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Talent management in an age of digital disruption: Implications for skills policy

A commissioned study by the Institute for Adult Learning (IAL) of skill webs embedded in the global value chains of leading transnational companies (TNCs) found that senior managers and executives in TNCs viewed Singapore as a global talent hub, but expressed concerns that Singaporeans were failing to adequately demonstrate the behavioural competencies that are used to benchmark top corporate talent (Brown and Lauder, 2014; Brown, Lauder and Sung, 2017). This is despite Singapore being widely recognised as having one of the most sophisticated skills formation systems in the world, and consistently ranked at the top of major education league tables. 1 This follow-up study seeks to examine corporate talent management practices in leading TNCs to shed light on the alleged Singaporean talent deficit. In particular, it aims to gain a better understanding of talent and talent management – along with its relationship to skills – in four key industry sectors of the Singapore economy, namely banking and finance, infocomm, professional services, and pharmaceuticals and biotech. All four industry sectors are widely seen as trailblazing in their adoption of digital technologies, and therefore this study also seeks to understand how TNCs in these industry sectors are responding to digital disruption and the likely impact their digital strategy would have on talent management practices. There are significant policy implications on the study of talent and talent management for Singapore’s skills policy in the context of SkillsFuture. First, Singapore is increasingly hosting global jobs, with a greater concentration of its economic activities in regional head office functions, research, and advanced manufacturing. Both established TNCs like GSK, and new entrants like Google and Twitter, have set up Asian headquarters in Singapore. New Asian TNCs also see Singapore as a gateway for global expansion. The ability of Singapore’s skills policy to nurture a pipeline of top indigenous corporate talent is absolutely critical in ensuring that local workers have access to quality jobs generated by the country’s industrial policy. The strong coupling among industrial policy, job creation and local employment that has been the hallmark of Singapore’s economic success may erode if skills policy cannot support the development of a pipeline of top indigenous corporate talent. For instance, the projection by the Economic Development Board (EDB) of the creation of 2,000 digital economy jobs in Singapore over the next four years, carried with it a cautionary note that more efforts were required to ensure that Singaporeans have the skills to take up these jobs (The Straits Times, 27 July 2017). A 2017 study by talent outsourcing firm KellyOCG, likewise found that C-suite leaders in Singapore had an acute awareness of talent shortage, relative to the rest of the Asia-Pacific region (Hamilton, 2017). It is clear that Singapore’s success in its next phase of development rests significantly on ensuring that the quality jobs created are accessible to Singaporean workers. Second, SkillsFuture aims to provide Singaporeans with greater control over their skills and career development, marking a significant shift from the top-down approach of past skills policies, where educational planning and vocational training were tightly integrated to prepare workers for jobs. Built on a vision of skills mastery for longer-term employability, the empowerment of individuals should genuinely enable them to develop the expertise to be the top of their fields, and be demanded in the labour market. The success of SkillsFuture, therefore, hinges on the ability of Singapore’s skills policy to nurture a cadre of top-notch talent. There is thus an urgent need to develop a deeper understanding of how talent is being defined, managed or measured, or what distinguishes talented employees from the rest of the workforce in local and global talent markets.