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Knowledge at Wharton


The Art of Managing Dispersed Teams

How HR managers are handling familiar challenges on a global scale

Published: Wednesday, April 6, 2016 - 00:00

A trained mechanical engineer, Mark Chang found himself “totally uncertain and unprepared” the first time he was called on to hire someone else.

“I didn’t even know why I was hired in the first place—what did they like about me?” Chang recalls. “So, how do I go out and look for the next person?”

Years later, Chang is now in the business of helping companies find good candidates to hire. He’s the founder and CEO of JobStreet.com, a Malaysia-based employment portal serving 80,000 companies and 11 million job seekers in Southeast Asia, Japan, India, the Philippines, and Western Europe.

At a panel discussion on human capital and social mobility at the recent Wharton Global Forum in Kuala Lumpur, Chang noted that it’s often difficult for even experienced HR professionals to hire the right person—or even to figure out what defines the “right” candidate for a particular position. The process has become even more fraught as companies become increasingly global and managers are overseeing employees who hail from a number of different countries and cultures, many of them working remotely.

But Chang and fellow panelist Nora Abd Manaf, group chief human capital officer at Kuala Lumpur-based Maybank, emphasized that many of the challenges facing human resources today are universal and global—and that the traditional classification of managing people as a “soft” discipline belies how difficult it really is.

“Give me accounting any time—numbers won’t argue with me,” Manaf notes. “A debit is a debit. I tease our CFO by saying, ‘The board isn’t going to argue with you, but when I start talking, I have 12 people who all think they’re experts in HR.’”

Beyond GPA

In an effort to change the perception of the field, there have been efforts to rebrand it by using the terms “personnel” or “human capital” instead of human resources. “But if I change my name to Beyonce, you’re still going to see Nora,” Manaf points out. “We really need to understand the core of what is influencing the perception [of HR]... instead of trying to change the name.”

Manaf’s philosophy for hiring boils down to “attempting to understand in a simplistic way what God has made, so you don’t try to change it; you try to work with what you’ve got and try to understand what you have.” For example, if a person isn’t inherently analytical, he may be able to get the basics down, but will likely never become a master, she notes.

To hire well, she says, means focusing less on quantitative attributes like previous experience or GPA, and more on how well a candidate’s qualitative personality attributes match with the skills needed to do the job well.

“I asked my team, ‘Why when we advertise do we say we only want to recruit people from certain disciplines? Why can’t an engineer do credit?’ And nobody could answer me. If you can’t answer that, then take it out [of the ad,]” she says. “Why do we put down, ‘You must have a GPA of 3.5?’ What makes someone with a 3.2 unqualified to even come to an interview?”

Chang notes that there are three critical factors at play when a company is deciding on whom to hire: the skill set that prospective hires detail in a resume; the chemistry between the candidate and the company or team she wants to join; and the candidate’s level of interest, if and when an offer is made. “I think a lot of times people pay too much attention to the first part,” he says.

Due to the rise of automated systems that evaluate resumes based on the inclusion or absence of certain keywords, candidates are now having to essentially optimize their resume to stand out to an algorithm, Chang says. “Resumes are becoming longer and longer because the candidate knows the company is looking for keywords and companies are using more and more keywords. But at the end of the day, human capital is not just about skill set; how people work together is also important.”

Assessing ‘hunger’

The challenge of managing regionally and globally dispersed teams has been central at Maybank, which employs 47,000 people in 2,000 offices in 19 countries. “For the most part, for 50 years Maybank was predominantly doing work and generating income in Malaysia,” says Manaf. “In 2008, we very aggressively started to pursue growth. It was a very big shift to managing just within the country to having to work with people outside the geography.”

She has also worked to move the hiring process beyond a search for keywords. Manaf notes that there used to be a struggle to find existing employees who were considered qualified for internal promotions. “[Hiring managers] were just looking for keywords—so if we were hiring for a credit card manager position, they wanted people who said on their CV, ‘I’ve got some credit card experience,’” says Manaf. “For the longest time, that was what was happening, and we couldn’t find the right people.”

