Article: Dr. Loo on the future of HR in the APAC region

Strategic HR

Dr. Loo on the future of HR in the APAC region

In an exclusive interview with People Matters, Dr. Loo Leap Han, Head, Group HR, KMU Eiscon Holding, shares his perspective about how the role of a traditional HR professional is changing dramatically in light of the rising demands placed on people leaders in this digital age and rapidly evolving digital future of work.
Dr. Loo on the future of HR in the APAC region

With more than 19 years of experience in the HR industry, Dr. Loo Leap Han has worked across various sectors ranging from manufacturing, healthcare, and infrastructure construction. At present, Dr. Loo is the Head of Group Human Resources and Administration for KMU Eiscon Holding Sdn Bhd, a civil construction firm based in Malaysia dedicated towards infrastructure projects in the region. 

Dr. Loo has worked across various functions of HR such as talent acquisition and management, employee competency gap analysis, organizational development and culture, and helping organizations develop its people. 

In an exclusive interview with People Matters, Dr. Loo shared his perspective about how the role of a traditional HR professional is changing dramatically in light of the rising demands placed on people leaders in this digital age and rapidly evolving digital future of work. 

Do you think your role as an HR leader will continue to exist in the future landscape of work? If so, how will it have changed? If not, how will you prepare for your future role? 

Each organization will still continue to need a full-time employee who works as an HR. Both people and organizations are complicated. An HR’s role is going to change drastically and move away from the traditional HR roles. The new digital economy will require employees to constantly upskill and find new, creative ways of thinking and problem solving. It is precisely why HR must transform themselves into Digital HR and Data Analytics ambassadors in the ever-more-digital environment. 

HR must have the ability to analyze and interpret data, use it to help business leaders understand the needs of the workforce and incorporate those results into planning and strategizing for the workforce. 

HR will need to champion the role of a mindset changer. Dealing with employees’ expectations and ensuring that the business is productive would also become the prerogative of the HR professional. 

A diverse workforce can guarantee a prosperous organization. The onus is on the HR leader to advocate diversity and engagement responsibilities to promote a better understanding between different types of people and teams. 

Personally, I do not believe the HR role is going away; rather, it is becoming even more important especially in facilitating the transformation of HR organizations into agile-focused companies. 

As an HR leader, what are the two key aspects of your role that you will no longer be engaged with, in the future of work? 

The two key aspects which will no longer be a part of an HR leader’s KRA are: transactional and operational accountability and charting employees’ career planning journey. 

Traditionally, HR’s role as being in-charge of administrative functions will no longer be relevant. Most of these tasks would be automated and the repetitive tasks will be outsourced to technology and/or vendors to ensure greater efficiencies and long-term savings. 

Some of the common HR services such as payroll, training, and learning can be centralised by organizations or business units through a ‘shared services’ center via innovative and scalable cloud HR systems that allow greater empowerment of employees. 

Another aspect of HR’s role is charting employees’ career planning. Career development has now become agile and gig-focused. The growing millennial workforce is more focused on racking up new experiences than on banking time at one organization. There is a new social employment contract, or new business paradigm, in which employees, especially the Millennials, are less incentivised by security and benefits and more eager to take on roles that offer new experiences, flexibility, and purposeful. 

As a people leader and HR professional who has worked across sectors ranging from manufacturing to medical, how have you seen the role of HR evolve, especially in Malaysia, and the APAC region at large? 

In Malaysia, the roles of HR have evolved quite moderately. There have been two transition categories: From transactional to strategic which has been mainly observed in SMEs and local enterprises. Another category is from strategic to partnership-focused or collaborative thus resulting in major transformations. Local HR leaders will definitely play a central role in acting as a transformational change agent and continue to play a front-line interfacing role with management, managers, and employees to embrace the transition of HR into a new role. 

The HR fraternity in Malaysia is reaching there but not really there yet. The competency of HR leaders is one of the core contributing factors towards making this transition in the traditional role of HR, a success. 

As for the APAC region, especially for Singapore, Australia, and Taiwan, the HR roles have evolved significantly towards a truly people-centric approach. I can it “HRpreneur”. The HR leaders not only must acquire a strong professional HR knowledge, but also must have good sound knowledge and experience in business delivery, project management, quality customer service, business operational activity, integration between advanced technologies and human-centric, critical strategic planning, and brand development. 

As HR continues to evolve, trends will come, stay and go. Some organizations have already embraced these trends, while others are lagging far behind due to being unable to anticipate the future; lack of knowledge, resources, leadership, and commitment. Change takes time and resources, and every organization is different in its setup, culture, priority, and workforce demographic. It’s impossible to predict which transitions within HR will best benefit your organization until you give them a try and a fair chance by ensuring that there are adequate resources, targeted change management practices, and support from the top management. 

