationals originally came to Asia, he said, they were in a position to say: 'This is how we do it and you are lucky that we are here'. Now one of their biggest challenges, especially in China and India, is attrition.

'In September I will talk to a group that is a multinational - a team of 14 people. Their main growth areas are India and Malaysia, and out of that group only one person is Asian,' Mr Verghese said.

One way for a multinational to develop its talent pool would be to post staff to the country where its head office was located. More often than not, it was a 'one-way track', with expatriate staff being sent to Asia, rather than Asian staff being sent to Washington or London, he said.

One reason for this was the fear of losing people, after training them at high cost, to higher-paying rivals. Employees who were offered long-term career plans were more likely to stay, Mr Verghese said.

Andrew McGregor, Hong Kong-based director of talent development for PepsiCo International, said the challenge in Asia was the pull of rapidly growing economies, such as India and the mainland. He cited the war for talent, the relentless demand for innovation and the call for increased collaboration across businesses and cultures.

'While we strive to create an inclusive and competitive workplace, there is a lot of pull for the talent we develop,' he said.

While the Asian presence in senior management teams was small, about

1 per cent, there were plenty of Asians in high and middle management, but the problem was finding the local talent pool, Mr McGregor said.

Mr Verghese argued that the talent pool was there.

'Most multinationals don't develop people to the top echelons. I think the talent is there; I just don't think we spend time developing it,' he said.

Cultural differences can also be seen in the boardroom style - the way discussions go at business meetings and the way executives project themselves. American executives are not shy to discuss their abilities or review themselves in a positive light; their Japanese counterparts, on the other hand, would be diffident about their achievements.

Some cultures had strongly ingrained ideas, Mr Verghese pointed out. 'In Japan, we are talking about hundreds of years of tradition, particularly when it comes to issues of gender. This has an impact on leadership development and selection,' he said.

Richard Welford, Asia director of the non-governmental organisation CSR Asia, said that people tended to take a narrow view of cultural values and parameters.

The good thing about having employees from different backgrounds all working together was that people would be less likely to make assumptions about one another, he said.

'Diversity is not just about race and ethnic origins,' Mr Welford said. 'There is this assumption that people have shared values. But they don't. People have different expectations. If you have outer representations of diversity, like your skin colour, that's easier to deal with because it's obvious. But people's experiences are often hidden.

'Cultural values have to do with people's childhoods. Some people have had quite significant trauma in their lives, such as the refugee experience so prevalent in Hong Kong, albeit among the older generation. That gets completely missed. It's those embedded experiences. Multinationals fail to recognise that.'