From left: Kaiser Chen, Yan Xu, Adam Najberg and Jennifer Van Dale

By Jennifer Khoo

The role of HR in China has changed little since it first appeared in Ancient China more than two thousand years ago, says Kaiser Chen, Chief HR Officer at SenseTime Group, a specialist in artificial intelligence.

Back then, the HR function was created to select government officials for the emperor, who were evaluated based on four rigid factors: integrity, competency, seniority, and potential. This approach is still widely adopted in China today, and in the rest of North East Asia i.e. Japan and Korea.

“The problem with this approach to HR is that it is more or less a cookie cutter solution; an uncompromising way of viewing people,” he says. A Western approach to HR, by contrast, aims to cultivate potential leaders through a customized, rather than a one-size-fits-all, evaluation process. But this way, too, has its faults, and Chen says companies can learn from both approaches.

Similarly, where managing disruption in China is concerned, he explains that HR professionals should “strike a balance between Western and North East Asian approaches: between slow, thoughtful planning, and the typical Chinese ‘knee-jerk’ reaction to problems.”

Trust & culture

Adam Najberg, Head of Digital Communications for the Alibaba Group, says that company culture can influence levels of disruption.

At his previous Chinese company, he says the internal culture was characterized by “a distrust of employees, as though someone was going to steal a secret,” adding that HR struggled with staff retention. This environment of distrust resulted in many people “building walls to protect themselves,” with little chance to develop skills outside those for which they were hired.

Although company culture is usually dictated by those at the top, HR plays a key role in its reinforcement, says Najberg. For example, at the recruitment stage, HR is responsible for filtering in candidates who are likely to contribute positively, rather than negatively, to the existing culture, i.e. selecting people who might improve it over those who might make it worse, so to speak.

From a cultural perspective, Chen says the attitude towards trust in North East Asia could have its foundations in Confucianism, i.e. the belief that everyone is born equal, and only time will tell what each person decides to make of themselves. This translates to the workplace, where employees are initially viewed with caution until they have proved themselves worthy of trust over time.

From an economic perspective, he explains that as developing countries like China gradually move from away from a manufacturing-based economy towards a knowledge-based service economy, and the focus becomes “less about what you are doing and more about what you are contributing,” company culture will evolve to favor collaboration, rather than direct competition with each other.

Executive education

Professor Xu Yan, Associate Dean of HKUST Business School, believes that companies in China can leverage business professionals with an executive education to manage workplace disruption. But up until around ten years ago, few would have agreed with him.

Historically, schools in China have always placed the greatest focus on science, engineering and mathematics subjects. Thus, business education wasn’t conventionally popular. In fact, during the cultural revolution nearly all business schools were suspended, and it was only after it ended that a creeping interest in business and management subjects began, he explains.

Today, the Asian market is saturated with executive programs. Yan oversees the bilingual HKUST EMBA for Chinese Executives, Executive Education and China Strategy, launched in 2002 to meet demand from a growing number of Chinese business leaders who have started to see how an executive education might benefit their HR policies, among other things.

Despite the upward trend, there are many in China who remain skeptical. “There are still those who point to prominent leaders, like Bill Gates for instance, who have achieved huge success without a basic college degree, let alone an executive one,” he says.