Do you think the future of work is about people or tech? How do you see the future of work? 

The future of work is going to be about people AND tech. We are right in the middle of changing work environments that is driven by the need for greater collaboration between people and technology. The elements of mobile technology, data analysis software, big data, automation, artificial intelligence, robotics, real-time tools, cloud, to name just a few, have altered the way we do things. 

How will we be working in the future? What role will future leaders play in society? How will companies attract talents? 

Environmental upheavals, political power shifts, population growth, massive advances in technology, and significant shifts in the demographic of the workforce provide a great opportunity to create a positive change to start building purpose-driven organizations. 

My personal vision for the future of work is that elements of freedom, flexibility, opportunity, and empowerment will become central to businesses large and small. People would like to work with organizations that champion innovation, creativity, fun, and inspire change. 

Creation of new ‘hybrid leaders' who are diverse in their experience of leading organizations and those who are first and foremost excellent problem-solvers with innovative ideas will be the key skills for people leaders across the globe. 

In the future, the question that is going to drive work is: why do we do what we do? The WHY of work is going to become even more relevant than job titles. As people view their role in the workplace not as a job, but as a purpose-driven work, traditional hierarchies will breakdown. Organizations will become holacracy-driven where team members are able to discuss, decide, inspect, and adapt their ways of working autonomously. The policy of Working Anytime, Anywhere, Any Device is going to truly redefine the workplace. 

Another aspect that will be essential in redefining the future of HR would be to leverage big data in the right way to position companies at a competitive advantage. Moreover, applying AI in talent assessment and selection would set apart the talent pipeline available to the HR leaders to recruit the right skills and culture fit. These tools would empower the future HR to bridge the gap between culture and technology, enhance productivity, and boost innovation.

Do you think disruptions to the world of work that digital technologies are likely to bring about could pose significant challenges to policy makers and business leaders?

Disruptions due to digital technologies are increasingly apparent in the world of work. These disruptions are bound to create some significant challenges that business leaders and policy makers must learn to overcome. For example, the disruption created by Artificial Intelligence--even though this technology has the capability to augment human decision-making, making it more consistent, faster, and more scalable, it also has the potential to entrench bias and codify inequity. 

AI can be hacked into, thus giving attackers new capabilities to disrupt and harm. How do we avoid the pitfalls of AI while benefiting from its promise? How can the government, the policy makers step in and regulate a largely market-driven industry? AI happens to be one of the many technological areas that need policy administration. We also need to tackle the increasingly critical cybersecurity vulnerabilities and the spread of divisive content on social media. 

Addressing such issues requires policy makers and technologists to work together from the ground up wherein the technologists are also involved in public policy decision-making. 

As for business leaders, the mindset shift needs to be towards becoming a Digital Technology Leader. Digital technologies have become a game changer in business capabilities; providing abundant data, unlimited connectivity, and massive processing power for business decision-making. Business sustainability is strongly associated with revenue from the sale of products and services. In an environment where consumers’ expectations are evolving, the big question faced by business leaders is: how can they define value propositions and deliver better customer experience that also increases revenues? 

In my opinion, digital technologies must be leveraged in a way that business leaders can share customer insights, utilize standardized integrated systems to enhance processes, and data-supported business decision making. Moreover, HR leaders can ensure that these digital platforms empower the function to ensure accountability while allowing employees to work autonomously. 

Digital technologies can thus not only improve the operational excellence to ensure a seamless flow of work but also help in introducing new revenue streams. People leaders just need to reimagine the existing digital platforms and bring forth the ones that combine culture, business insights, and infrastructural competencies to develop a more successful digital business design. 

We are seeing a massive change in data, analytics and artificial intelligence and their impact on people and work. How do you see the shifts impacting human resources?

As a rule of thumb, any HR transformation, whether it is digital or not, has to take place with a clear objective in mind. The transformation has to make business and people sense.

Too often still, companies seem to give in to “transformational pressure” getting to know their competitors all ‘do & implement digital’, so they feel like they have to do something too. But digitalising HR processes just for the sake of it is not a smart move. It leads to the implementation of (often expensive) technology that neither meets the actual needs of the people nor the business. 

No doubt digitizing HR functional roles, definitely helps to automate processes and reduce the time spent on repetitive tasks, thus, maximizing the employee experience and freeing-up time to strategize and ultimately benefit the business bottom-line. 

