Jul 062015

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The Millennium Development Goals Report 2015 finds that dire poverty has dropped sharply, and just as many girls as boys are now enrolled in primary schools around the world. Simple measures like installing bed nets have prevented some six million deaths from malaria. But nearly one billion people still defecate in the open, endangering the health of many others.

In fact, though, how much of those gains can be attributed to the goals is unknown. The sharp reductions in extreme poverty are due largely to the economic strides made China alone. Likewise, some of the biggest shortfalls can be attributed to a handful of countries that remain very far behind, in particular India, where an estimated 600 million people defecate in the open, heightening the risk of serious disease, especially for children.

Reducing Child Mortality

Reducing Child Mortality

The New York Times has a good report here.

Given that health is a key component of the MDGs, what can healthcare communicators read into these findings? Having worked extensively in the region (albeit moreso in China than India) and having developed communications programs in both markets, it is clear that from an organisational level China is streets ahead. And, the long-termism so evident there is in large part absent in India. The way pharma engages with stakeholders in both markets is quite different, with Indian strategy much more focused on traditional channels and being less invested in digital and social engagement. It would surely make sense for India to revisit its policies that so restrict multinationals from investing in the country and consider embracing partnership from the pharma sector.

Jul 012012

As I’ve written previously headline-grabbing graduate numbers might make an employer think he holds all the HR aces. That’s not quite the case, as this Economist piece points out. Given that the attraction of working for one of the world’s biggest consumer brand groups must surely have held pretty wide appeal this is a worrisome statistic. Not just for foreign direct investment, but also for China’s expectations of continued +8% growth, which cannot forever be driven from ever more shoe factories in Wenzhou (温州).

May 292012

The default challenge tends to be one of two ice-breakers;‘Why China?’, or ‘Why Singapore?’.

Then follows an interesting brainstorm that probably should have happened somewhere back up the road and ends with even less clarity than it started. The key point tends to be a wish to expand to AsiaPac but a stumbling block often manifests in the shape of a lack of definition of this region. Go here for a brief aside on that point. The point is there’s a gut enthusiasm to move into the China market but Singapore is thrown into the mix as an option as the archetypal easy place to do business in Asia which just so happens to also be a thriving biotech hub. But the question is shouldn’t a China entry be founded on more than a gut feel… there’s often a sense that even so long after opening-up a kind of gold fever persists as a feature of foreign direct investment in China. Then again, wouldn’t a successful entrepreneur in a niche professional services field in the pharma sector pay heed to his instincts given the continued double-figure growth rates in China. Especially as so often the motivation is on the back of serendipitous account opportunity with its attendant security of – at least in the short term – likely cashflows.

But still there’s the question, why China – what about India, Brazil, Russia, Turkey, the Middle East, or the still vibrant Southeast Asian markets – all closer to home geographically, economically solid bets and all to greater or lesser degrees far less culturally removed. What is with the often sudden-onset allure of China?

In reality it often tends to be a response to fast-moving events on a key account; client corporate strategic refocusing on China cascades down from the blue to directly impact on the product-market, with implications even for the well-oiled machine that is the global publication planning account. The potential opinion leadership qualities of key Chinese investigators are abruptly realized, the brand director is packed off to Shanghai and before you know it your global capabilities, international KOL-management abilities, global infrastructure and knowledge of Chinese peer-review journals is all coming under scrutiny. This sudden global contraction can expose the agency, and with so many clients’ emerging market strategies still in a state of flux this can create a tension between proven abilities and questions over the ability to step up in the short-term.

So just how much at risk are specialist agencies without a presence in Asia or specifically in China? Here we risk getting into a definitional game of what is a specialist agency, a game in which the big groups’ geographic reach and networks at least on paper you might think hand them a straightforward win. Certainly for a specialist agency servicing ethical pharma with its focus on evidence-based communications, defining and redefining its mission, staying relevant and, just as importantly communicating that relevance, is an ongoing challenge. The current environment is one of unrelenting turbulence caused by the jostling for position and consolidation of competitors, and the ebb and flow of different operating models in the bow waves of big pharma’s never-ending regional restructures. Considering, say, pre-launch key stakeholder below-the-line communications it’s certainly the case that there is considerable clinical trials activity in China but this does not necessarily translate into a need for on-the-ground strategic publications support in China at least immediately. But… by not being there it does provide an open door for the big players. Not that it means they can do your job but clients in China are inclined to value the security of a brand over the unknown. A first step then is clearly to work with your client and make it clear you are prepared to commit but help ease their concerns by demonstrating the short-term lack of impact such a shift is likely to have. A medium-term strategic plan both for the onsite management of the account and for the wider agency business implications is called for.

Following your client and going to China for a share of market per se are clearly very differentiated strategies but it would be a waste not to examine the broader opportunities of expansion given the situation. While the market currently is more traditional above-the-line advertising-dominant, there are – given the Chinese take-up of mobile web and willingness to enthusiastically engage – fast-growing opportunities in digital media and dialogic communications. But even agencies with a relatively well established foothold in Asia can become unnerved by making a definitive shift of focus to China. Inevitably though, just as Europe is not going to be a satisfactory long-term base for servicing your Shanghai clients, neither will clients accept that a regional six-hour flight from Singapore constitutes reasonable locality, however special your specialty.

