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The New Asian Workplace — Who Will Take Charge?

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This article describes the imperative or developing new models/paradigms for human development by highlighting changes affecting work, particularly in the Asian workplace. We suggest that transformations in the human lifecycle, new forms of employment, and the impact of technology on jobs and education will affect populations old and young, in countries rich and poor. These changes mean nothing less than the reinvention of HR in companies and present a challenge for Asian thought leadership.

The Free Workforce: Employment as Enterprise
The idea that work is a form of development is an essential part of the United Nations’ view of human development. The International Labour Organization, as the only tripartite UN agency since 1919 bringing together governments, employers and workers from its 187 member states, has defined its mission as promoting “decent work”:


Decent work sums up the aspirations of people in their working lives. It involves opportunities for work that is productive and delivers a fair income, security in the workplace and social protec- tion for families; better prospects for personal development and social integration; freedom for people to express their concerns, organise and participate in the decisions that affect their lives; and equality of opportunity and treatment for all women and men. 1


Today it appears that the concept of “decent work” is rapidly shifting from employment as a job to a “free workforce” where self-employed and self-managed workers seek out work in a new form. It is observed that companies now are often managing a multitude of workers through a diverse range of contracts. A work team can have an employee, a temp, a part-timer, an intern, an outsourced worker, a self-employed freelancer, a consultant and a contract HR.


Traditional work is being disrupted as two trends come together:

  1. Companies are shifting to a contingent workforce using self-employed workers to replace full-time employees.
  2. Most workers will have to work in new combinations of people, artificial intelligence and robotics. Technology is less about jobs being replaced and more about using the new capabilities of machines in work.


In fact, the consulting firm Accenture has published a report predict- ing that “[w]ithin 10 years, we will see a new Global 2000 company with no full-time employees outside of the C-suite.”2


For people in the “free workforce”, the idea of a career as a series of jobs with ascending responsibilities in the same company until retirement is no longer a reality. For these people, career development is largely entrepreneurial — which means that along with this freedom, the responsibility and cost of training, health insurance, retirement and unemployment insurance has shifted to the individual.


Singapore is an instructive case. Why? Because government policies have embraced the free workforce model more rapidly than we might think. Research findings published by the global recruitment consultancy, Page Personnel Singapore, reveal that in Singapore 60 per cent of professionals polled are willing to accept a contract role if they remain unemployed for an extended period.3 Those surveyed indicated that the downside of accepting a contracting role were primarily job insecurity (26 per cent), lack of employee benefits (24 per cent) and a lower sense of belonging in a company (23 per cent).

"What we believe is that Asia can and must take the lead in dealing with the new issues of human development. Alongside the growing importance of China and India, one of the many questions will be, "How can Southeast Asian businesses develop their own management models and workforce development to take leadership on the global stage?"

The New Idea of Lifelong Learning
Lifelong learning is a late 20th century idea. In 1972, UNESCO pub- lished the Faure Report with a definition of lifelong learning that un- derlined the responsibility of adults for their own education:


The term “lifelong education and learning” denotes an overall scheme aimed both at restructuring the existing education system and at developing the entire educational potential outside the ed- ucation system; in such a scheme men and women are the agents of their own education.4


In those days, lifelong learning was seen as a goal in a “live to learn” society; and the most important philosophical question being debated about the future of work was, “What will we do with all of our leisure time?”5


Learning geared towards the individual employee’s “lifelong employability” is actually a recent phenomenon. Even until the 1990s, corporate training for employees was considered the primary source for providing effective learning to maintain employability. But in today’s world of work, adults have to find ways to keep learning and adapting to changes during a whole lifetime, irrespective of their initial education level. Part of the need for lifelong learning is due to increased longevity, which is playing havoc with government-defined retirement ages (age 60 for men in China and 56 in Indonesia as of 2017). Besides intrinsic enjoyment, adults will keep learning much longer than current earlier retirement ages in most countries — not only because of the necessity for earning an income but also because they want to interact with others and be recognised for their value contribution.


While lifelong learning and development is an individual responsibility, it cannot be optimally managed as an individual initiative. Companies have to manage the free workforce and lifelong learning to remain competitive.


This means that they have to redefine a profession with an archaic name that reveals the underlying assumption about people at work its practitioners must shed: “Human Resources”.


However, in these new free workforce models, HR responsibility does not extend to all workers. Take for example the Singapore-based ride-hailing company Grab, which was created as recently as 2012. In addition to full-time employees, its “multi-speed” workforce now has 1.3 million “partners” who drive taxis and delivery vans in most Southeast Asian countries — and whose engagement with Grab is not managed by its HR function.6


The Disruption of HR
With the shift to the free workforce where workers are responsible for managing their own learning and development, the familiar roles of HR business partner and administrative functions are in question.

