Lessons from the East: Asian tech and talent

In the third installment of our Asia series, we turn to perhaps the most dynamic of all the sectors in Asia: technology. Just a quick look at Alibaba’s global HQ epitomises the wealth of innovation and talent that is emerging. We don’t want to re-invigorate Cold War rhetoric on a probably wet Saturday morning as you drink your coffee, but the East is excelling and the West needs to take note.

Major players like Alibaba, Flipkart and Grab are driving world-leading growth and innovation, and we believe that Western companies need to re-evaluate their talent strategy. They need to increasingly invest in attracting and retaining Asian executives with digital and technology expertise. A strong representative talent pipeline can lead to market-defining innovation, and leading Asian tech companies are now both strong magnets for and prolific producers of talent.

Both the attraction and development of talent has been crucial in turning Asia’s technology companies into global innovators. Indeed, as they continue to globalise, the leading Eastern tech firms have established formal programmes to attract and develop international executives. Samsung, perhaps the most famous of Korea’s chaebols, launched its Global Strategy Group to engage MBA graduates from leading Western business schools. Based in South Korea, members of the internal consulting division work on high impact projects across Samsung business units globally, solving complex problems whilst training to become tomorrow’s global leaders of Samsung. Similarly, Alibaba’s Global Leadership Academy aims to equip members with the skills to grow the business internationally. Based at the HQ in Hangzhou, the Global Talent Development Programme aims to attract and develop leaders with expertise in cross-border ecommerce, big data and fintech to enable Alibaba to continue to innovate and globalise.

Historically, as the cases of Samsung and Alibaba show, internationally diverse talent has driven success at Asian technology corporates. This also applies to the development of startups where many Asian founders spent formative years in Western institutions. Anthony Tan and Nadiem Makarim, CEOs and Founders of Grab and Gojek respectively, both studied for their MBAs at Harvard, and the latter spent his early career at McKinsey. Additionally, both of Flipkart’s co-founders are Amazon alumni and Lazada was originally founded by Rocket Internet.

Despite the influence Western talent is having on Eastern tech companies, C-suite representation of Asian executives remains poor in Western Big Tech. The executive teams and directors of Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon feature just four members of Asian descent, primarily Indian Americans. How do they expect to tap into this rapidly growing region without board representation? Indeed, this relative dearth of representation contrasts sharply with leading Asian tech companies such as Rakuten and Alibaba, who have two and three Western executives on their boards respectively.

Asian “Super apps” such as Tencent’s WeChat, Grab and Gojek offer immersive ecosystems for all consumer needs. One of us recently had the pleasure of visiting Bali and our blissful relaxation was only enhanced by the smooth food ordering and ride hailing experience offered by Gojek. As Uber continues to expand its offering and Apple and Facebook develop their conversational commerce capabilities through Business Chat and Messenger, perhaps they will hire experienced executives from WeChat to show them the way forward.

Anthony Tan, co-founder of Grab. Photo credit: Grab

Whilst Western big tech firms reel from scandals driven by ‘tech bro’ cultures and face subsequent unrest such as the Google walkout last year, there are strong examples of diversity and inclusion among Asian technology firms. When Alibaba was created in 1999, six of the 18 founders were women, and today, a third of its senior management are female. Indeed, its founder Jack Ma is well known for his progressive approach. Despite recently stepping down, his philosophy and legacy will continue, with the university he founded, and Aliway, the digital platform where employees can debate ideas and communicate their complaints.

Given the positive impact that Western executives have had in Asian tech companies, and the technological achievements in that region, we believe that Western tech has much to learn from its Eastern counterpart and should increasingly recruit executive talent from Asia.

Of course, it could be a reflection of the fact that the West once dominated digital innovation and representative talent is playing catch up. However, the reality is that the speed of digital evolution in Asia will surely lead to Asian dominance in the 21st century. Therefore, that catch up needs to speed up. If not, the question we should pose is not whether western tech companies should increasingly recruit top Eastern talent, but whether they will be able to.

Huw.llewellynwaters@thembsgroup.co.uk | Joseph.ball@thembsgroup.co.uk | @TheMBSGroup