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ISSN : 2092-674X (Print)
ISSN : 2092-6758 (Online)
Asia-Pacific Collaborative education Journal Vol.4 No.1 pp.50-65

IT Companies’ HR Practices in South Korea

Yonjoo Cho, Gary N. McLean
Yonjoo Cho, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor of Instructional Systems Technology at Indiana University at Bloomington. Her research interests center on HR practices in the IT industry, action learning as an organization development intervention, and international HRD.
Gary N. McLean, Ph.D., is
Senior Professor and
Executive Director of
International HRD Programs
at Texas A&M University. He
was a Morse Alumni Distinguished Teaching
Professor at the University of Minnesota and
served as President of the International
Management Development Association and the
Academy of HRD.


The purpose of this study was to examinespecific characteristics in IT companies’ HRpractices in South Korea. Interviews with 12HR executives and a survey of 51 IT companiesshowed that there were specific HR practicesunique to the IT industry: a strong emphasison talent; the importance of performance-basedHR; the need for alignment of corporations,universities, and the government for an R&Dworkforce; and a government-led HR strategyfor the IT industry in order to have a nationalpower base.



 Management, not innovation per se, is the key to economic growth (Hawn, 2004). In other words, limits to innovation have less to do with technology than organizational agility (Govindarajan & Trimble, 2005). The world’s most innovative companies recognize that developing breakthrough products, renovating operational processes, and inventing in new business models does not happen overnight (McGregor, 2007). They understand that business success requires investing for the long term, such as hiring the most talented employees and providing them with the environment they need to thrive.

Research Problem

 The information technology (IT) industry is the growth power base in the South Korean economy, accounting for 15.6% of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and 42.5% of exports in 2005 (Samsung Economic Research Institute, 2006a). Korean IT companies, however, are currently absorbed in developing new technologies and services to the point where they may no longer be paying adequate attention to their core competencies and organization issues (Bae & Yu, 2005; Cho, 2003; Kim & Bae, 2004, 2005; Moon & Kwon, 2001). Therefore, it is appropriate to look more closely at their human resource (HR) practices to determine if there are steps that must be taken to maintain their HR expertise.

 This small-scale survey study examines the status of HR in Korean companies and what they believe they must do to stay competitive in the future. In order to meet industry-specific requirements, such as rapid pace, a short life cycle of technology, rapidly changing customer needs, and stiff competition, it is assumed that HR practices may show specific characteristics that are unique for the IT industry. This assumption needs to be explored.

Literature Review

 The fast growth of the IT industry can be witnessed not only in Korea, but also globally. Transformation from analog to digital and Internet use has led to it being possible to do business anytime and anywhere. The growth of the IT industry, however, does not necessarily guarantee the successful realization of organizational issues and HR practices. This section contains an examination of the importance of HR issues of IT companies in Europe, the U.S., and South Korea.

Key Features of IT Companies

 IT companies are defined as a mix of IT, methodology, and personnel; that mix aims to bring a valuable solution to customers (Viardot, 2005). These companies label their businesses as “offering value to customers” through services based on “innovative IT” (hardware and software) implemented by “high-knowledge people” (Viardot, 2000, p. 455). The best technology available may be useless without the people to utilize it. People, therefore, is a key success factor in IT companies for three reasons (Viardot, 2005): employees have a significant impact on customers because they are meeting face to face; the experience, motivation, and knowledge of employees determine the quality of the solution; and the cost of hiring people is so important that it can determine the profitability of a firm.

 For this reason Viardot (2005) in a study of human resource management of the 10 largest European IT service companies, concluded that successful IT companies manage their people carefully to achieve superior performance. The importance of employee morale and its impact on service performance led to a series of studies on IT turnover in general (Ang & Slaughter, 2004; Ferratt, Agarwal, Brown, & Moore, 2005) and on Indian company cases of employee attrition in particular (Chaturvedi & Khan, 2005; Gupta & Prashanth, 2004; Venkatesh & Chakraverty, 2006).

High-Tech Companies in the U. S. and Korea

 The IT boom in the 1990s has been accelerated by startups. Representative cases included California’s Silicon Valley (Baron & Hannan, 2002) and Korea’s creation of KOSDAQ, which is identical to NASDAQ in the U.S., in order to promote investment for promising startups (SERI, 2006b).

