The way forward for SMEs to acquire, retain talent in digital age

Businesses should focus on attracting highly skilled talent for strategic roles that automation will not be able to replace.

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.

As the leader of a growing enterprise, my HR (human resources) leaders and I also face these same challenges, though I believe we have tools that can turn this into an opportunity.

Recently, the national manpower plan for the HR industry was launched to strengthen the HR profession and better support business transformation. Systematic HR management will be vital to managing talent and helping local businesses adapt to Singapore's transformation to a manpower-lean economy.

This new plan is a welcome development. Indeed, 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.

To a local business builder or a small and medium business (SMB) owner, it is easy to imagine that the odds are stacked against him. They find themselves up against large multinational enterprises with the deep pockets and brand reach to acquire and retain the best and brightest.

Compounding matters is digital disruption. An International Labour Organization report has found that close to 40 per cent of jobs that exist today may become redundant in the next 10 to 15 years. Therefore, businesses need 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 decision-making? What talent and skills do I require to help my business achieve its goals and become future-proof? Once you are clear on these, you will be better placed to set a clear talent acquisition and retention strategy.

Capitalising on your most valuable asset

To start with, SMBs should consider implementing a formal talent acquisition and development role, or even team, depending on your company's size. While some of its functions may overlap with those of HR, 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 that 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 employees, based on business insights such as workforce performance and industry insights 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 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. However, by embracing digital disruption and leveraging human capital management solutions, more routine functions can be automated. These include leave applications, payroll management, performance reviews and career development, and even employee promotions. This effectively helps to shift focus to developing your talent and allowing them autonomy to take charge of their own career.

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, even on personal HR tasks. In this case, HR solutions offer a platform to build millennial employees' sense of purpose and engagement, by providing autonomy for their HR needs.

HR has always been a numbers game, from headcount to salary. Each data point contributes to a larger story, which can influence business decisions such as succession planning or business spend. In this context, an effective HRM (human resource management) solution can help by consolidating personnel information across multiple countries or multiple entities in the same country. Armed with a single, comprehensive overview of the business, HR leaders can move away from counting and reporting to truly charting their company's future.

Branding for success

Brand-building is an area that SMBs should treat the same way that larger enterprises do.

Internally, having a clear consistent brand messaging can help eliminate confusion and disagreement in the workplace, contributing to a more positive work environment.

Happy employees make the best brand ambassadors, helping to publicise the company, and reducing employee turnover and manpower costs - all significant for any SMB.

Business builders must be cognisant that it takes time to establish strong branding and not look at branding like a marketing campaign that will deliver quick results. Like large enterprises that invest over the long run to establish top-of-mind recall, SMBs 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 employees and attract talent, many still lament the high costs associated. The Singapore government has recognised this issue, providing a helping hand to local businesses. Spring Singapore offers a variety of grants and financial support schemes to help business builders develop and train talent. For instance, there is the SkillsFuture Mentors programme, which helps participating SMBs improve processes and systems for learning and development.

The Capability Development Grant offered by Spring Singapore can be utilised to defray up to 70 per cent of training costs and investments in HR strategies that focus on areas such as employee engagement, performance management, and compensation and benefits. With sound business planning and forecasting, business builders can use these initiatives to future-proof their business.

A business is a continuously evolving, living entity. It can be successful only 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 SMBs to invest in their most important asset - their people - to power their growth for the future.

  • The writer is vice-president and managing director, Sage Asia