Next up, how to start up.

May 212012

As imprecise a geographic concept as Asia-Pacific is, however its boundaries are defined it is home to something like 40-60% of the world’s population in an area comprising 20-30% of the global landmass. Within these boundaries just two nations combined account for some 38% of the global population. However it is dissected the notion of AsiaPac often remains rather nebulous, a bit unhelpful for service sector businesses arriving in the region. Whereas no-one seriously contemplates a unified Europe – despite it being by value the world’s leading trading bloc – as a culturally integrated unit, thirty years after China opened up and the Asian tigers first roared there is still a tendency (often from afar) to be casual with the term AsiaPac as a meaningful geographical and socio-political construct. This is careless and results in an internationalization strategy getting off on the wrong foot or with no real focus. The fact is there is little that tangibly connects a region that cuts across all strata of economic development and includes countries with some of the most progressive and cost-effective healthcare systems and standards. It’s partly this lack of uniformity that makes working in the environment so stimulating but developing a strategy here takes significant consideration. Break it down and Australia is too Western to be ‘Asian’, India is too indecisive about policy and foreign direct investment and seemingly focused on blowing its demographic advantage, Japan is just too different, the post-industrial economies of Singapore, Hong Kong and Korea are all well on their well-established tracks and the rest of Southeast Asia is pretty small beer economically. Cutting through what AsiaPac means in meaningful terms to pharma, there will continue to be one driving force for growth in the foreseeable future and that driver is China. Answering the question posed, in 2012 AsiaPac is China.

May 052012

China is a conundrum when it comes to human resourcing. With more than 6,000,000 graduates entering the job market this year it should be an employers’ dream, right? Especially given the oft-cited perceived advantages of a foreign employer. Not so fast. As with so many China stats without a healthy dose of perspective they risk overwhelming to the point of irrelevance. For a start most grads are still soaked up by the state owned enterprises (SOEs) where cheap liquidity means over-resourcing is routine. In fact once you drill down to what you re really looking for you’ll find that China is strapped for employees. Tertiary education is a bit uneven and the aforementioned SOEs aren’t overwhelmingly discriminating.

There are positives though, English-language competencies are improving and there are very many young enthusiastic and entrepreneurial Chinese. One perennial problem is job-hopping – evidence again of there being little shortage of demand for employees. This is a real problem and probably the overwhelming issue for an agency whose business is fundamentally built on being able to develop relationships – not to mention guan’xi (关系) – over a reasonable time frame. Losing your staff every two years or less creates ongoing instability – especially during establishment and reputational build through to your China operation achieving critical mass.

How do foreign employers compare in hanging on to their staff? One study showed that Japanese and Hong Kong employers are more successful at holding onto their Chinese employees compared with their US and European counterparts. Some of this might simply be due to better cultural compatibility (after all Hong Kong hardly leads the way in terms of progressive employee relations and Japan offers very traditional workplace relations). It is essential though that western companies embrace their new China operation from the outset as an integral part of their global offering. Given the shift in global economic power any agency for whom their China operation is a crucial commitment to offering a global offering should be looking to a 360 degree approach in learning just as much from their new market as they want to benefit from it. You don’t have to look far to find potential examples, eg the uptake of social media in China and its creative utility puts developed markets in the shade for innovation. Too often the process of induction ends up being a one-way exercise in addressing the functional underpinnings of traditional healthcare communications techniques and agency SOPs. The new operation is seen as a minor add-on. Of course the basics are important but can be alienating given the differences in nature of the business and sheer amount of cultural assimilation required at the outset. Social enterprise utilities like Yammer and SocialCast should be implemented if they are not already and interaction across the business network should become second nature with globalized, multicultural, self-directed teams being the expected norm.

While there are rigid employment constraints and the unevolved nature of Chinese employee contracts can make hiring in China seem somewhat dominated by legalistic procedure, western companies don’t help themselves by for example considering the hiring of a skilled local HR manager at the outset as an avoidable indirect expense. In reality finding the right HR is a priceless up-front investment.

Top 10 tips then for hiring for your China start-up

  1. Appoint an experienced Human Resources Manager; after all your business has no assets without its people
  2. Generally avoid recruitment agencies generally for most positions – they will provide only the barest functional matches and are inclined to offload screening to the client
  3. Utilise social media to reach out to potential candidates; LinkedIn is a good starting point but your HR Manager will know the Chinese channels
  4. Provide a realistic job preview prior to an offer – say a two-week pre-contract period to ensure the best chance of compatibility
  5. Make a point of understanding the essential contractual conditions of your employees; there is no getting away from the fact that there are big cultural differences… understanding these elements will help you get a wider perspective
  6. Provide a comprehensive induction with history and overview of the company and be clear on the mission and vision and China’s key future contribution
  7. Provide a clear  appraisal system and offer clear line of sight – be prepared to be directive at the outset
  8. Be creative with incentives and ensure positive instrumentality – eg consider a secondment to HQ once value is being demonstrably delivered
  9. Avoid a sense of ‘them and us’ – encourage your growing China team to profile themselves in the wider organization; engage regularly and in person with your China team
  10. Consider possible China in all pitch opportunities – fully leverage your new resources’ potential