The Stanford Project on Emerging Companies (SPEC)

 The SPEC tracked nearly 200 high-technology startups in California’s Silicon Valley over the 8 years from 1994 (Baron & Hannan, 2002). The researchers’ aim was to examine how the founders of startups approached key organizational challenges in the early days of building their companies, and to determine if these activities had enduring effects. One initial finding was that the founders embraced different models of the ideal organizational form for a technology start-up, including Star, Engineering, Commitment, Bureaucracy, and Autocracy. The five models entail quite different notions of the urgency of gaining expertise in HR. The key HR practice in the Commitment model for instance was to foster a strong organization culture and ensure that new hires fit that culture.

 Results of the SPEC project included, first, that, even in the high-tech startups in Silicon Valley, the founders’ early employment models exerted enduring effects on how their companies evolved; and, second, that changes in organizational models were detrimental to startups, negatively affecting employee turnover, financial performance, and survival.

Korean Venture and Electronics Firms

 Bae and Yu (2005) surveyed 464 venture firms in Korea to determine the importance of HR practices in venture companies. The authors classified five distinctive HR models: cost-minimizing, inducement, investment, paternalistic and, transitional types. When compared with the SPEC project in the U. S., one common finding was that various HR models appeared within venture firms. Other findings included that more than 80% of Korean venture CEOs, with degrees in science or engineering, had little training in start-up issues before the founding of their firms; HR managers were not employed until the firms reached a certain size; and, because the venture firms did not have comprehensive HR systems, they allocated their limited resources to either incentives or training and development.

 Kim and Bee (2005) analyzed two electronics firms (unionized LG Electronics and nonunion Samsung SDI) and investigated the impact of union status on workplace innovations and organizational performance. The major findings were that the adoption of high-performance work organizations was highly dependent upon top management and union representatives; and alignment of organizational design, employee relations, and HR systems produced high organizational performance. The two companies relied heavily on process improvements, such as Six Sigma, for short-term performance but eventually needed to pursue a more forward-looking business strategy for sustained success.

Research Question

 The research question in this study was, how do HR practices of IT companies located in South Korea compare with each other? Are there any specific characteristics in their HR practices for the IT industry?

Research Methods

 This study used three approaches: a literature review of HR practices in IT companies in Europe, the U.S., and South Korea; on-line interviews with a small group of HR senior managers (and a CEO); and an on-line survey of HR executives’ perceptions of their HR practices.

 This section describes the procedures used for sampling and collecting data, both qualitative and quantitative. First, for the literature review, Business Source Premier and Google Scholar databases were used to identify relevant literature from the last three years or so. The first author conducted structured on-line interviews with 12 HR executives in IT companies in South Korea. These interviews served as the base for developing a questionnaire that was used in surveying 51 Korean IT companies. The interviews and the survey data were then analyzed.


 The first author conducted structured interviews with 12 HR executives via e-mail in Korean with English translations, just in case respondents preferred written English. The 12 HR executives were five senior vice presidents or vice presidents of HR, five HR directors, an HR partner for the Asia-Pacific region, and a CEO. The first author knew these HR professionals during her past ten years working at a major telecommunications company and in a business school as MBA Director in South Korea.

 Five questions were asked of each interviewee to brainstorm ideas for survey questions: HR executives’ responsibilities; their perceptions of the business environment, workforce management and HR practices; and their suggestions about HR for competitiveness.


 A questionnaire containing 21 closed and open questions, based on literature review and interviews, was created. Before surveying 51 IT companies, feedback was provided by five HR practitioners from South Korea on the survey questions for face validity. There were no problems except for adding questions on demographics, such as the number of employees and years of their HR experience. Respondents chose one option on a five-point Likert-type scale ranging from “Strongly Disagree” to “Strongly Agree” to questions like, “Are you satisfied with your company’s current HR programs?” or they were asked to select more than one answer from several answer options to questions like, “What HR programs do you value most today in your company?” Because respondents could provide several answers to a question, it was not possible to determine reliability.

Questionnaire Sample

 The purposive sampling was based on the first author’s personal contacts. Most of the companies selected for this study were well-known for their exposure to the public for many years in terms of their size, reputation, and performance. The questionnaire was sent via email to HR executives or managers of 51 IT companies, for which they were scheduled to provide their answers within three weeks. The first author sent them a reminder email on a weekly basis. The thirty-six responded companies (71% response rate) include 20 large, seven small and medium-sized firms, and nine multinational companies (MNCs).

 Respondents’ organizations included diverse types of IT companies, including not only IT consulting and Internet businesses, but also electronics, telecommunications, network services, technology, and media pertaining to digital technology. Their average HR experience was 10.9 years, ranging from no experience to 23 years. The larger the company, the more HR experience their HR executives had.

