Q&A: William Harvey: “The importance of reputation today is unprecedented”

Author: PM editorial | Date: 20 Jul 2016

The senior lecturer in organisation studies explains how reputation affects organisations’ ability to attract talent

William HarveyWilliam S. Harvey is senior lecturer in organisation studies and director of research at University of Exeter. He co-wrote the academic paper Reputation and talent mobility in the Asia Pacific, which explores the importance of reputation for the attraction and retention of talent. He spoke to People Management about the concept of reputation for organisations, cities and entire countries.
How has the importance of reputation changed over time?
Reputation for any organisation, whether that’s a country, a business or a government has always been important and it has become even more salient today. The speed with which information travels online and through social media means that people hear about news related to those institutions much faster and the information crosses borders at unprecedented speeds. So while thinking about reputation isn’t new as such, its importance today has become unprecedented.
 
Is the information people are receiving more unfiltered than it used to be?
We hear a lot around the importance of big data and the ubiquity of information and on the one hand, people see that as a good thing, but it is very difficult sometimes for people to filter and make sense of organisations.
 
What that means is people have to use other sources to evaluate whether certain people or organisations are doing positive things. That is true of politics too: look at all kinds of elections around the world and how people rely on soundbites and very short, simplified debates. People find it hard to make sense of very complex issues so they rely on proxies, whether that’s individuals they trust or very simplified types of information, which is fraught with problems.
 
Will someone live in a country or city that doesn’t have a great reputation, as long as there is a job they really want?
On the basis of work I’ve done on foreign talent moving to different parts of the world, my instinct is that the country typically comes first for individuals that are moving outside an organisation. By that, I mean the ones making a move themselves, rather than being moved by their current employer from Australia to Singapore, for example. In those situations, the country reputation is very important.
 
There have also been some very interesting surveys done by The Economist and Mercer, which looks at the reputation of cities, because sometimes people are drawn to a specific city as opposed to a country. I did a lot of research on Vancouver in Canada, which found that a lot of skilled migrants were happy to live and work in Canada but the main drive was living in Vancouver, which is often very highly ranked in quality of life surveys, as is Singapore.
 
So the city can be a big draw to people?
Absolutely, and technically Singapore is a city-state anyway. It’s a hybrid of a city and a country and has long been an attractive place to work. Many people are very attracted to particular cities and the work and lifestyle it brings. And therein lies a challenge for organisations hoping to attract foreign talent. Some things they can control, by building a global reputation for themselves, but they can have all kinds of challenges in attracting people to different regions. That’s why incentives offered to work in less attractive countries or cities are often higher than those in more attractive locations.
 
The prime minister of Singapore and his predecessors have very strongly, over decades, emphasised the importance of foreign talent to the success of the region. That sent very strong signals to organisations and individuals about their place in Singapore.
 
Are there any countries or cities you’ve looked at that have a reputational problem, which means employers have to offer more?
These things are never static and change over time but there are often emerging types of city economies that are less attractive. Jakarta and Manila have some very exciting opportunities in the business sector but selling that to people who were thinking more along the lines of Singapore, Tokyo, Hong Kong or Shanghai can be difficult.
 
However, if you said Beijing or Shanghai to someone from Europe 15 or 20 years ago, people would raise an eyebrow about the prospect. You mention it now and people wouldn’t bat an eyelid because there are clearly huge opportunities in those places.