Wednesday, 10 April 2013

ASTD Conference 5 - 7 March 2013 - Part 4

Click here to jump to Part 1 of this series of posts.

International Trends in HR/HRD

The ASTD does not believe in sleeping late. Although we were in the beautiful mountainous Berg region, they had us up at 7 am for breakfast and then ready by 8 am for the first presenter of the day - Prof Dr Michael Freiboth (University of Applied Sciences, Augsburg, Germany). 


Michael's topic was International Trends in HRD. He also referenced the idea of mega-trends but made the point that these kind of changes are often very small on a quantitative scale, for example a "1% growth in a population with access to higher education" seems like a small change but it can have a massive impact in terms of many other aspects of society and the economy. Mega-trends therefore can often be unseen to the majority of the population but are unstoppable trends with big impact.

He used this fascinating graphic to illustrate how mega-trends are turning  the world upside down (literally), with the influence of nations in the South growing, and those in the North, decreasing (with some futurists talking about a magnetic pole reversal, this shift may have an economic and physical component).

Michael then went on to illustrate with some very humorous examples, the challenges that globalisation presents in the work of developing leadership competencies across cultural boundaries. These lessons were based on his work with Ferrero, the world famous chocolate and confectionery maker which has 21,000 employees across the world and which was attempting to build an international leadership community across its multinational management team.


  • In China a company had tried to introduce an Employee of the Month competition to encourage performance. However shortly after announcing and recognising their first employee of the month, this employee resigned. On inquiring the management discovered that in China there is a cultural perception "the nail that stands out, is hammered in" making the Employee of the Month a negative incentive. A team-based approach was needed instead.
  • Michael also cited research on cross-cultural differences in saying "no" to one's boss, when asked to take on an extra task, with humorous differences between cultures shown below:
    • The GERMAN approach is very direct: "No, I cannot, I might have to postpone some other important work"
    • The CHINESE approach is less direct, "This may be not so easy to do." The cultural strategy is to never say openly "no" because this is very disrespectful. Often an attempt is made to divert from the topic.
    • The ITALIAN approach is indirect, "I am not sure if it is possible," leaving space for misunderstandings when the boss is from a different culture
    • The BRITISH approach was very indirect, "This might be a good idea" meaning that there is only a small chance that this is a good idea.
Ferrero had employees and senior management criss-crossing all of these cultures and therefore faced the challenge of ensuring clear communication and co-ordinated action despite the potentials for misunderstanding seen above.

Of course cultural differences in the workplace can extend way beyond communication styles, as Michael illustrated with this slide from his presentation:


(Polychronic people can schedule various tasks during the same time period whereas monochronic people prefer to do one thing at a time)

Some other interesting observations from Michael's presentation which again highlight the importance of globalisation, the aging workforce, and the importance of women in the workplace:


  • World population is expected to start declining by 2040 (after reaching about 8 billion people)
    • This is contrary to the Club of Rome predictions that the population would grow completely out of control
    • We have seen that once reproduction rates fall below 2.0 (two children per couple) in industrialised countries, they don't bounce back
    • The average worldwide reproduction rate is now 2.43 and it is sinking at a rate of 0.2 per decade
    • Statisticians reckon that in the European Union by 2050, there will be 40 million people less than today
    • This raises the important question, how do we sustain an effective and skilled workforce in the face of declining global population?
    • For African countries this likely means increasing struggle to retain local skills in the face of international poaching
  • In trying to attract talent, companies that are "in the front row" (as Michael calls it - they have big public brands) are less at risk. For example Audi had 83,000 unsolicited work applications in 2013 and an unwanted staff turnover rate below 2%
  • South Africa spends 5,4% of GDP on education, compared with Germany at 4,6% and China at 1,9% (2009)
  • Norway is discussing introducing a legal quota for women in company board positions, at the level of  40%
    • BMW has already introduced quotas of companies for women in management positions at a minimum of 16% (to be reached by 2016)
  • There is some great info in Michael's presentation about how companies are responding to the aging workforce by extending retirement age limits to include more elderly people in the workforce, while at the same time competing to get new talent into the organisation, and then accommodate generational differences in the way the organisation runs (see slides 54 - 59). 
    • For example the diagram below shows how radically different the traditionalists (born before 1945) and the Generation Y/Z  (born 1981 and after) employees are in terms of motivating factors and retention:
We didn't unfortunately get to finish Michael's presentation, as we ran out of time, but you can review all 72 slides at the link in the paragraph above. Next up was Judge Jim Tamm whose broad American accent was in stark contrast to Michael's crisp German English. I will cover his presentation in Part 5 of this series...