At this point nobody knows exactly what HR will look like in the future. However, the world’s oldest association of people professionals — the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) — con- cludes that companies will continue to use professionals who can manage the needs of the workforce of an organisation — for both salaried and free workers.


The CIPD has been conducting research on what the future of HR will be, and even questions whether HR will soon require a different name.7


It is likely that HR headcount will be reduced in companies and HR professionals will find themselves in the free workforce like almost everyone else. Some HR work will be outsourced, some will be organised on a project basis, and much of it will be done by managers and workers themselves.


With these changes, companies will be looking for HR strategists who can manage this new multi-speed workforce, and will recruit individuals with new profiles, such as, say, a degree in psychology and artificial intelligence. IBM’s HR is already integrating a new way of managing their workforce by using their Watson platform.8


The Need for Soft Power Leadership in Asia
Today, HR thought leadership and practice are dominated by American corporations, business schools and consultants. If you ask an HR manager in Asia to name a guru of HR who is not American, you are likely to get a blank stare in reply.


Does Asia now have an opportunity to develop innovative approach- es to managing people? We think it is not just an opportunity but an imperative. Asian HR professionals need to not only to build a globally competitive workforce in Asia but also project Asian leadership on the global stage.


Power is shifting to Asia at many levels. However, Asian dominance in the “hard-power” of economic and political clout is not being matched by leadership in the “soft power” of management. This gap is a crucial challenge for the global leadership of Asia.

From Human Resource to Human Development

United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs. (2017). 2017 Revision of the World Population Prospects


The shift of human-development leadership to Asia is driven by the fact that it has the three largest workforces in the world, i.e., China, India and Southeast Asia. But the hard-power of sheer demographics provides only part of the picture. Large workforces do not necessarily mean leadership in human development.


An equally important hard-power indicator is the fact that the three Asian workforces together produce more university graduates than the rest of the world combined. Other hard-power indicators abound.

We point to five shifts in human development that will shape how Asian HR can develop global thought leadership. But first, let us be clear about what we mean by “Asian HR”. We mean human development leaders grounded in Asia, including both Asian companies and multinationals with an Asian human-development commitment. By “Asian thought leadership” we include the role of governments, education systems and NGOs as well as leadership from professionals in companies.


❶ Human Development Replaces Human Capital

Going beyond human resources is more than just finding a better name. “People professionals” are finding that human capital, with its assumption that only economic criteria define people at work, is no longer adequate. Making work more human(e) as technology changes jobs and jobs shift to freelance work means that people professionals will manage human development as well as performance.


❷ Ethics and Decent Work

Today, in a well-managed corporation, compliance to legal requirements takes an increasing amount of the HR team’s time. This will probably become more automated as HR data moves towards automatically compliant formats. The real problem is the exercise of judgement when it comes to using technology and managing work.


Human development professionals need to be ethics practitioners. For example, across Asia there are very different political and legal frameworks governing personal data harvested by technology. HR thought leaders need to design and update the ethics of companies managing across these countries, no matter where the company’s headquarters is based.


❸  Workforce Beyond Employees

Developing and managing the work of people who are not employees means that the profession will address the personalised and individualised needs of everyone who contributes work. For the online free workforce, Asia is far ahead of the rest of the world, according University of Oxford’s iLabour Project.9

❹ Shift to Asia

The lag in thought leadership from Asia can be expected to end as a new generation of well-educated and global professionals take key positions in multinational companies, and as Asian companies develop global models that are applied to executives and managers across the globe. Already, Asians lead all other ethnic groups at the top of Fortune 500 companies proportionally to their share of the US population.10

The rise of new models in Asia (i.e., China, India and Southeast Asia) may well mean that HR models with a high level of diversity will replace the American standardised “one-size-fits-all” model of HR.


❺ Self-managed HR

Technology and connectivity mean that a human professional is not needed for HR transactions, just as we have long gone past the need to go to a bank and ask a teller behind a window to cash a cheque. Human-development professionals will not be doing the transactions, but instead manages technology so that people can get the support and answers they need and expect in HR transactions.

First, the three Asian workforces are experiencing faster economic growth and higher productivity growth than the rest of the world. Second, innovation and entrepreneurship have begun to replace the human-resource model based on low-cost manufacturing — “made in Asia” now is becoming “invented in Asia” and even “funded by Asia”. Third, in 2017, the amount of Asian capital invested in start-ups has caught up with American investment.


This rapid growth of hard-power in Asia creates a mismatch with its soft power for human development. Why has this happened? First, most HR professionals in Asia have learned their jobs by using concepts and practices from Western multinational companies. (Until recently, a good HR professional was one who could execute what had already been invented in the West.) Second, very few universities have developed advanced HR programmes for strategic HR professionals or set up research programmes in HR.


