SME Spotlight

Attention to culture makes a difference

In an age of business disruption, firms are struggling to keep up with fast-paced changes. In the second of a four-part series on progressive workplaces, Lee Xin Enspeaks to Ms Jacqueline Gwee, director of Aadvantage Consulting, who helps businesses, including small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), with their human resource practices. The company, which was a finalist at the Tripartite Alliance for Fair and Progressive Employment Practices' Exemplary Employer Award last year, conducts a cultural values assessment survey every couple of years, and Ms Gwee emphasises that culture is king in really making business transformations.

Ms Gwee says young people want to know that their work is appreciated, especially if they are putting in long hours. Employee recognition is becoming very important, and a lot of companies are working towards more engagement with their employees, she
Ms Gwee says young people want to know that their work is appreciated, especially if they are putting in long hours. Employee recognition is becoming very important, and a lot of companies are working towards more engagement with their employees, she says.PHOTO: TIFFANY GOH FOR THE STRAITS TIMES

Q What was the idea behind Aadvantage?

A I started the company in 2002. We began as five people, and we had all been colleagues at Arthur Andersen, which had been one of the big five consulting firms. Today, we have about 33 people and we provide business consultancy services .

In the past three years, we have done more human resource consultancy work than in the first few years. A lot of the work is people-related, but not just HR consulting - we help companies relook their vision and create greater clarity for the future.

Q What sets you apart from other business consultancies?

A What differentiates us is our attention to culture. We have end-to-end capabilities and help companies transform, not just training their people or looking at their processes.

The first thing we do when we work with a company is to understand: What is their culture like today? What is the desired culture that will support the business going forward?

Q How do you measure culture?

A We have a tool called the cultural values assessment which helps us to understand the value of positive and dysfunctional behaviour in an organisation.

We have used the tool to do surveys at the national level, in 2012 and 2015, to measure the Singapore culture, both societal and at the workplace. We use the same suite of tools at the organisational level.

In those two national studies, we interviewed more than 1,000 people each. We asked them what kind of culture they experience at their current workplace, and what their desired culture is by asking them to pick the best descriptive terms.

Q What were changes to workplace culture that you observed in the past few years?

A We have noticed that the type of relationships in the organisation, such as supervisor-employee relationships, is becoming increasingly important to employees.

We have also seen in our studies that employee recognition is becoming very important, so a lot of companies are working towards more engagement with their employees.

This has implications for companies. For instance, nearly half of our employees are below 35. Young people want to know their work is appreciated, especially if they are putting in long hours.

But if their supervisors are older, in the Generation X range, they have a different mindset. When I started, the mindset was that if your boss doesn't talk to you, that's good. Today, it's the opposite, the demands are different.

For companies that want to be progressive, the way of working has to change. For our company, we want to have a coaching culture.

Q What kinds of services have been in demand?

A Measurement, business research and insights are an important part of our offerings. There must be data which can tell you what your next step should be.

Over the past three years, our area of growth, other than research and insights, is human capital transformation services. We help companies set up their HR strategy, policies and processes.

In terms of numbers, about 60 per cent of our clients are SMEs, although they bring in about 40 per cent of the revenue.

Q What is your work with SMEs like?

A The ones that we work with are more consciously open, and they have realised that culture plays a very important role.

Culture starts from the leaders. Some of the SMEs that we work with are run by the second or third generations of the founder. They may have worked in other corporate cultures and realise that the business needs to be more structured and consistent in their HR practices.

One of the key aspects in which we are working with SMEs is to put in place robust performance management to provide clarity of expectations for employees.

For instance, there may have been no transparent salary benchmark. We help the company to put in a structure and transparent HR policies. If there is no flow of information, people may think that there is unfairness and inconsistency.

SMEs often say that hiring and retention are hard. I would say that if they don't have these HR practices and structures, it would be very difficult to attract the right people for their needs.

Q In what way is Aadvantage a progressive workplace?

A What we are proud of is our flexibility. When we do our own employee engagement surveys, that's what people say they are attracted to. We have official working hours but employees don't always have to come into the office. There is a high level of trust in the organisation - we have a shared, open calendar where we are transparent about our time. A lot of SME bosses still want to see their staff in the office, so this is one aspect that differentiates us.

Q How has the economic crisis affected your company?

A In 2015, we managed to grow our top line by about 30 per cent. We set an aim of another 20 per cent last year, and this year, we hope to grow by about 20 per cent as well.

Obviously, everyone is now very price sensitive.

What we need to do is to have new tools, innovate and highlight our value proposition clearly. As a professional service, we don't produce things - our proposition has to do with the quality of our advisory services.

Q What are the company's growth plans?

A We have been here for 15 years and a lot of our current work is very local. We are making a conscious decision to go regional, and setting a target that about 20 per cent of our revenue must come from overseas.

We have a China practice which contributes about 40 per cent to our group revenue. We are looking at Asean countries; we have started some work with Indonesia and we want to do more. We have had inquiries from emerging markets such as Myanmar. However, due to issues such as language, we would need local partners.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 11, 2017, with the headline 'Attention to culture makes a difference'. Subscribe