Samsung's innovation platform

While many are familiar with Samsung products, the organisation’s continuous push for innovation and creativity is less publicised. Grace Wong, Regional HR Vice President, Samsung Electronics, shares how her department is laying that vital foundation.

Samsung today is known for rolling out its signature smartphones, tablets and other technology, but the South Korean-headquartered conglomerate started off in far more humble circumstances.

Nearly 80 years ago, in March 1938, founding chairman Byung-Chull Lee began a trade export business in Daegu, selling just dried fish, vegetables, and fruit to markets in Northeastern China, including Beijing.

Fast toward to today, and Samsung has grown to have a firm footprint in a whole host of sectors. It is a market leader in everything from electronic gadgets to home appliances, and even boasts its own facility dedicated to fostering innovative projects and business ideas.

This ability to constantly reinvent itself is an example of Samsung’s internal culture, says Grace Wong, Regional HR Vice President, Southeast Asia and Oceania, Samsung Electronics.

She says the HR team is the key torchbearer when it comes to cultivating an evolution of change and metamorphosis within the organisation. 

“Even more than 20 years ago when our chairman Lee Kun Hee formed a new management team, he was already emphasising on the importance of HR,” she says.

Streamlined onboarding

Despite its status as one of the globe’s most recognisable companies, Samsung is not fully insulated from the pervasive talent issues currently affecting almost every organisation in the region.

Irene Lim, Samsung Electronics’ Senior Manager of HR, says the challenge of retention is most pertinent with millennial employees and the company must acknowledge the different behaviours that younger workers employ.

But, true to its transformational approach, Wong believes Samsung has now found a solution.

The organisation has tweaked and streamlined its onboarding process to ensure new employees hit the ground running much faster than previously. Whereas in the past this process would have taken three months, it has since been cut to three weeks.

A new professional-level employee from a subsidiary in Vietnam will do their onboarding for five days within the country, before also undertaking a regional round of onboarding in Singapore.

That individual would then proceed to the South Korea global headquarters for another round of onboarding before finally commencing their job at home in Vietnam.

“It’s about emphasising different values and perspectives,” says Wong.

The significantly-reduced timeframe, coupled with the combination of local and regional perspectives, enables employees to channel their energies on performing to the best of their abilities.

A breeding ground for talent

One area where Samsung has indeed thrived is in recruitment and attracting talent.

As Wong reaffirms, the organisation’s brand possesses huge pulling power.

“We have been pretty fortunate because the brand attracts people,” she says.

“I dare say we do not have a lot of challenges in attracting talent.”

With Samsung operating in wide and diverse fields, recruitment very much depends on the different job functions involved, and the organisation actively recruits from a wide range of sectors. These include not just the technology space, but also the fast-moving consumer goods industry, research, and engineering.

Of course, technology backgrounds are still vital – and there are numerous examples of staff who have switched from rival companies.

“You name it; they are all already here, from Microsoft to IBM,” Wong says, referring to former employees who have now joined the ranks at Samsung.

A couple of key programmes underpin Samsung’s recruitment efforts.

One is the Global Strategy Group (GSG), which hires experienced recruits from all parts of the world.

The GSG serves as a breeding ground for future high-calibre, globally-minded general managers across the Samsung Group.

The strategists offer different perspectives and innovative ideas to Samsung’s top executives globally, while advancing their skillsets and cultivating a deep and broad understanding of the company.

After two years working at GSG, it is anticipated that each of these recruits will transition to a Samsung team as a line manager or strategic specialist to continue advancing professionally. They will then, eventually, assume a leadership post, whether overseas or in Samsung’s South Korea headquarters.

To date, over 70 GSG alumni have been successfully employed at various Samsung offices worldwide.

Complementing the GSG is the Field Expert programme.

This is primarily focused on inculcating specialists, who are again deployed worldwide to immerse themselves into the Samsung culture.

“They then bring back what they have learned,” says Wong.

The organisation is also a staunch supporter of grade talent development, having crafted its own Samsung Asia Elite (SAE) programme.

The two-year placement puts successful university graduates on a fast-track career pathway within Samsung, offering on-the-job training via business rotations, local, regional and global training prospects, mentoring, and a platform for interaction with senior heads.

There is a clear career pathway for candidates in the SAE programme, and milestones have to be reached in order to progress to different levels.

For the first six months, successful applicants are rotated to three different businesses (sales, marketing, and management support) before deciding which business they want to be in permanently.

Wong says Samsung pays special attention to educational institutions around the region, with professors frequently introducing viable candidates to the organisation.

“But, we go through a very stringent selection process,” she adds.

A plethora of opportunities

Wong says arguments that career progression is difficult in larger organisations – because of the endless hierarchies – have no relevance to Samsung.

Rather, she stresses that across the company’s larger workforce, “there are countless opportunities”.

“With a smaller group, there’s only so much you can do,” says Wong.

One way Samsung champions career advancement is by promoting global mobility and ensuring employees can work in different parts of the world.

Wong can personally attest to this mobility, having worked in the US for six months earlier in her career.

Meanwhile, training in Samsung entails a three-pronged approach.

The first of these is the “Core” programme, which ensures employees are instilled with Samsung’s values and culture.

Secondly, the organisation conducts a wide range of leadership programmes to ensure employees are well-heeled in each of their individual professional skillsets.

