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Q&A: Jason Ho, executive VP and head of group HR, OCBC Bank

Heritage-rich, yet future-ready

Jason Ho, EVP and head of group HR, OCBC Bank, talks Aditi Sharma Kalra through the nuances of building talent management efforts that cut across age groups and seniority.

Vital Stats: Leading OCBC Bank’s 29,000 employees across the globe (of which about 7,000 are in Singapore), Jason Ho took the reins as EVP and group head of HR in 2015, after a well-planned succession from former HR head, Cynthia Tan. Originally a banker with a track record of over 30 successful years to his credit, Ho has embraced the foray into HR, crediting the importance of the function in touching employees’ lives, their families and their society.

Q How would you describe the culture at OCBC Bank?

Every year we measure the employee engagement score through a survey, and one of the things you may find unusual is that, instead of focusing on the score, we are more interested in what our staff wants to tell us. Is there a trend we should take note of? Is there a programme that is important for the staff? The fact that we are best employer is a secondary result. More important is doing the right thing for the staff.

This is our culture, and it can be seen in the three pillars that support our employer brand – caring (by investing in employees’ development); progressive (breaking new ground through continuous learning); and making a difference (taking a long-term view, as opposed to quarterly results). This is reflected in our long-term commitment to our staff, their families and their entire network of relationships.

Q With more than 29,000 employees globally, how does the HR team work?

Across the board, we have more than 400 people in HR – that includes our subsidiary in Indonesia, HR practitioners in Bank of Singapore, Great Eastern, and also in the banking operations across 18 countries.

Typically, we build policy and direction at the group level, and filter these down to the subsidiaries and branches. We recognise it’s important to empower people, especially in certain countries, where there is a need to adapt to local regulations and customs.

Q How were OCBC Bank’s efforts to build a future-ready workforce conceptualised?

How to prepare the workforce has always been top of our mind. But what we have done in the past few years is define the various segments in order to tailor programmes to each segment.

We started this by doing an analysis of OCBC’s workforce, and we found that all age groups were represented in our workforce. From there, we came up with various programmes to target and engage with specific segments. For instance, to engage with and attract the millennials, we came up with OCBC FRANKpreneurship, an internship programme for penultimate-year undergraduates. The programme was the first to partner with both Google and Adobe to equip students with digital skills, and received 500-plus applications and hand-picked 25 interns for the launch year in 2017.

Similarly, for the mid-segment, we have the FutureReady programme, launched in 2016. Costing close to S$500,000, it comprises three components: a S$500 cash top-up for SkillsFuture Credit eligible courses; a specially curated SkillsFuture catalogue for OCBC staff, shortlisting about 150 courses; and a two-day roadshow to help employees familiarise themselves with these two tools.

If you look at our workforce as of 2010, one out of 14 were above 50 years old; currently, it is one out of 7.5.

For employees aged 50 and above (about 15% of the staff strength), we have Life Refresh@OCBC, where they are offered training in areas meaningful to them, given their life stage, for example, digital and fintech training, financial planning, career planning and health fitness. If you look at our workforce as of 2010, one out of 14 were above 50 years old; currently, it is one out of 7.5. The challenge was really in how to reskill them, and ensure they have the motivation to reskill. This programme has been really appreciated as it gives them life skills.

All in all, we have almost 1,400 courses and programmes offered to employees in Singapore. Over 2015-2017, we have channelled an additional 33% of training funds to upskilling local talent, and expect to continue to invest about the same amount in the coming years. This is over and above the OCBC Campus opened in April 2013 as a dedicated L&D hub at Tanjong Pagar.

Q Internally, what kind of support is provided when such programmes are rolled out?

One thing that has always been true at OCBC is when we look at HR matters, it is not a business decision that quantifies the results in a clear, clinical term. A lot of decisions are made in HR because we believe it is the right thing to do for the staff. Because we do the right thing for staff, eventually the impact manifests in the business, and this is what drives our philosophy.

Moreover, a lot of times when people talk about future-proofing the workforce, they talk about jobs. We don’t – we talk about skills. Because skills stay with the staff, whether they move their job or stay with the bank, the skill is transferable.

We have also started to communicate to the staff that it’s important to take charge of the learning journey that they want to undertake. We emphasise the importance of skills upgrading in order to be prepared for the future, and have done well on encouraging internal mobility.

Through our internal job posting programme, we put forward a list of jobs or openings that are available. Anyone who has completed two years of service with OCBC can apply for this job without the knowledge of their supervisor. If they apply and get the job, then we will facilitate the discussion with their departmental head, and then the transfer will be done within two months.

The reason we encourage this is because we want people to have no fear in exploring new things. It goes back to our principle of giving people employable skills, and not just positions. We continue to invest and make sure they have skills relevant for the future. In fact, our average training man-days per employee in 2017 was 7.3, well above our target of five.

Our group CEO, made a speech where he talked about the importance of reskilling. “We will not leave anyone behind,” he said.

Q When you embarked on this journey of segmenting the workforce for better learning opportunities, how did you get buy-in from the rest of senior management?

