Sharpening Singapore's Edge: Insights from the IBM Experience

Singapore needs to develop T-shaped workers and a culture that favours innovation, collaboration, diversity and values.

Date Posted

1 Nov 2008


Issue 5, 14 Nov 2008

Singapore’s highly talented workforce is world-renowned for being efficient, skilled and hard-working. Singaporeans have often been branded as driven, speedy, responsive and task-oriented individuals— traits that boost the employability of and demand for our talent globally. Our competent and disciplined workforce fuels Singapore’s economic growth and attracts foreign talent. Supported by a world-class infrastructure and education system—both well suited to the challenges of a highly dynamic economic environment—Singapore has moved to the forefront of global human capital. Our strengths have given us an advantageous reputation for world-class performance: witness the recent World Bank Summit, the staging of the world’s first Formula 1 urban night race, and our hard-won privilege of hosting the inaugural Youth Olympics in 2010.

Nevertheless, a reputation for excellent execution may have served Singapore well in the past—particularly through the manufacturing era—but the same model is not adequate in today’s rapidly evolving service economy. To ride the wave of change in modern business, we need more innovators and creative thinkers. Critically, we need a culture that thrives on innovation, openness, trust, collaboration and diversity. We also need to nurture a workforce that is well versed in disciplines vital to the service sectors, bringing to the table a strong mix of business, technical and people skills.

Open systems and approaches provide a level playing field which stimulates competition, innovation and the free flow of goods and ideas.


Does Singapore possess the climate and culture to nurture innovation, embrace openness and instil trust? At IBM, we strongly believe that enterprises built for sustained growth stand on a foundation of core values. IBM’s set of core values—including one which stresses “Innovation that matters, for our company and for the world”—guides every IBMer’s decision-making. Our values, through the innovation process, enable us to develop new business ideas and transform business operations.

For instance, IBM’s recently concluded InnovationJam 2008—a 72-hour worldwide online brainstorming session—witnessed the coming together of over 90,000 participants worldwide, including employees and clients from over 1,000 companies, who contributed ideas in areas such as change, disruption and innovative business models and sustainable growth. In Singapore, more than 1,300 staff and over 40 clients participated in the jam, which was a first for many of them.

A culture that truly supports innovation and ideas creation also embraces openness and trust. Open systems and approaches provide a level playing field which stimulates competition, innovation and the free flow of goods and ideas. Beyond issues such as ethics and legal compliance, businesses today need to build trust.

At IBM, we demonstrate trust by “lowering the centre of gravity” of the company. We trust IBMers, and push decision-making authority out and down by encouraging greater collaboration at the base level in order to mitigate hierarchical thinking. To be a successful, globally integrated company, we have eliminated layers of management, moved more resources closer to clients in the markets and developed innovative policies, such as establishing blog guidelines which encourage IBMers to get out and engage with the blogosphere, but to do so in a responsible and transparent way. Critically, such a culture requires strong leadership: one that can foster greater collaboration, as opposed to more positional leadership.


For people, whether employees or citizens, to embrace innovation and openness completely, the provision of appropriate platforms and tools is important to get incumbents in the right frame of mind.

The IBM Thinkplace is where IBMers around the world come to collaborate. Employees can post ideas and get feedback from colleagues, explore and collaborate with fellow IBMers to find and refine ideas, and join or sponsor a technical team to implement ideas. As a leading advocate for Web 2.0 and collaborative technologies, IBM deploys Web 2.0 tools throughout the company (the InnovationJam being an example). IBMers readily leverage these tools to encourage innovation, communication and resourcefulness. As a result, IBMers are able to form powerful, diverse social and expertise networks within the company, allowing speedy access to subject matter experts in order to resolve client issues. This helps us to live up to our professional commitments as innovators and trusted business advisors.

For people to embrace innovation and openness, the provision of appropriate platforms and tools is important to get them in the right frame of mind.


Another key pillar for success is the ability to harness the talent of a diverse group of people regardless of their backgrounds. Non-discrimination policies and programmes must permeate all activities such as hiring, training, compensation, promotions, transfers and terminations. At IBM, effective management of our workforce diversity policy is an important strategic objective. Every IBMer is expected to abide by this policy and uphold the company’s commitment to workforce diversity. In 1935, IBM was one of the first companies to introduce equal pay for equal work—28 years before it was passed as a law by the United States Senate. In Singapore, IBM employs more than 30 different nationalities bringing various skills and strengths to power our clients, business partners as well as society at large.

Today, over 1 million foreigners work and live in Singapore. On close examination, the attributes that attract and retain talent in a country are not dissimilar to those that work for a global corporation. A good reputation, strategic leadership, stability, sound policies, favourable benefits and a high performance culture are some of the reasons why certain countries and companies are more popular than others as places in which to invest, build a career, or make a home. Developing the ability to understand (and appreciate) diversity and creating platforms to help different people thrive professionally and personally will position Singapore ahead as a global talent hub.