The shift towards digitization with an objective mindset leads to faster responses and resolutions while maintaining optimum performance-levels. Organizations become more flexible and agile. Technologies offer recommendations, senses patterns and can predict trends all leading to better, more data-informed choices. 

In an increasingly global workforce, HR leaders are able to manage and guide people both locally and globally. Thus, creating a direct impact on culture, experience, and business outcomes. People leaders are able to integrate and analyze workforce data to predict human capital decisions. 

It is all about building the workforce of the future. It is precisely why, HR leaders are (and should continue to be) at the forefront of leveraging requisite tools to assess, analyze, predict, and develop talent. 

By understanding how your organisation works, HR leaders can come up with a digital HR transformation roadmap that strategically aligns both people and business. 

What will be HR’s biggest challenges in the future of work for Southeast Asian countries?

Some of the key challenges that HR leaders in the Southeast Asian countries are going to have to gear up for include: 

Creating a future-ready leadership pipeline

Businesses recognise that leadership development is a key priority, and are aware that there is a need to accelerate leaders up to at least 70 percent pipeline to ensure that they are equipped with future-focused skills. Are HR leaders capable to persuade/lobby the senior leaders to take full responsibility of a re-energized leadership pipeline?

Organisational redesign

Companies globally are reinventing their organisational structure and shifting away from hierarchical and functional organisational models towards a cross-functional design. This shift is encouraging greater collaboration, agility, customer focus and employee engagement. Are HR leaders given the trust and empowerment to lead the redesigning project? 

Utilising data strategically

HR is good at data collection and collation. But how many HR leaders are technically trained on data interpretation and utilising it properly? The truth is that it doesn’t matter how much data collection one has if it is not being used to drive effective people and business decisions and measurable success.

Sourcing, retaining and developing the right talent for the future of business.

The “war” for talent is an on-going marathon. Who reaches the first? Talent matters, because its high value and scarcity. This creates huge opportunities for companies that have stronger employee value propositions. Contrarily, companies that are pressured to reduce HR costs have a more difficult time in identifying and attracting the most talented people. In such a situation, HR leaders have no choice but to refocus their talent sourcing strategy internally rather than seeking out untapped “expensive” talents. 

Raising employer branding

More and more companies are focusing their efforts on creating a value proposition through branding. A happy employee will be a natural promoter of the brand and vice versa. So, the impossible challenge for HR leaders is how to make ALL EMPLOYEES happy!

Defining the employee experience context

The term employee experience is being used too frequently to gauge satisfaction index and that should be a good thing. The setback with employee experience is that it is naturally quite broad and subjective in its definition, scope and priority. Is one’s experience can be consistently quantified? HR leaders challenge is refocusing their concept of what the employee experience is and how to deliver a good one.

Competing with employee benefits

The range and types of benefits companies offer along reward system is changing spectacularly. If companies want to win the best talent, HR leaders have no option but to innovate continuous rewards to differentiate themselves from competitors. 

Utilising technology effectively

The biggest challenge for HR will be to understand the wealth of technology that’s available to them, and make sure employees are able to find and use them effectively. Are HR leaders ready to oversee an expanded workforce that includes people and technology working together?

The future of work not only is going to impact organizations and people but societies as well. How critical is the role of governments and the education sector to prepare people with the skills this new market needs?

Technology and globalisation are significantly shifting business models in all sectors, increasing the pace of change in job destruction and job creation. Therefore, to stay competitive, the education and training systems, that remained largely static and under-invested need to be revamped to meet the new needs. All the stakeholders: from academics and industry experts to government policymakers, are required for roundtable discussions and lead the development of required curriculum to support the industry needs.

Governments need to shift focus from job creation to skill development. As new technology and jobs are created, new skill-sets will become the essential capital for the global economy. Policymakers need to develop a clear path for each programme e.g. Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) and Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET) to ensure the students are clear about their career pathway. While it is certain that technical competencies are important for specialisation of work, the importance of soft skills such as communication skills, critical thinking, emotional intelligence, etc. are important, or perhaps even more so, in a world of AI and robotics. 

Collaboration between the private institutions and public sector to correctly map labor market and future industry demand is essential for the growth of nations. Both parties need to reevaluate what is taught (academic syllabus and skill development modules) and how it is taught (methodology of transferring knowledge and skill-sets) to tackle the demand-supply of the workforce. Talent development should no longer be restricted to formalised academic systems but one’s capability to tackle the market expectation.

Data-driven policy is crucial to forecasting the future needs of the economy. Preparing the workforce for jobs and skill sets is one of the greatest challenges facing policymakers.  Academicians and governments must have comprehensive, real-time insights about skill evolution to supplement shortages of future talents.

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Topics: Strategic HR, #MyNextCurve

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