 The HR executives’ number one role was to head either the human resource management (HRM) (47.7%) or human resource development (HRD) (20.5%) function. Five HR executives responded “everything”, which included HR strategic planning, talent recruiting, training, labor relations, and management support. A female HR team member from a startup headed both HRM and labor relations, while a male HR team member from a medium-sized company was in charge of “everything”. In both cases, due to low rank or being female, there was a limit in implementing HR practices. Only four respondents were females, including 3 HR executives from MNCs and an HR team member from a startup. The fact that no female HR executive was found in large companies in this study reflects the norms of the male-dominated Korean society.

 Seven of 36 respondent companies in the survey grew remarkably over the past 10 years or so. Four firms grew into large firms from very small startups, whereas three firms grew to medium-sized, as shown in Table 1. NHN, for instance, the number one Internet company, started with only seven engineers in 1999, and the number of employees had reached approximately 1,800 people as of December 2006. The startups in this study had indeed overcome hard times, such as the economic crisis and the IT bubble period in the late 1990s, and all have successfully been listed on the KOSDAQ.

Table 1. Profile of Seven Startups

Data Analysis

 Many items in the questionnaire provided respondents the opportunity to answer more than one option, thus required frequency analyses. To determine group differences based on size, one-way ANOVAs were performed on the three Likert-type questions (questions six, eight, and thirteen).

Results and Discussion

 Four HR themes emerged from the analyses of the interviews and the open-ended data: HR is affected by the business environment, specifically by the economic situation and the company’s management environment; HR executives’ perceptions of the current and future workforce; their perceptions of HR practices pertaining to current and future HR programs and roles; and the importance of HR for competitive advantage.

Business Environment

 This section discusses questions pertaining to the most critical challenges that IT companies faced. Five-point Likert-type options were used for questions six (the economic situation), eight (the management environment), and 13 (HR practices). Table 2 shows the means and standard deviations for these three questions.

Table 2. Results of Descriptive Statistics for Likert-Type Questions (n=36)

 Respondents in the study viewed the economic situation rather negatively, as opposed to seeing the company’s management environment as acceptable, and their HR practices more positively. Reasons for the respondents’ negative responses on the economic situation related to stiff competition and a downturn in the IT industry. Specific responses were global competition (44.8%) and low growth in the IT industry (27.6%). Reasons for their marginal responses on the company’s management environment were tough competition among companies (35.5%) and changing customer needs (16.1%). For example, world-class IT companies such as IBM, Cisco Systems, and Xerox clearly show the importance of using their turnaround strategies to overcome the fierce competition of the IT industry (Chatman, O’Reilly, & Chang, 2005; Dhar & Vasanthi, 2006; Weeks, 2004).

 What are the most critical challenges that each company faced? New business development (34.2%) and global competitiveness (21.5%) were selected as the most critical challenges. An HR vice-president from an multinational corporation (MNC), for instance, explained that, given the stiff competitive market, “the most critical ways to win the market are to change service models and business paradigms.” An example of creating a new business model pertains to “e-business” that IBM coined and made real at the time of former CEO, Lou Gerstner (Weeks, 2004). Because of this new business model and transformation, IBM is believed to have turned around after a long recession over the last decade.

Workforce Management

 This section discusses questions about what kind of workforce IT companies employ and what they need to support their challenging businesses. What are the characteristics of their current workforce? Answers included job-based (26.7%), technology-based (18.3%), competency-based (16.7%), and R&D-based (15.0%) workforce. The current workforce portfolio reflects IT companies’ specific characteristics that are technology-based and R&D-based.

 How would you describe a workforce for the future? The most sought-after answers were creative talent (21.4%), global talent (20.2%), and new business competency (16.7%). Strategy consulting, new technology, and marketing and software competency were also chosen for the future workforce. A senior HR vice-president from an MNC, for instance, emphasized a need for “experienced” human resources in IT-based firms and “software capability” in particular.

 In recent years, competency-based human resource management has gained much interest in terms of aligning competency models and employee performance (Gangani, McLean, & Braden, 2006). In rapidly changing business environments, organizations recognize the value of a workforce that is not only highly skilled, but also learns quickly, adapts to change, and communicates effectively (Rodriguez, Patel, Bright, Gregory, & Gowing, 2002). Representative cases include Japanese companies’ core competencies in the 1980s (Prahalad & Hamel, 1990); aligning strategy and competencies in the Brazilian telecommunications industry (Fleury & Fleury, 2005); IT-supported competence management in Ericsson (Hustand & Munkvold, 2005); and a competency-based human resource development strategy at American Medical Systems (Gangani et al., 2006).