How does a country or company sustain its attractiveness as a global talent magnet in the long run?1 Over and above run-of-the-mill talent management practices and monetary rewards, more can be done in terms of initiatives that are truly reflective of the needs of its evolving workforce. What motivates Generation X (generally defined as those born between 1961 and 1981) and Generation Y (those born after 1982) talents? Beyond money, Gen X and Gen Y talents are attracted to companies who provide and promote collaborative and open cultures.

Generation X may prefer jobs that cater not only to personal growth, but are also flexible in terms of work-life integration, so that they can accommodate their personal interests. Generation Y, which grew up with the Internet, are motivated by peers, and prefer telecommuting for the flexibility it provides. They will readily take time off to travel; they are big on searching for meaning in life, and value broader social awareness and action.2

Understanding and appreciating diversity and creating playforms to help different people thrive professionally and personally will position Singapore ahead as a global talent hub.

This is why IBM provides staff with meaningful challenges outside of the office. Indeed, as a strong supporter of corporate social responsibility, IBM has always focused on the innovative application of volunteerism and technology to address global societal issues. As Samuel J. Palmisano, Chairman, President and CEO of IBM Corporation summarises aptly, “For us at IBM, this is much more than a matter of legal compliance or even giving back to the community. It is and has always been integral to how we conceive of ourselves as a business.”

For example, our recently launched IBM Corporate Service Corps is part of a Global Citizen’s Portfolio initiative to develop leadership skills while addressing socio-economic challenges in the emerging markets. An IBMer in Singapore spent one month alongside a group of eight colleagues from diverse cultures to make a difference to the lives of the people in Davao, Mindanao. At the end of the month-long enriching experience, participating IBMers returned to their respective offices across the globe embracing their professional and personal lives with deeper value and meaning.

We need to groom our young, from an early age, to be independent thinkers and exhibit thought leadership.

Singapore in general is a strong advocate in the area of work-life integration initiatives. The Government has been partnering industry to drive policies, incentives and programmes that enable employees to achieve the most out of their working and personal lives.

However, Singapore’s ability to attract, retain and motivate talent will also depend on policies and programmes that actively cultivate and support the spirit of volunteerism and mentorship. These initiatives will also become crucial in developing a workforce with a global mindset and perspective.


Just as it is important to welcome foreign talent to our shores, we need to raise the quality of Singaporean workers to world-class standards. This begins with education. We need to groom our young, from an early age, to be independent thinkers and exhibit thought leadership. We need to promote a culture where Singaporeans are encouraged to express their opinions and have different perspectives to offer. The younger generation must grasp the importance of bringing to the table both individual excellence as well as the ability to achieve results through collaboration.

To groom leaders of the future, there is a need to go beyond academic brilliance to developing effective communicators as well. Ultimately, the ability to persuade and rally others to serve a common cause is key to success on the world stage.

The future will require us to adopt a global mindset and to become knowledge workers. We also need confident and competent collaborators. To this end, IBM is working with universities around the world in developing a Service Science Management and Engineering curriculum aimed at producing “T-shaped” personas—individuals who have a deep proficiency in one field, but who are also conversant and comfortable interacting with other areas of activity.


With the global shift to a serviceoriented economy, IBM identified a need for the 21st century worker to possess a strong mix of business, technical and people skills.

Read More


Singapore has built an excellent workforce, which today has become the nation’s prized asset. To continue to stay ahead in the global economy, we need to harness our strengths and offer local and foreign talents an environment which values key attributes including innovation, openness, trust, collaboration and diversity. We will also need a superior education system that nurtures thinking individuals who are comfortable collaborating across diverse fields of activity. Singapore will then be well placed to become a global human capital hub of the future.


Teresa Lim was named Managing Director of IBM Singapore in January 2007. In this role, she is responsible for the operations of IBM Singapore, including all product and services division, as well as the company’s sales and distribution business. Prior to this appointment, Ms Lim was Vice-President of for Asia Pacific. Since joining IBM Singapore in 1989, Ms Lim has held several positions in sales, strategic planning, marketing and human resources. Early in her career, in addition to her skills and training responsibilities, she also led the corporate organisation transformation initiative for IBM Singapore. Ms Lim is an active member of the Board of Directors in the Civil Service College, Singapore.


  1. Cost is a prohibitive factor for foreign talents considering relocation to in Singapore, according to Mercer’s Cost of Living Survey 2008, which ranked the Republic 13th most expensive city in the world. However, foreigners also welcome the safety, cleanliness, efficiency, quality housing and education which Singapore offers. Nonetheless, it is of paramount importance to sustain Singapore’s distinctive offerings and competitive positioning by ensuring we continue to offer compelling value.
  2. Lancaster, L.C. and Stillman, D., When Generations Collide: Who They Are. Why They Clash. How to Solve the Generational Puzzle at Work (Wheaton, IL: Harper Business, 2003).

Back to Ethos homepage