Human Capital Dilemmas: A Relook from the Asian Cultural Perspective

Human Capital Dilemmas: A Relook from the Asian Cultural Perspective

Vijayan Munusamy & Michael Jenkins

Senior Researcher & Chief Executive Officer, HCLI

In our previous article, we discussed the dilemmas faced by human capital practitioners. In this article, we propose a paradigm (way of doing things) closely connected to Asian cultures: one that thrives on dilemmas yet remains underleveraged by human capital practitioners. 

A review of the HR literature shows a bias for “either-or” logic that ignores the interdependence between current and new human capital practices. This is also true for many areas of management. The reason for this bias could be due to the ‘doing’ paradigm that is dominant in Western worldviews – one that has, in fact, contributed significantly to the advancement of the HR field. 

The “Doing” paradigm emphasises moving from Point A (Practice A) to Point B (Practice B). The distance between Point A and Point B is usually expressed as practice gaps. Our review shows that while some practices do need to move from Point A to Point B, they are not dilemmas and we will cover them in another article later in the series. For now, we are discussing situations in which a difficult choice has to be made between Practice A and B: in other words - a Dilemma. 

In Asian worldviews, the “doing” paradigm (Practice B) has to be in sync with the "being" paradigm (Practice A). Otherwise, the "being" paradigm (Practice A) will dominate and makes it hard to embrace Practice B.

Hence, the paradigm of ‘becoming,’ which is a combination of two paradigms - being and doing - is what Asia needs; and this is something that is already embedded in Asia’s cultural orientation. 

The paradigm, therefore, is not about moving from Point A to Point B but rather viewing Point A and Point B as coexisting, accepting their organic changes and being open to the possibility that they may even lead to a new destination: Point C.

These paradigms, separately or in combination, have been discussed in several disciplines. It has a long history in the field of intercultural psychology and leadership, for instance.  

And more recently, this paradigm has re-emerged in the context of mindfulness. 

Though they lend themselves to different interpretations and focus, the paradigm of “being and doing” and therefore the paradigm of 'becoming' - concerning human capital practices - is all about practising current practices and at the same time practising new practices, even if there is no additional resource to do so. Most often, they are competing but not necessarily conflicting practices. It ultimately comes down to: 

  • Accepting that both current and new human capital practices are essential for the organisation. 
  • Viewing these disconnected practices in terms of ‘big picture.’ i.e. what are the ultimate goals of these practices? 
  • Balancing resources for both types of practices.  
  • Integrating both current and new practices, whenever the possibility arises to do so. This may even result in the generation of innovative practices. 


Why this paradigm will work well for Asia 

This paradigm is significant for Asia because of two cultural reasons: 

According to Professor Dharm P.S. Bhawuk, most prescriptive human capital solutions offered by multinationals, textbooks, consultants and thought leaders are ‘doing’ in nature and ignore the contribution of ‘being’ solutions[1]. ‘Doing’ solutions do work well in the Western context because there is an alignment between Western ‘doing’ societal culture and the proposed practices or solutions. In Asia, societal culture values ‘being’ more than ‘doing.’ Here, ‘being’ does not mean practices remain static over time but rather suggests that practices evolve organically. The challenge, however, is that their evolution may be subject to a significant lag such that they lose their relevance for the organisation. This is where ‘doing’ practices come in handy. They help organisations in two ways.

First, they ‘push the envelope’ of current practices through new approaches, and second, they introduce entirely new practices that may not be possible through organic change. In a nutshell, human capital practices cannot be substituted “just like that” unless they are infringing on ethical issues. There are reasons why current practices exist. Not that all current practices are progressive, but like all change activities, their progression to new, integrated or innovative practices requires a careful handover. The ‘becoming’ paradigm facilitates this ‘handover’ better than just ‘being’ or ‘doing.’

In general, Asians emphasise context, view separate things in terms of how they are related and focus on concepts of unity.  Many studies have also shown that Asians tend to be holistic and more dialectical thinkers than Westerners. All these attributes can contribute to seeing the ‘big picture.’ However, connecting seemingly disconnected ideas is an uphill task for human capital leaders if organisations keep insisting on a ‘to-do’ list. The figure below represents some examples of ‘big picture’ thinking aligned to organisational goals.

Figure 1 represents some examples of 'big picture' thinking aligned to organisational goals.

[1] Dharm P.S. Bhawuk, Professor of Management and Culture and Community Psychology, Shidler College of Business, University of Hawai'i at Manoa.



Back to top