When Manaf initially took the position at Maybank, she knew that in order to reach its expansion goals, the bank would have to recruit heavy hitters from the outside to fill some of its positions. But she also made a commitment to the firm’s existing workforce that for every 10 vacancies, eight would be filled internally. “I said that we’re going to track this like mad, and we track it every year and announce it to the staff,” she said. “Six years later, we’re at seven out of 10.”

To successfully hire people internally, the search process must have a more open mindset than simply finding someone with a certain number of years of experience. “Credit cards aren’t rocket science, but you want to have a person who’s hungry,” says Manaf. “So how do you assess that? You want a person who is persistent, someone who is interested in others. You’re basically doing financial planning. You don’t sell credit cards to everybody; it’s not shampoo. It’s hard because managers still say, ‘But this person is not experienced in credit cards—how can they be a manager of credit cards?’”

At one point early on, Manaf asked for a list of internal high-potential employees. She was initially given a list of 50 names out of thousands of employees. “The first thing that struck me is that this can’t be,” Manaf recalls. “And these were all people 45 years old and above. Nothing against people over 45, but where are the rest? [Identifying] high-potential succession candidates was always about rank, always about the most senior, and that required quite a culture change.... It’s still a bit restricted [in terms of] how potentials are looked at, and we have to push it.”

Companies have to keep in mind that the employees who make the most noise—literally and figuratively—often aren’t the only ones making important contributions, Chang notes. “Someone who is a giver may not do all the high-profile things, but they do things that are important for making things happen,” he said. “People may forget about them because they don’t do what is the highest profile... and then they may get frustrated, and they are the ones who leave.”

He urged companies to pay attention to “quiet talents” and find ways to protect and promote them. “Especially in Southeast Asia, this is very, very important.... You have to ask them, approach them and dig deeper,” he says. “Sometimes, people have the cultural perspective that they don’t want to be outspoken; sometimes there is a language barrier.”

Rethinking teamwork

Chang and Manaf also note that to get the most out of employees, companies need to rethink what defines teamwork within the organization.

“What makes people become a team is what the company wants to achieve at the end of the day,” Chang says. “Once employees understand what is the ultimate motivation of the company, then they are able to work as a team.” In conjunction, if companies have a clear mission, it’s easier to find job seekers who connect to that mission and see how they can contribute to achieving it.

Manaf recalled “miserable” times she experienced in her career because she was viewed as not fitting the narrow definition of a good team player. “You’re a good team player if you don’t point out issues—and if you point out issues, you’re destructive to the team,” she says. “So we need to change that mindset and approach.”

Instead of teamwork, Manaf encourages her colleagues to embrace the idea of collaboration. “I don’t mind if you love spreadsheets, and you love the computer, and you don’t spend a lot of time talking to people, and you don’t look like a typical team player because you’re clear on what your role is,” she says. “I need someone who loves analysis while I have another person who loves interpersonal interactions—that’s a good team, having complementary skills.”

First published March 16, 2016, on the Knowledge@Wharton blog.


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Knowledge at Wharton

Knowledge@Wharton is the web-based research and business analysis journal of the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. Launched in May 1999, its goal is to disseminate business knowledge and insights to readers around the world. The Knowledge@Wharton Network offers free access to analysis of current business trends; interviews with industry leaders and Wharton faculty; articles based on the most recent business research; conference overviews, book reviews, and links to relevant content; and a searchable database of more than 1,500 articles and research abstracts.


What you call it does matter

The term "personnel" was in use for many years before "human resources" came along.  To me, the difference is telling.  "Personnel" more clearly indicates that you're talking about people.  "Human Resources" merely indicates your talking about the resources that eat and breathe, as opposed to the ones that don't, such as buildings, computers, lab equipment, etc.  You might as well call your people "liveware".