Under the leadership framework, the Group and Team Leader initiative involves employees being rotated at any of Samsung’s subsidiaries in the region.

This has paid off for the Samsung HR team in particular, with many of the participants having gone on to assume top executive posts.

“Eleven percent of our country heads come from HR,” says Wong.

The third initiative is the “Expertise Programme” and comprises of subject matter training that ensures employees are equipped with the necessary skills to perform their actual job duties.

A plethora of training initiatives would fall under this arm.

One is the Sales and Marketing Academy, where sales employees hone their techniques and skills on topics such as retail, marketing, consumer marketing intelligence, account management, negotiation and joint business planning.

Creative juices

With Samsung’s wide array of product launches, underpinned by its deeprooted commitment to innovation and research and development, it is apt that the organisation chooses to engage the creative minds of its employees through its internal Creative Lab (C-Lab) programme.

Established at the end of 2012, C-Lab is one of the company’s chief innovation programmes that enables staff to foster creative business ideas, and to promote creative thinking within the organisation.

The C-Lab is housed in a complex at the Samsung Digital City in Suwon, South Korea, and is furnished with power and precision tools, 3D printers, and a laser cutter, among other devices, to craft blueprints and prototypes.

“There’s no hierarchy; there’s only the leader and the project teams,” says Wong.

Another global online community platform, Mosiac, also allows staff to share product ideas.

Out of the approximately 20 ideas that are selected, around eight of them are then shared with the business and roughly four become commercialised.

“Any employee can contribute ideas anytime they want on a daily basis and from there, the best ideas get fulfilled,” Wong explains.

For example, what began as a voluntary project led by a group of five engineers from the C-Lab in 2011 led to the creation of “EYECAN”, an eyeoperated computer mouse that allows people who are immobilised to use their eyes for its tracking. They can also use it to communicate with people.

Another Samsung innovation can even claim Singapore’s as its foundation (see: page 44).

Wong says there is an obvious talent attraction value in all this innovation, with talents wanting to work for an organisation that produces cool gadgets and engages in cutting-edge technology.

“When we surveyed our employees, more than 70% of them said they joined us because of our creativity and innovation. We are able to provide that platform,” she adds.

Still room for play

It’s not all about work at Samsung though.

Located on the company’s premises at its Mapletree Business City office in Singapore is a fully-operational Starbucks outlet.

Already in its third year, Samsung employees enjoy a 50% subsidy on all beverages and food items in this store.

Half-yearly, the organisation conducts a town-hall meeting where business results and strategies are shared with all employees.

On a monthly basis, Samsung also undertakes workplace activities to refresh and rejuvenate its staff.

Bringing traditional Korean festivals to life in other countries is a frequent practice.

For example, the Samsung office in Singapore celebrates a mid-autumn festive celebration known as Chuseok, which is revered in Korea.

Samsung also conducts weekly “specials”, where groups of employees are whisked out of the office to participate in outdoor activities such as lasertag.

A Singapore creation

One Samsung product that is now in the market was originally conceived in Singapore.

The innovation team based in Samsung’s Singapore office was the brains behind Samsung Electronics’ AddWash, a washing machine that makes it easy to add a piece of forgotten laundry to the wash mid-cycle.

While washing machines traditionally only have a front-load washer, the innovation team at Samsung created an extra door that makes it feasible to add any missed pieces of clothing.


Staying focused during difficult times

Recent incidents involving Samsung’s Galaxy Note7 devices have caused a global furore, placing the organisation under heavy public scrutiny.

Following multiple instances of the smartphones “exploding” and catching fire, Samsung announced a global voluntary recall in October last year, before permanently shutting down production production of that particular device.

While the saga is something Samsung would have very much preferred to have avoided, Grace Wong, Head of HR, Southeast Asia and Oceania, Samsung Electronics, tells HRM Asia that the organisation was heartened by the collaboration and strong support received from staff, candidates, partners, and customers.

“I can share candidly that we have not experienced any change to our hiring or attrition trends,” she says, dampening fears that the ongoing saga had curtailed recruitment and retention in the region.

Regardless of the current business situation at Samsung, Wong reaffirms the organisation is highly committed to its employment agenda and policy, and continues to seek the best and brightest additions to its expanding business.

“We have always pursued excellence through our employment practices and we will continue to improve and provide a conducive working environment for our employees to thrive, grow and excel in their respective career paths,” she adds.


At a glance

Number of employees (Singapore): 300

Number of employees (Southeast Asia and Oceania): around 100,000

Size of the HR Team: 4 in Singapore, 6 in the regional office (also in Singapore)

Key HR Focus Area:

- HR Transformation

- Talent Development

- Employee Engagement


Who’s who in HR

Grace Wong, Regional HR Vice President

Irene Lim, Head of HR, Singapore Operations

Wong Mook Lan, Regional Director, HRIS

Sam Toh, Assistant Manager, L&D, Singapore Operations

Jasmine Tan, Regional Manager, Planning and Operations

Terence Ong, Regional Senior Manager, Compensations and Benefits

Ivy You, Regional Learning and Development Manager

Fiona Loo, Compensation & Benefits Assistant Manager, Singapore Operations

Han Chun Xia, HR Management & Planning Assistant Manager, Singapore Operations

Yvnne Neo, HR Administrator, Singapore Operations


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