Seeing is believing describes the learning and development agenda of the Hong Kongbased utility that seeks to entice new customers and business partners in the Peoples Republic of China.
Its an event that would have inspired Confucius into full reflection: honorable Asian company hears opportunity knocking in its 130th year, and seizes it with proverbial gusto.
So it happened to The Hong Kong and China Gas Company Limited, the venerable utility founded in 1862. During the 1990s, the Hong Kong-based firm with its colonial pedigree was quietly enjoying a steady 70 percent market share when a burgeoning Peoples Republic of China (PRC) began expressing a need for more clean energy. So the enterprise quietly embarked on a China adventure, ultimately opening a new business in Guangdong to test the joint venture waters.
Today, the companycommonly known as Towngasis operating at full throttle. It engages in more than 120 joint ventures (JVs) spread across 20 provinces, has undergone a merger and acquisition, and is experiencing a compound annual growth rate of gas sales in excess of 40 percent for the last five years.
That means you might want to excuse the companys training and development function if it appears a bit winded. Theres a lot on its plate, including instilling the basic concepts of safety to new employees and customers alike within a tradition-bound and hierarchical culture of typical state-owned enterprises, and to a target population with generally low safety awareness in gas utilization.
It also means you can forget those fancy distance learning initiatives and the virtual this and that. At Towngas, its all about building trust and relationships within the PRC so that actual learning can occur. Call it Learning 101.
To be honest, theres never been a breakthrough innovation in the entire history of this company, says Margaret Cheng, chief learning officer and head of corporate human resources. Here, innovation is incremental. Cheng uses words like perseverance and continuous improvement to describe the mindset of a defiantly down-to-earth approach to support new business on the mainland.
Not that anyone is complaining. Being the right people at the right time and place has its rewards, after all.
Cheng believes that successfully introducing new ideas and concepts to individuals within Chinaespecially the veteran engineers who are prospective JV partnerscan be summarized in three words: seeing is believing. Show them the worth of an idea and they will accept it. Yet in many cases, nothing less will do.
Case in point is the companys JV in the ancient city of Yixing in Jiangsu Province. Famous for its ceramics, especially its world renowned clay teapots, Yixing also was known for its constant smog from coal- and diesel-fueled ceramics factories. But when the Towngas JV demolished 700 chimneys and began burning low emission natural gas, grateful citizens got the picture.
Another example is an annual company orientation held in Hong Kong each year for some 200 mainland partners and employees. To them, coming to Hong Kong is like a pilgrimage to Mecca, says Sam Liu, senior vice president of human resources and head of all PRC utility JVs. The popular learning event is used to reinforce the companys culture, develop personal relationships, and establish benchmarks for important initiatives concerning safety, customer service, and environmental protection, according to Liu.
No single issue ranks higher for Towngas than safety awareness and compliance. Severe winters, especially in the north, tend to entice impulsive behaviors that lead to safety hazards. In 2009, there were 29 gas-related fatalities, eight of which involved Towngas operations. In addition, aging cast iron gas pipes pose a constant safety threat.
Yet while Towngas is uncompromising about safety, imposing modern standards is often met with resistance from technicians and engineers, who are content to rely on their noses to monitor gas leaks.
To help transform this culture, Towngas launched several initiatives in 2010, including a vigorous safety and service pledge campaign that created awareness among 110,000 employees and customers. It also made technician licensing compulsory, and decreed that any fatal incident would disqualify a JV from annual bonus entitlement.
Towngas also initiated outreach activities in collaboration with local government and community channels. It deployed media communication, wide circulation of safety pamphlets, door-to-door home visits, and safety exhibitions in the communities it serves.
One obstacle to change of any sort within China is its entrenched hierarchical culture. For example, any scheduled board meeting in which key decisions are pending must be preceded by careful advanced planning and communication involving each individual member to ensure that agreements will be reached during the session, explains Cheng.
Yet despite such handicaps, the learning function plays a strategic role in the companys profitability growth by focusing on such areas as executive bench strength development, structured planned job rotation and senior level development, and the formalization of the regional business structure. As a result, year-on-year increase of profit per employee rose 36 percent during 2010.
Incremental changes in workforce training are constantly occurring, even if not at the pace that Cheng and Liu might prefer. The learning and development functions recent successes include
- Leadership development. A customized Towngas Leadership Competency Model in 2007 was built around the companys vision, mission, and core values. A dozen core competencies are targeted around business skills, leadership of employees, and execution. All are carefully created to demonstrate with integrity the Chinese concept of relationship guanxi. It followed the move with a 180-degree leadership assessment to JV general managers and all senior vice presidents of the mainland utilities office. Such face-to-face feedback in the presence of a facilitator from the corporate office is considered a breakthrough in Chinese culture, says Cheng.
- Regional training center. In 2009, a regional training center was created in the Sichuan Province to focus on speed-to-employee readiness. The facility, which includes a vigorous train-the-trainer component, has been a huge success from training, public relations, and cost-saving standpoints, according to Towngas.
- Distance learning. The Towngas learning and development function is hardly oblivious to the benefits of online learning and virtual classroom training as it spreads its wings throughout its mammoth new market. Were keen on developing an e-learning platform for personal development for daily operations, says Cheng, who reports that the eagerness to learn in China is high. Its toes are already in the water. The companys mainland utilities business has recently created a blog for insiders that fosters an atmosphere of learning via a collaboration with the authorized agent of Harvard Business Publishing in China.