Developing soft power in human-development leadership would mean Asia producing new and more contextually appropriate human- development ideas and practices compared to the West. Asian human development models can grow out of Asian philosophies — and indeed each of the three Asian workforces can draw on deep phil- osophical roots, as well as through initiatives and policies. Thought leadership, innovation and successful human-development policies are the new challenges of the Asian Century.


This is the nature of the opportunity for human-development leadership from Asia, for Asia and for the world.


What we believe is that Asia can and must take the lead in dealing with the new issues of human development. Alongside the growing importance of China and India, one of the many questions will be, “How can Southeast Asian businesses develop their own management models and workforce development to take leadership on the global stage?”


How Asian governments and education systems will support entrepreneurial human development for a free workforce is a “known unknown” — we know they must meet the challenge but we do not know who will be the most effective stakeholders and innovators, or who will take charge. No single corporation, government, think tank or foundation can address the challenges alone.


The nature of this “known unknown” may well be compared to a very, very difficult jigsaw puzzle — where the jigsaw puzzle box’s cover (i.e., the solution) has been lost. Given the diversity of Asian cultures, religions and political ideologies, it is clear that the puzzle can fit together in more than one unique way. Some jigsaw pieces come from a separate puzzle and thus need to be sifted out. Unfortunately, it is not easy to tell which pieces these are. This is why ideas, debates and experiments in Asian thought leadership are needed — to provide an authentic transition from the unknown. Although no one can know fully what the assembled puzzle will look like in the end, it will comprise shared ideas and complementary purposes.


Dr Bob Aubrey is Chairman of the Singapore EuroCham HR Committee and a human-development author and consultant.


Sriven Naidu is Director of Programme Development & Partnerships (Masters of Tri-Sector Collaboration) at Singapore Management University and fellow of The HEAD Foundation.

APRIL 2018 | ISSUE 3

Visions for the Future

  1. See the ILO’s Decent Work Agenda,

  2. Accenture, "Technology Vision 2016 — People First: The Primacy of People in the Digital Age,"

  3. Page Personnel Singapore collected responses from 3,861 professionals in Singapore on their sentiments

    towards fixed term employment. Page Personnel Singapore, "3 out of 5 professionals in Singapore will accept a contract role if unable to secure permanent employment,"

  4. UNESCO has issued a number of ground-breaking reports on lifelong learning, such as Learning to Be, Faure Report, 1972; Learning: The Treasure Within, Delors Report, 1996 and the more recent Belém Framework for Action published in 2010.

  5. One of the influential books of the time was The Leisure Shock (1981), in which former British trade union leader Clive Jenkins, writing with Barrie Sherman, predicted a dramatic drop in working hours that would create a lifestyle of leisure for workers of industrial societies.

  6. This is also true of other ride-hailing companies. Responsibility for Grab’s partners lies with "operations" (explained by Ong Chin Yin, Grab’s Head of People, at the European Chamber of Commerce HR Committee meeting, Singapore, 26 January 2018)

  7. This was the subject of a closed-door session between EuroCham thought leaders and CIPD’s Wilson Wong, Head of Insight and Futures, Singapore, 2 May 2017.

  8. IBM is piloting many of these innovations in Southeast Asia according to according to Pallavi Srivastava, Asia Pac & Greater China Talent Leader and Global Technology consultant, as shared at a meeting for EuroCham Singapore HR Committee, Singapore, 27 February 2017)

  9. Lehdonvirta, V. (2017, 11 July). Where are online workers located? The international division of digital gig work. The iLabour Project. Retrieved from: where-are-online-workers-located-the-international-division-of-digital-gig-work/.
  10. The chart appears in a Fortune article by Stacy Jones published 9 June 2017, "White men account for 72% of Corporate Leadership at 16 of the Fortune 500 Companies," a curious title given that most corporate leaders are now Asian,


Leaders and changemakers of today face unique and complex challenges. The HEAD Foundation Digest features insights and opinions from those in the know addressing a wide range of pertinent issues that factor in a society’s development. 

Informed opinions can inspire healthy discussions and open up our imagination to new possibilities. Interested in contributing? Write to us at info@headfoundation

Stay updated on our latest announcements on events and publications


Leaders and changemakers of today face unique and complex challenges. The HEAD Foundation Digest features insights and opinions from those in the know addressing a wide range of pertinent issues that factor in a society’s development. 

Informed opinions can inspire healthy discussions and open up our imagination to new possibilities. Interested in contributing? Write to us at info@headfoundation

Stay updated on our latest announcements on events and publications

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