Eric Koh FCPA is on a talent quest

Former banking professional and author Eric H. Y. Koh FCPA. Photo: Rebecca Toh.

Academic and banking expert Eric Koh FPCA is on a mission to convince companies they need to look within to develop competency and end the poaching wars.

At a glance

  • Eric H. Y. Koh FCPA is a former banking professional and author, and is a senior lecturer at the Faculty of Business and Accountancy, University of Malaya.
  • Koh identifies three factors crucial to competency development: core competencies, dynamic competencies, and learning organisation.
  • He believes embedding knowledge and skills throughout a company is an important approach to minimising the risk of a skills drain when employees resign.

By Johanna Leggatt

It is a workplace story that plays out repeatedly across multiple industries and countries.

A talented employee joins a company and makes an appreciable impact on their division, but then moves on in two years, taking their skills and knowledge with them.

The company is forced to hire someone externally to replace the employee, but what they are really trying to replace are the skills that have exited the organisation, and the deep knowledge that was embedded with their superstar recruit.

It’s a trend that academic, former banking professional and author Eric H. Y. Koh FCPA is on a mission to change.

“I have worked for a bank that was going through rapid changes, and I never stopped interviewing and recruiting people from the day I joined until the day I left,” Koh says.

“It was partly the reality of the market at that time, but this is still happening today in many sectors across the world.”

Losing battle

Koh, who is a senior lecturer in the Faculty of Business and Accountancy at the University of Malaya in Kuala Lumpur, says many companies are caught in a losing recruitment battle.

“You find after a while that the talent pool you can draw upon gets smaller and smaller, and because the demand is high and the talent pool is small, the price goes up,” he says.

Sometimes, the exiting employee returns to their old employer at a much higher price.

“To put it crudely, we are paying more and more [for talent], and yet people are more and more half-baked in their skills, and they become stuck in their very limited sphere of knowledge.”

According to Koh, this is increasingly common in today’s global workforce, where staff, particularly younger staff, change roles every few years.

“Young people these days don’t stay in a job for too long,” he says.

“They often want to work in start-ups and, sometimes, they would rather be the boss than be told what to do.”

Koh is a firm believer in companies taking the reins to develop their talent internally. His book, Risk Management Competency Development in Banks, is ostensibly directed at financial institutions, but also applies to any organisation or company working in a sector where there is a high demand for talent.

When Koh talks about competency, he is referring to three fundamental ingredients for company success: deep insights and knowledge, the skills to apply that knowledge, and the right attitude.

“Knowledge is important, but you need more than just knowledge,” he says. 

“You need the skills to apply the knowledge, as well as the right attitude, to develop true competency. It’s a combination of all three factors.”

Life of the mind

Koh has taken “quite an unconventional path” into academia, starting his career in external auditing for one of the Big Four firms in Singapore, before joining the banking industry, the bulk of which was a 10-year stint at Standard Chartered Bank in Kuala Lumpur.

He studied for his bachelor of commerce at the University of Melbourne.

It was during his postgraduate work, where he attained an MBA from Southern Cross University in Australia and a PhD from the University of Nottingham in the UK, that he decided to move from the private sector to academia.

“I think it is in my blood because my parents are retired teachers, and I was very much inspired and encouraged by teachers and lecturers when I was younger,” Koh says.

He has been based at the University of Malaya for the past six years, and sees himself as a bridge between industry and academia.

“Knowledge is important, but you need more than just knowledge. You need the skills to apply the knowledge, as well as the right attitude, to develop true competency.”

“I like the teaching part, and I hope the students do benefit from the fact that I have real-life experience,” Koh says.

Of course, working in the finance sector and teaching students about it are two very different things, but both have given him invaluable skills.

“In the commercial world, you learn to work in a team because there are many things you can’t do alone,” he says.

“In my banking role, I had to work together with people from different parts of the business, who have different perspectives.”

Academia, meanwhile, has offered him an entirely different schema for thinking about finance.

“I can now institute a more rigorous process of reflection,” he says.

Koh explains that in industry, “people need answers fast, because time does not wait and sometimes you’re working too quickly, and this can be at the cost of adequate reflection.

“On the other hand, academia can be too rigorous and too time-consuming, so you need to draw from both camps.”

Developing competency

Koh has drawn on this combination of considerable industry experience and academic acumen to flesh out an intellectual framework for the development of staff competency.

He proposes three concepts crucial to competency development: core competencies, dynamic competencies, and learning organisation.

Dynamic competency is a team’s ability to adapt to and even influence external market changes, whereas core competencies relate to the use of internal resources to continuously stretch a team’s ability.

A conducive learning environment is also required to reduce barriers to communication, so staff can learn from each other.

As Koh points out, many Japanese companies harnessed their competencies to great effect.

“If you look at how Canon went from a small organisation to a large one, for example, it was because they were able to get people to think beyond their silos,” Koh says.

“These concepts are about uniting individual skills to move into new frontiers.”

Koh also believes organisations need to ensure knowledge is not centralised to a few executives.

“You want that competency base to extend beyond the domain of one or two people,” he says.

“In a lot of companies, when people come across a problem, they will often say, ‘Go and ask X because she has been here for 30 years’.

“We tend to take staff for granted, and we think that a really talented person will be there forever.”

This is a very risky approach, according to Koh, who argues that knowledge must be “embedded within the organisation, so it’s part of its DNA”.

One way this can be achieved is through the creation of a central information hub that stores the company’s intelligence.

“Each company is different, so there has to be proper brainstorming of how to do this,” he says.

“It could be that a central intranet is created to store information.”

This embedding of knowledge is as important for small accounting practices as it is for large banks.

“In smaller organisations, people tend to have a better overall view of their business,” Koh says, “but in smaller organisations, your resources are more limited and you cannot afford to do everything, so you need to know what you can outsource or automate, then ensure the retention of that knowledge business.

Harnessing risk management competency may also go some way to ending talent wars, Koh says.“I don’t think this offers an absolute remedy, but I think it helps,” he says.

Influencer status

Koh often asks his former colleagues and industry friends to talk to his students “so they hear more than just my monotonous voice” and share their valuable real-life experience.

His broad network is something that he is clearly proud of, and he sees those friendships as pivotal in his success to date.

“I am very proud that I’ve been given the opportunity to cultivate true industry friendships,” he says.

His greatest influence is on his students, who he wants to prepare for the cut and thrust of 21st century global business.

“Quite often, students will say that they thought I would be too strict and not very approachable, but once I start working with them, they say they now understand where I am coming from,” he says.

“I want [my students] to be adaptive and to see where they can add value to their society.”

Most satisfying is when Koh is able to change people’s perceptions about banking.

“People start out by saying they are never going to work in the banking industry, it is a horrible industry and too complex, but after attending my classes, they can see the opportunities available,” he says.

“Many seemingly complex concepts are not that hard after all; it’s actually quite simple if it’s appropriately taught and learned.”

Tips for getting ahead as a CPA

1. Value-add
It’s not easy to stand out in this day and age, but each of us has unique gifts, and you need to understand what these are and put them to use in your organisation.

2. Create a harmonious environment
You should address office disagreements, but you should never put someone else down.

3. Network beyond your department
Try and expand your network as much as possible, rather than confining yourself to people in your division.

4. Keep learning
People are bombarded with information these days, and sometimes that information can be quite shallow. Try to dig deep into issues, and read and learn deeply.

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