Last year, in the long-service awards, Sam (Samuel N. Tsien), our group CEO, made a speech where he talked about the importance of reskilling. “We will not leave anyone behind,” he said. To me that is a very powerful statement.

Our basic belief is that people are willing to change. We must provide the opportunity and avenue for people to learn new skills. Of course, if a person does not want to learn, we cannot push them. But we must create an environment which encourages them to take ownership of the journey.

Having the senior management believe in it from the start really paves the way for you to make an impact. Since I came on board three years ago as HR head, I’m most grateful for the support given by our group CEO, by my peers in the senior management, and of course, by the board. People feature very high on their agenda. In fact, our biggest investment is in people.

Q What are the biggest challenges that you and your HR team faced in implementing these varied sets of learning programmes?

In every organisation you have maybe 20% of the staff who are very good at what they do because they have been doing this job for 10-20 years. But then the challenge is that this job may not be there in another 10 years’ time. That 20% of staff is usually the biggest challenge in a learning journey, because it requires them to adopt a mindset change and a willingness to unlearn and relearn, to be open to learning new things and changing the way they work.

Q Would you say another one of the challenges you faced were around budgeting and investment for the costs involved?

Every year, we plan for HR to play a key role, and we work out a year in advance what we want to do, and start to budget for it. For key projects, we have the support from the group CEO. Having support on HR initiatives from the group CEO makes our job easier, but also more exciting.

And to reiterate, we don’t look at results only in terms of cents and dollars. It is more about creating an impact on society so that eventually it will translate into business benefits, for example, through our structured internship programme, OCBC FRANKpreneurship, we aim to nurture an innovative mindset among our next generation of talent to ensure that they are future-ready to contribute to Singapore’s growth.

We encourage youngsters to apply with their ideas, and also gain some experience about working in a banking industry. More than 500 students applied, and we chose 25 of them. It was quite interesting – they had to do their own pitches, they were provided OCBC mentors, and the senior management decided on the winning idea.

Looking at the employee satisfaction survey, the recognition of our L&D contributions is always at a high 80%.

What was interesting for us, is that we learned valuable insights about the mindset of Generation Z and the things that are important to them. From the youth, we got resounding responses when we asked for post-event feedback, such as if they found this a meaningful experience in their career development, and if they would consider working for a bank after this experience.

Q How do you get line managers throughout the organisation to endorse the learning culture for themselves and their teams?

We are very fortunate that we have active cohorts of people within the organisation who are willing to share with and teach others – but we cannot take that for granted. It is a function of the culture. If you ask young people how they look at OCBC as an employer, the first point they will make is on the stability, and the second is that people are willing to teach you.

This culture has been with us for a long time, but we cannot take all these colleagues for granted. Thus, in our campus every year we have an appreciation for the trainers. We invite the group divisional heads to present the awards to their staff. To these trainers, it is not about the money, it is the recognition by the organisation, and their supervisor that they have contributed by going the extra mile.

Q Some of these courses have been successfully going on for up to five years now – how have the results manifested back to the overall business?

Looking at the employee satisfaction survey, the recognition of our L&D contributions is always at a high 80%. We have just launched our new learning management system, which will enable us to build a new and even more robust learning culture.

We also launched a coaching culture in the organisation last year, whereby supervisors have meaningful conversations with people. When a person does well, it is always easy to have the conversation. But when a person does not do so well, how do you help or coach the person?

To me, these are all moving parts that need to come together to translate into business results. The employee attrition, the stability of the workforce, and the fact that we continue to attract the right people, means we are doing the right thing. We are tracking below the industry (employee attrition) average. The important thing is that we want to keep employees that have long pathways via growth potential.

We have just enjoyed 2017 – one of the best years we have had for banking as a group. But of course, we have to continue to invest because the marketplace is always changing. We must continue to make sure that whatever we push out as an initiative must be innovative and effective.

We also must make it easier for employees. For example, the way the learning policy was structured in the past, the supervisors had to approve the courses that their employees signed up for. Now they do not have to. The process has been simplified for the parties involved.

Another tracker is in our HR data analytics team, which came up with a model two years ago to predict attrition. With the model, we have a 75% confidence of accurately predicting who will be leaving within the next six months.

It enables us to better pre-empt departures among our talent, so that early preventive actions can be taken to try to retain them. Once such a risk is identified, we will speak with the HR business partners, discuss the possibilities and the action plan.



Q Final question – what is the one myth or perception others hold that you would like to change about working in a bank?

I’ve worked in the banking industry for over 30 years and I think the challenge is that people think that banks are boring. I respectfully disagree.

The bank, as an institution, plays an important part in the ecosystem for economic stability of the country, whatever we do has an impact on society. If we are imprudent as a bank, we can create stress in the economic system of the country. Therefore, we are regulated and compliant. Doing the right thing is very high on our agenda.

Because of all the regulations, a lot of people think that we are not able to do a lot of innovative things, which isn’t true. Creativity and innovation exists in every organisation, it depends how you as an employer encourage and cultivate them.

Art Direction: Shahrom Kamarulzaman & Mohd Ashraf; Photography: Elliot (Studio Three Sixteen Pte Ltd) – www.studiothreesixteen.com

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