Case study: McLaren Applied Technologies, Singapore “There’s no point having a team of superstars”

13 February 2017

Author: Georgi Gyton

Case study: McLaren Applied Technologies, Singapore

Being given the chance to hand pick the right mix of employees may sound like a dream scenario, but it comes with its challenges

When you hear the name McLaren, it’s understandable if your thoughts turn immediately to a Formula 1 car. The McLaren team, founded by Bruce McLaren in 1963, remains ubiquitous in the sport to this day, but it is just one aspect of the broader McLaren Technology Group. Alongside its racing and automotive businesses, McLaren Applied Technologies (MAT) takes the knowledge, technical skills and innovative thinking that has been instrumental to the group’s successes in motorsport, and applies it to other industries.

This approach has led the business into financial products and even kit for spacecraft, as it designs and builds its own products, uses its expertise for consultancy and partners strategically with other companies. Headquartered in the UK, MAT entered Singapore in 2012, where it now has around 20 people among a global workforce of 250. And Singapore’s regional director, Kok Leong Lim, isn’t stopping there: in fact, MAT has just launched its first dedicated recruitment campaign, called Apply Yourself.

The organisation works with the likes of GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) and NASCAR, using data management, predictive analytics and simulations to design better products and processes. In F1, this could be the onboard telemetry (analytics) or the race strategy; with GSK, it could be about improving the way patients use asthma inhalers or digitising the supply chain. The development of the Singapore office has primarily been to support these partners, but also to expand the business’s talent pool at an international level.

An electrical engineer by training, Lim says that although a lot of partnerships may begin in, or be based out of, the UK, most of the organisations McLaren works with have a global presence. As MAT was looking to expand internationally, Singapore was a strong strategic location – and, as with many multinationals, as the team grows, the reliance on head office will lessen.

But building a team of highly skilled individuals from scratch brought challenges, as Lim found out. He realised early on that “we can’t just be McLaren overnight” – it was important to first learn about the market and determine what would work best. “We needed to think about what would make the Singapore office unique, but still retain the culture and ethos of the McLaren brand,” he says. Because while using the technology and expertise that McLaren has built up over the years is part of what MAT does, it’s not the whole story: “It’s the approach, the culture, the DNA of what makes McLaren, applying what we call a ‘data driven approach’ to everything we do.”

The fact the company works across a range of industries also posed challenges in terms of recruiting the right people and training them. “One of the first challenges was thinking about what kind of job description I am going to write and whether I should be hiring someone from a specific industry,” says Lim. “If I hire someone with specific industry expertise, and then we are working on a project in a completely different sector, could their skills be reapplied in that situation?”

As time has gone by, the team has learned how to utilise people with what he calls an ‘aggregate’ skillset. “We realised we would never be able to find one person who could do everything, so we tend to hire people with diverse and complementary skills,” he says. “The skill is the given. Each of the people we employ are as good as each other – passion and attitude are more important. Now we have quite a sizeable team, one of the first things I think about is whether the applicant is going to be able to fit in with them; there is no use having an all-superstar team if you can’t win the match.”

That means on-the-job training is focused on coaching staff on the way the firm works – how it looks at problems and the methods it uses to solve them. There is an element of mentoring, where more senior staff work with those who are less experienced. “We also have a secondment programme in place, so they can work on a variety of projects,” says Lim. “The team here are also working on projects from the UK, for example. It is a useful way to upskill the workforce, and it’s very motivating.”

The strength of the brand helps too. The business has forged ties with government agencies such as A*Star (Agency for Science, Technology and Research) and universities to help find new recruits. “We’ve tried to tap into the existing talent pool,” says Lim. “There is a high density of high-tech companies, which makes co-location and co-innovation much easier.

“We are not at a steady state yet, but we have reached some kind of critical mass enabling us to operate quite independently. The plan is to try and integrate the satellite office in Singapore with the UK. We have a constant rotation of resource that we’re sharing. Initially, we needed the injection of the skillset and talent from the UK, but now we are able to tap into our partner networks here, and the talent and skillsets here, and we are starting to add value back to the UK. At the size we are now, we are very nimble, we bring diversity and help our partners celebrate innovation, so the challenge is to maintain that as we grow.”