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Vision 2020: Building the right talent base for empowered SMEs

18 August 2017

As featured in Malaysia SME - 18th August, 2017 

There is an adage in business that people leave managers, not companies. Attracting and retaining good talent will remain a perennial issue for local businesses, big and small, while their reasons behind talent attrition can vary. As the leader of a growing enterprise, my HR leaders and I also face these same challenges, though I believe we have tools that can turn this into an opportunity.

In Singapore, a recent Willis Towers Watson survey revealed that two-thirds of employers struggle to attract talent of differing skill sets, while more than half reportedly found it difficult to retain high potential talent. This challenge has been exacerbated by digital disruption, where the most sought-after skills by employers today were non-existent less than a decade ago.

To a local business builder or a small & medium business owner, it is easy to imagine that the odds are stacked against them. They find themselves up against large multinational enterprises with the deep pockets and brand reach to invest in sophisticated systems to acquire and retain the best and brightest. 

Compounding matters, the wave of digital disruption continues to transform industries and make the business landscape nearly unrecognisable. With increasing automation, close to 40% of jobs that existing today may becoming redundant in the next ten to 15 years. It is, therefore, critical for business to focus on attracting highly skilled talent for strategic roles that automation will not be able to replace.

To better cope with the demands of people management in the digital age, ask yourself these questions: Where is my business heading? Do I have the business insights to help with my decision-making? What talent and skills do I require to help my business achieve its goals and be successful in the future? Once you are clear on these, you will be better place to set a clear talent acquisition and retention strategy.

Capitalising on your most valuable asset

To start with, Small & Medium Businesses should consider implementing a formal talent acquisition and development role, or possibly a small team depending on the company’s size. While some of its functions may overlap with those of HR service delivery, there is a need to keep the functions distinct and ensure that there is a direct reporting line to management. This sends a clear signal to all within and outside the company that their employees are just as important as any other business need.

The purpose of a talent acquisition team is to attract the right talent as well as to plan the career path of all their employees based on business insights such as workforce performance and industry knowledge including talent availability and job vacancies. Some tips to keep employees engaged include setting up not just goals and targets but also training sessions, allowing for department rotation, overseas short and long-term assignments, and providing frequent business updates.

Often, this role is parked under HR’s responsibilities, inevitably taking second place to other people management and administrative tasks. In cases like this, there is a need to be clear-eyed. By embracing digital disruption and leveraging human capital management solutions, more routine functions such as leave applications, payroll management, performance reviews and career development on the-go, and even personnel transfers and employee promotions can be automated. For example, employee self-service portals accessible on mobile devices would be key in todays highly mobile and regional workforce. This effectively helps to shift focus to developing your talent and allowing them autonomy to take charge of their own career. E.g. through leveraging opportunities for transfer or applying for a higher-level position.

In fact, according to a study by Deloitte, millennial workers increasingly desire to feel empowered at work. They want to make a tangible impact on the world, whether on larger tasks such as customer satisfaction, or serving themselves on HR tasks. In this case, HR solutions offer a platform to build millennial employees’ sense of purpose and choice with regards to HR options, which will in turn encourage the engagement of your millennial workforce.

HR has always been a numbers game, as they need to consider everything, from headcount to salary. Each data point contributes to a larger story, and it is the responsibility of HR to paint an accurate and consolidated picture, as this can effectively impact future business decisions for the company. E.g. Hr data collected can influence succession planning for roles which will steer certain departments, as well as business costs, as the business leaders can now chart the overall employee costs versus future business growth costs. As a business leader such insight is vital to my decision-making process.

An effective HRM solution is also key, especially for HR professionals managing staff across multiple countries and multiple entities in the same country, as it will allow the relevant HR teams to undertake team management by leveraging the same system to manage employee matters across the entities and countries. HR personnel must not only adopt the right set of tools, but also the right mind set, so that they can move away from counting and reporting to truly changing their company’s future.

Branding for success

Brand-building is an area that Small & Medium Business should treat the same way that larger enterprises do. Internally, having a clear consistent branding message can help eliminate confusion and disagreement in the workplace, contributing to a positive work environment.

For HR and talent acquisition, happy employees make the best brand ambassadors, helping to publicise the company and reducing employee turnover and manpower costs, a significant business cost for any Small & Medium Business. The benefits also extend beyond a HR perspective , and include helping employees better articulate the employer’s business value proposition and contribute to sales.

Business builders must be cognisant that it takes time to establish strong branding and not look at braiding like a marketing campaign that will deliver quick results. Like large enterprises that invest over the long run to establish top-of-mind recall, Small & Medium Businesses also need to consider long-term initiatives when it comes to brand building.

A helping hand

Despite many business builders agreeing to the need to invest in processes and systems to empower their employees and attract potential talents, many still lament the high costs associated.

Acknowledging the issues, the Malaysian Government has extended a helping hand to local businesses, through the establishment of the Human Resource Development Fund, better known as HRDF. Parked under the Ministry of Human Resources (MOHR), HRDF serves to further develop the local workforce through grants, financing, tax incentives and advisory services.

At the recent launch of HRDF’s Human Capital Strategic Initiatives, HRDF chief executive offices Datuk CM Vignaesvaran Jeyandran stressed that HRDF serves to “ensure the creation and growth of quality local human capital”, by encouraging skills upgrading and life-long learning.

In line with this, HRDF provides specialised training grands as an incentive for employers to retain and upgrade workers’ skills, addressing the needs of their business requirements which can be used to defray training costs.

With sound business planning and forecasting, business builders can use these initiatives to future proof their business.

A business is continuously evolving, living entity. It can only be successful when people with the right skill sets who share the same belief in a common cause come together with passion. It simply makes good business sense for Small & Medium Businesses to invest in their most important asset – their people – to power their growth for the future.



Robin Chao leads sales, business strategy development, personnel management, scale-up business and sales performance for Sage in Asia. A 22-year veteran in the IT industry, Robin is particularly passionate about helping build and assist SMEs to reach their potential. 

Vision 2020 by Robin Chao
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