Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Attracting Talent

The issue of attracting and retaining talented people has been a key concern among Fortune 500 companies and is now trickling down to universities, governments and other smaller companies. Talented people are becoming more important as countries and companies move towards a 'knowledge-based' economy. Malaysia has pretensions of wanting to become a knowledge based economy and our leaders would do well to read the latest Economist survey on Global Talent.

From the Economist survey:

With opportunities at home running dry, the hunt for talent has gone global. Over the past decade multinational companies have shipped back-office and IT operations to the developing world, particularly India and China. More recently they have started moving better jobs offshore as well, capitalising on high-grade workers with local knowledge; but now they are bumping up against talent shortages in the developing world too.

Even governments have got the talent bug. Rich countries have progressed from simply relaxing their immigration laws to actively luring highly qualified people. Most of them are using their universities as magnets for talent. India and China are trying to entice back some of their brightest people from abroad. Singapore's Ministry of Manpower even has an international talent division.

I completely agree with Tony when he says that we have a very poor track record of optimizing talent especially compared with our neighbors down south. We also have a very poor track record of maximizing our talent by sending them out to the best schools, attracting them back to Malaysia and then retaining them in local GLCs by optimizing their talent. (When I say "we", I'm referring to the government and the government-linked companies)

Tony's earlier post on the NEP and education referred to Tunku's Aziz remark of not even meeting one Malay student when he was giving a talk in Harvard. I think we have a very poor track record of sending our students to top schools in the US regardless of race. On a per capita basis, Singapore sends a much higher number of government scholars to the top US universities. Indeed, in some of these schools, the number of Singaporeans outnumber the Malaysians, by a margin of 5 to 1, if not more. There are approximately 50 Singapore undergrads here at Duke (most of them government scholars) compared to approximately 10 Malaysian undergrads (half of them are government scholars).

The success of Singapore's junior colleges is such that it warranted a special mention in the aforementioned Economist survey.

One of the most successful schools at getting students into American Ivy League universities is Raffles Junior College in Singapore.

(Disclaimer: Both Tony and I went to RJC or Raffles Junior College for our A levels)

I understand that JPA is making efforts at getting more of our scholars into top US universities by having specialised programs for its scholars but we're probably 10 years behind Singapore.

In terms of attracting talent to Malaysia, we don't have an equivalent of Singapore's Ministry of Manpower. While Singapore is reaching out to hire talented foreigners, we're having problems attracting qualified Malaysians who have studied and / or worked abroad to return home. And even when these Malaysians return home, they usually are channelled into the private sector without having the opportunity to 'serve' in the public sector or GLCs in any meaningful way.

In terms of optimizing talent, I've heard so many stories of JPA scholars who return home and wait 6 months before being 'called up' by them. Many of these scholars hope that JPA 'can't find' a job for them so that they can be released from their bonds. There's no systematic program within the JPA to effectively channel and manage their scholars. From what Tony has said, it's probably the same for the Tenaga, Telekom and Petronas scholars as well (though my impression is that Petronas probably has a better HR management program).

If we're really serious about moving into a knowledge economy, we need a serious rethink about how we manage the most important resource in a knowledge economy which is our human resource.


Anonymous said...

The issue of attracting talent is a highly complicated one. The truth is one must differentiate 'attracting talent' from 'retaining talent'. The former is a liberal embrazing policy of recruting whoever based on merit while the latter really is about some pre-existing criteria either based on nationality, race or political view. The truth is in the past Singapore's policy of scholarship was based on 'retaining talent' which frankly they knew even from the start was insufficient for global competitiveness. Currently the government emphasis is 'attracting talent' regardless of race, origin even political correctness if necessary.

The biggest problem with Malaysia is that it is NOT even able to retain talent not just attract. Primarily its because it offer few opportunities for the best and brightest. Coupled with political needs, attracting talent has no way of really succeeding.

At best we can achieve some cosmetic mediocrity. Talent is globally competitive and knows no boundary. We can always build nuclear bombs and make showy projects with money and mediocre talent but to really be competitive globally - go ask Singapore how tough it is - they are still losing their best and brightest.

Anonymous said...

Attracting Talent ...a very interesting topic..

MD says: the staff has worked very hard and you all are the most valuable "assets" of the co..keep up the good work..

Fin. dept says..but in accounting standards, staff / labour are treated as "expenditures"

Consultant to co. says: Business is becoming slow..the co. may have to down-size..implement the VSS..

Fin. dept says : ah..that would mean long term "cost-savings "

but then..the MD is confused..

.. wouldn't that result in "loss of assets" and a corresponding impoverishment of the co.?

..just curious

Casper said...

I met quite a few Malaysian - among the brighties and the most productive, in UK and they are all employees of investment banks. It is indeed a lost to Malaysia for them to remain here rather than helping to develop Malaysian capital market after a few years stint here. (That is of course a hyphothetical situation - I don't think Malaysian government is that interested in developing KLSE to be a world class capital market).

Money/salary is never the only issue to attract talent - it is about giving what the talents wants. Sometimes, this can be as simple as giving their spouse an easy way of settling down in Malaysia. (I know of Malaysian in UK who has deep resentment on this).

While I would argue that Singapore system has gone a little bit too far in emphasing on the importance of "scholars" (yes - some scholars are just book worms), I agree completely that they are doing a much better work
to attract talent.

Our government also appeard to be pretty selective on talent development as well. Our government will jump on first opportunity of sponsoring a child prodigy who have a faint Malay connection as we have witnessed before.
But when a prodigy child of equal potential came from a different ethnic background, he/she is ignored.

Half hearted attempt will only give luke warm result, no matter how loud one shouts. This, I suppose, will remain the case until Malaysian is under real presure to compete, either as a result of depletion of natural resources or the awakening of Thailand, Indonesia, Phillipines etc. You just need to be a notch beter than your rival.

Let's revisit this in 10 years time.

Anonymous said...

Much has been talked about attracting talents. But you didn't realised that after attracting these talents, YOU HAVE TO BE ABLE TO USE THEM WELL!

The ability to do so is measured in the amount of salary a particular company is willing to pay these talents.

If you are unable to pay them as well as a competitor can, then it only means that you can't use them as well as your competitor. Otherwise you might me losing money for "overpaying" a world class talent for doing jobs which even a monkey can do!

In the free market, 21st century environment, talents flow to corporations, nations that can utilized them best!

So, it is a problem of Leadership -a very sensitive issue in Malaysia since top corporate CEOs and chairman positions are highly political posts which are out of bound of these so called homebound talents!