A CAREER IN HUMAN REMAINS

I was late and the discussion was heating up by the time I sat down. The young, recent graduate had just completed an internship at an investment bank in Hong Kong and was seeking advice on career directions from those around the table. She had declared an interest in human resources and asked what the others thought. The initial consensus offered little encouragement.

“In our organization, we call HR “Human Remains”, laughed one. Another suggested she focus on a profession that “adds genuine value to the business”, while a third piped in with the opinion that he’d never met a HR person who was happy at work. Then the quiet American lady, a chief information officer at an international bank, spoke up:

HR should view employees as both 'human' and 'resources', not just data to be managed

HR should view employees as both ‘human’ and ‘resources’, not just data to be managed

“These people are talking about HR as disgruntled employees. But HR departments do often squander their remit, which is to act as strategic advisors and ambassadors for the business. That’s the big opportunity for HR people. If that sounds like something that would float your boat, young lady, I say do it,” she said.

The global economic downturn hasn’t helped the reputation of HR departments as businesses, faced with falling revenue and increased pressure on profits, set about cutting costs and headcount. This environment forced many HR departments back into their former roles as personnel departments. That said, however, some HR departments haven’t exactly covered themselves in glory.

“So what should a good HR person do?” asked the graduate.

The discussion that followed can be summarised thus:

  • There are few, if any, more powerful tools for creating and embedding company culture than the HR policies that a company chooses to introduce. This can be a good thing or a bad thing, depending on the policies.
  • As the global economy starts to recover, there is an opportunity for the HR function to make amends for recent indiscretions.
  • HR should lead the definition and development of the corporate culture and take on a leadership role in the rebuilding of the business once it understands the company’s strategy and business objectives.
  • HR departments need to become (and to see themselves) as brand ambassadors among employees and potential recruits. They need to focus more on the ‘human’ aspects of the job and begin to see the ‘resources’ in their job titles as assets worthy of nurturing rather than data points to be managed.
  • Because the ‘hearts and minds’ of employees is usually the deciding factor between transformation success and failure, HR departments should have a central role in ‘defining’ corporate transformation programmes, whether it’s the introduction of a new enterprise-wide IT system, new product development or service improvement.
  • Whilst performance reviews, resourcing plans, skills development and succession planning are clearly important, it’s too easy for employees to view them purely as corporate control mechanisms.
  • Employees see through cynical HR policies that are dressed up as good. For example, making corporate volunteering a mandatory requirement for all staff is seen as unhelpful (and a misunderstanding of the word ‘volunteer’).

The new graduate, needless to say, looked more confused at the end of the meal than she did at the beginning.

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CONNECTING FOR SOCIAL GOOD

Speaking to the Financial Times recently, Microsoft founder Bill Gates defined the drive to connect the world’s population to the Internet as a secondary requirement to eradicating disease and malnutrition: “I certainly love the IT thing,” he said. “But when we want to improve lives, you’ve got to deal with more basic things like child survival, child nutrition,” adding: “Take this malaria vaccine, [this] weird thing that I’m thinking of. Hmm, which is more important, connectivity or malaria vaccine? If you think connectivity is the key thing, that’s great. I don’t.”

Bill might be right about the Internet this time, but I wonder whether the educational benefits of giving people cheap and easy digital connectivity and access to the world’s knowledge could help us to address other social ills, including malnutrition?

The term ‘digital divide’ was coined a number of years ago to describe the gap that exists between those who have fast access to the Internet and those who don’t. The divide implies social and economic disadvantage, an inability to engage easily with the modern world and a deficit in the social and educational opportunities enjoyed by those people and societies better digitally connected.

Since the term was coined, fixed and mobile telecoms operators have been busy bankrolling and rolling out ever-faster broadband connections to more people over copper, fibre and 3G and 4G technologies. As a result of this investment, high-speed broadband access is becoming ubiquitous in many countries around the world. Yet despite this progress of technology and infrastructure, the digital divide remains – even in highly broadband-developed markets.

Could addressing the digital divide help dove other social problems?

Could addressing the digital divide help dove other social problems?

New research published by the Economist Intelligence Unit has found that a third of telecoms executives, government officials and policy makers believe the digital divide is getting wider in their country. Where the major hurdle used to be a lack of investment in advanced high-speed communications infrastructure, particularly in rural areas, affordability relative to income and a lack of digital skills have now been identified as the key barriers to be overcome.

