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​Let’s get to work: The State of the HR Profession in 2017

Published on: 07-Feb-2017

​With the calendar now ticked over into a new year, HRM Asia provides this comprehensive snapshot of the HR profession in Singapore. It shows that while last year was a rough one for business in the region, the uncertainty is set to continue in 2017, adding to the challenges for HR across the economy. Countering that however is a far more professional and organised HR community, and a national government that is playing an active role in HR skills development.

Across the world on December 31, the New Year was celebrated with just a little bit more enthusiasm this time around. Almost universally, 2016 was panned as a year to forget, with far more than the reasonable allotment of celebrity deaths, uncertain politics, and even war and terror featured.

Businesses and other employing organisations too – both in the Asia-Pacific region and around the world – will have been happy to see the back of 2016. The year was marked by economic uncertainty that only became cloudier with each status-quo shaking international event, from the Middle East refugee and immigration crisis, to the Brexit vote in June, through to the election of international trade sceptic Donald Trump as President of the US.

Given all of this, it’s timely to now take a closer look at the state of HR in Singapore and across Asia. As this exclusive HRM Asia State of the Profession report shows, the economic outlook for the year ahead is just as uncertain as that of 2016, if not more so. But now more than ever, businesses are looking to their HR teams to light their way through the darkness. 

That extra investment and encouragement has seen the HR community growing in terms of both total number and the overall level of professionalism and integrity. We now have more HR professionals doing the kind of long-game strategic work that adds real value to businesses and their workforces.

We are also seeing HR take on more regional and international roles, as organisations look to cover more ground with similar resources. And a broad community of HR professionals has also begun to take shape in Singapore, thanks to a new focus on networking and sharing of best-practice case studies.

2017 has plenty of challenges in store for HR, as this report will show. But it is a stronger, more connected profession than ever before that will be facing those obstacles, which should give organisations across this region some added confidence as those storm clouds grow.

A growing fraternity

In Singapore, the number of HR professionals is on the rise. The national government is certainly keen to formalise the profession, and carefully document its profile.  It estimates there are 40,000 HR professionals – people who have “HR” in their job titles or are otherwise involved with people management and strategy – in the country, covering both full and part-time workers, as well as freelance advisors and consultants.

This growth is, in part, a response to the various talent-related challenges that businesses across Asia-Pacific, but particularly in Singapore, are facing.  The general shortage of developed talent, and the changing aspirations of those workers, is making HR a focal point for many organisations.

In Singapore, for example, The LinkedIn Talent Trends report for 2016 has shown that almost every professional worker is open to new opportunities.  That includes an above average percentage (39%, compared to the global average of 36%) of “active” job seekers and also a significant share of passive job candidates.

More people on the move, or thinking about switching jobs, has meant more thought, planning, and – inevitably – headcount has had to be invested in HR strategy in recent years, and the trend is unlikely to slow down over the coming decade.

Strategic focus

A rise in the need for and application of strategic HR has certainly helped fuel a boom in the job description. Indeed, most observers say the profession has now all but fully evolved from its earlier identity of the administrative-only personnel department.

Does HR have the celebrated “seat at the table” yet? In a growing number of organisations it does, with Chief HR Officers reporting directly to their CEOs and boards on long-term workforce strategy. Their work is having a direct impact on overall organisational strategy.

Peter Giulioni, Assistant Dean of Career Development Office at Nanyang Business School and an Associate Professor with NBS’s Division of Strategy, Management, and Organisation says workforce management is now a vital component of investment and planning for organisations.

“Organisations now understand that it is the fourth leg of the table,” he says. “There are: (business) strategy, technology, operations, and now HR.”  Of those four aspects of organisations, HR, and workforces in general, are also best suited to deliver cost savings and productivity improvements.  “All of the efficiencies that can be rung out of the other operating systems have in many cases already been squeezed out,” Giulioni says.

“The big savings have gone. Now it’s all about hiring the right people at the right time, reducing turnover among key employees, and aggressively developing the company’s talent pool.”

Importantly, HR skills and knowledge are increasingly required throughout the organisation, with managers and team leaders are now being measured on their ability to get people working cooperatively and positively together.

“A larger proportion of managers’ KPIs are about teamwork and retention,” Giulioni says. “That is happening now and I see it continuing to evolve.”

Rising professionalism

With HR skills increasingly in demand, and HR careers increasingly strategic and responsible, there has been a corresponding rise in interest from prospective recruits. From school-leavers to university graduates, and even to mid-career professionals looking for a change, HR is itself becoming an career opportunity of choice across Asia-Pacific.

This can be seen clearly in the number of HR-related programmes universities and colleges are now offering their students, and the growing enrolment rates for each course. Giulioni – who teaches a course in change management and organizational effectiveness specifically – says there is a broad range of both theoretical and hands-on practical teaching available, and universities are upgrading their faculty to include those with direct experience in workforce strategy.

“There is steadily growing staff of professors with backgrounds in HR management specifically,” he says.

Singapore’s government is also working to build professionalism and integrity across the island state’s HR community. The profession is currently the subject of a HR Sectoral Manpower Plan being developed by a tripartite committee representing government, employers and labour unions. That will formulate manpower development plans that will identify the future skills required of HR and set out a system for upgrading the workforce as required.

While the full roadmap is yet to be finalised, the committee has outlined a new framework for formally recognising HR skills and experience. The National HR Professional Certification Framework (NHRPCF) is set to roll out during the first half of this year, and will evaluate HR professionals in functional capabilities, foundational knowledge, and mindsets and behaviours.

It offers three levels of certification: Certified HR Professional for early-career HR practitioners; Certified Senior HR Professional for more advanced players, and Certified Master HR Professional for Chief HR Officer-level and large organisation HR directors.

A pilot programme, in which a handful of HR professionals completed the planned certification requirements in October last year, offered some insight into the government’s plans for the NHRPCF. One mid-career professional who participated noted that there was a strong focus on Singapore employment legislation in the assessment. HR professionals across the board can expect to have their knowledge of foreign employment rules and statutory wage and redundancy requirements thoroughly tested over the coming years.

But HR strategy and skills are also becoming increasingly international in focus. As multinational businesses continue to centralise their Asian operations in cities like Singapore, Hong Kong, and – increasingly – Kuala Lumpur, HR professionals in those regional centres are being tasked with higher-level and more diverse strategic tasks. Multiple jurisdictions are now a common part of thousands of HR job titles, and the profession is quickly building the cultural, legal, and economic awareness required to influence workforce policy across borders.

Community in Singapore, and beyond

The HR profession is not just growing in number; it is also increasing its clout as a single, networked community.

In Singapore, and increasingly in other centres such as Jakarta, Kuala Lumpur, Hong Kong, and Bangkok, an increasing number of events, congresses, and learning opportunities are adding to an already extensive HR calendar.

The inaugural HRM Asia Think Tank, held in Singapore on September 16 last year, was the latest innovation aimed at bringing HR together. The brainstorming breakfast event posed questions such as what traditional HR practices are still relevant, and what areas were in need of new thinking or disruption.

The vendor-free and free-to-participate event will be rolled out as a continuing series during 2017.

Regardless of the event or host, the opportunity to share best practices, case studies, and even some out-of-the-box ideas has never been greater. While HR is aware that there are no one-size fits all solutions in this profession, the growing number of people participating in these events have been able to try out new ideas and adapt them to their organisations as required. 

That is adding clear and often immediate value to their workforces, and increasing the overall value of HR to the business, and the wider economy.

Source: HRM Asia​, 7 February 2017​

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