There is a significant body of evidence today that enabling people to participate in what some call ‘the digital economy’ brings social and economic benefits for individuals, businesses and for nations. These benefits include instant access to the world’s knowledge to boosts to national gross domestic product.  But according to the latest ITU data, 4.4 billion people worldwide remain offline, meaning the challenge ahead remains significant.

According to the European Union, around 90 percent of all jobs require some level of digital skills today. 87 percent of survey respondents told the EIU that digital skills – defined as a person’s ‘ability to access, adapt and create knowledge via the use of information and communications technologies’ will be a lot more important in just three years time.

Small businesses can find new customers and new markets on the Internet. With more and more employers recruiting exclusively online today, just getting a job requires digital literacy and access. Food chains are being improved by online tracking from the birth of livestock to its eventual sale as food. Even democracy is becoming digital with governments around the world moving the delivery of public services to the Internet in an attempt to reduce the cost of service delivery.

Could addressing the digital divide help us address disease, malnutrition and infant mortality? I don’t know but I do believe that mankind might be capable of addressing more than one social issue at a time, and that solving one social inequity might help us address another.

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DRIVEN MAD IN CHINA

I bought my first car when I was 17. University years aside, I was a car owner from then until four days before I left the UK. Exchanging my last car for cash was an unwelcome experience but I arrived in Shenzhen with plans to get a Chinese driving licence – even if, as I’d heard, it meant paying a native to take the test on my behalf. I even looked forward to buying something interesting with four wheels.  My only concern was whether I’d be able to find a reliable English language satnav system.

But the desire to drive died during my first few days here. Watching the way the Chinese drive from the passenger seat in taxis, I decided that the mobility benefits of driving myself couldn’t match the basic aspiration to protect life and limb. Driving in China is not for the faint hearted and falls somewhere between an amateur track day at the Nurburgring and the chariot race in Ben Hur.

Driving in China would require a supply of happy drugs on an intravenous drip.

Driving in China would require a supply of happy drugs on an intravenous drip.

I now have a driver who takes me to and from work. The days when we don’t come close to adding to the road traffic accident statistics are few and far between. I’ve been involved in two (admittedly minor) ‘altercations’ in nine months. Once was when a cyclist failed to stop until he was forced to by the bumper of Mr Wu’s Honda. But the heart-stopping moments are frequent. Its not just driving skills.  Road works continue whilst drivers drive and I even saw a car stranded on a main road, the front wheel embedded in a man hole whose cover had been removed for maintenance. People can often be seen sweeping the motorways with a broom during the morning rush hour.

I recently asked someone with more years experience of China if there’s a Chinese ‘rules of the road’ booklet. He suggested that if such a guide exists, someone must have borrowed it from the library and forgot to return it or is simply holding it hostage.

My father taught me to drive. He learned from his dad. In the western world, there is a culture of driving and tips and guidance is passed from one generation to the next. My early driving lessons covered two things: how to make the car behave in the way I intended it to; and the need to being alert to the dangers that could threaten my and other road users’ safety.  With few exceptions, drivers follow the rules and most people get around without incident.

The challenge is that as recently as 20 years ago cars were a luxury beyond the means of everyday folk in an economy where people had more pressing demands on their disposable incomes. Those who did drive were mostly drivers for government departments or the CEOs of large, state–owned enterprises.

Ten years ago, China’s economic success began to trickle down to the millions cycling in the streets. Over the last decade car ownership grew exponentially amongst the country’s growing and affluent middle class. In the late 1970s, there were fewer than one million cars in China. By 2012, the number had risen to 120 million. Between 2010 and 2011, China overtook the US as the world’s largest car market with more cars sold than in any other country in the world.

But the bit that is missing is the generational passing on of experience.  Despite an impressive road-building programme, traffic congestion is a daily occurrence in China’s large cities – a combination of the rising number of vehicles on the roads and shockingly bad driving.

The white lines that identify lanes on motorways appear invisible to Chinese drivers who randomly veer from one lane to the other on a whim, completely oblivious to others. Pedestrians, encouraged to cross the road by the little green man, are equally invisible. Rear view mirrors are redundant ornaments when drivers pull out into traffic, often while chatting or texting on their mobile phones. Aggressive car horn blowing is considered an acceptable alternative to paying attention or anticipation.

I’ve been without my own car now for nine months and it’s a strangely liberating experience in many ways. China’s roads have the highest death rates in the world: every day, 45,000 people are injured and 618 are killed. Being a car passenger carries little of the relaxation it does elsewhere.  Driving oneself in China, I’ve decided, would require a supply of happy drugs on an intravenous drip.

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