HR Practices

 This section describes questions about current HR programs the respondents valued most and new HR roles/programs for the future. Respondents thought that their HR function was okay (3.5/5.0), as opposed to their unfavorable view of the economic situation (2.47) and their marginal view of the company’s management environment (3.14).


 The HR programs that respondents valued most today included performance-based compensation (17.8%); well-designed HRM (11.1%); and employee welfare programs (7.8%). These responses explain typical characteristics of IT companies that value talent, employee capability and performance, and their link with rewards and welfare programs. However, it is also interesting to note the small percentages for the top HR programs they valued in the organization.

 In contrast, HR programs that either do not function well or are nonexistent are the following: HR competency development for business support (36.8%) and retention of core competency and job-based career development (21.1% each). Current HR programs lack business-oriented competency; thus, there is a strong need for core competency and innovative organizational culture.

 New HR roles included change leader, strategy partner, business partner, and talent management. This list is identical to “new HR mandates,” which means that HR transformation leads to the role of HR in delivering value to the company and not just about how HR services are delivered (Becker, Huselid, Pickus, & Spratt, 1997; Ulrich, 1998; Ulrich & Brockbank, 2005). It is timely to see “change leader” as the number one new HR role at a time of stiff competition prevalent in IT companies, domestically and globally. New HR programs included talent recruiting, retention and development (35.9%); global talent recruiting (17.9%); and performance-based organization culture (15.4%). Recruiting of talent or global talent and organizational culture for innovation are necessary for IT companies in the near future.

Group differences

 To determine differences, if any, between the three groups based on size (large-sized firms (20), small and medium-sized (7) firms, and MNCs (9)), one-way ANOVA was performed, as shown in Table 3. The only group difference was found in HR practices (F=6.263, p<.05). The Scheffé Test, a post hoc test that is used for unequal numbers between groups, showed the group difference between MNCs and S&M firms, as shown in Table 4. There were no differences in the other comparisons.

Table 3. Results of One-Way ANOVA (n=36)

Table 4. Results of the Scheffé Test (n=36)

 Respondents in the MNCs had positive views of their HR practices, while those in the S&M companies were negative about their HR practices. MNCs, perhaps due to their well-established HR systems and programs in the headquarters, were presumably better positioned than S&M companies. An HR partner for the Asia-Pacific region from an MNC, for instance, said that the most valuable HR programs in his company are more strategic than operational. He witnessed:

 The most valuable HR programs are employee morale management and top talent management. In order to focus more on strategic HR functions, we are now outsourcing the operational and administrative HR functions such as payroll, employee reimbursement, and HR information technology.

 In contrast, a CEO from a medium-sized company said that, due to the lack of company in-house programs, they had difficulty in evaluating training effectiveness. He witnessed:

 There is a limit in developing HR programs in small- and medium-sized companies. We heavily rely on programs provided by external training institutions. The most difficult thing is to evaluate effectiveness of the training employees received from outside.

HR for Competitive Advantage

 This section summarizes information on how HR can help the company be more competitive. Respondents selected strategic business partner (14.8%) as the number one HR competency needed for the future. Resource allocation based on employee capability and performance (12.2%) followed strategic business partner. Strategic partner, performance, and understanding business were the most significant HR competencies. Again, however, responses to each were low.

IT Companies’ HR Practices

 HR practices in the IT industry, based on HR executives’ suggestions, are summarized in Table 4. Emergent HR themes include a strong emphasis on talent management; the need for alignment of corporations, universities, and the government for an R&D workforce; the importance of performance- based HR; diverse employees for diverse customers; new hires’ field experience required for customer service; and government-led HR strategy for the IT industry to create a national power base.

Table 4. Emergent Themes of IT companies’ HR Practices


 This study showed the importance of IT companies’ HR practices in staying competitive for the future. For instance, a key driver of the turnaround of Cisco Systems in changing times of the IT industry was “a human capital strategy” (Chatman et al., 2005, p. 137). The key to the strategy was the company’s ability to develop fundamental organizational capabilities: an agile workforce; a workforce for change; customer-oriented; employees’ cross-functional experiences; and people who have strong capabilities in process.

 However, there are also general HR practices prevalent both in the IT industry and other industries. First, the role of HR has to be more strategic than operational, no matter what the industry. Strategic competencies are more important than functional competencies for firm performance (Becker et al., 1997). The importance of HR being a strategic business partner has been surveyed with large numbers of HR professionals, both in the U.S. (Becker, Huselid, & Ulrich, 2001; Ulrich & Brockbank, 2005) and Korea (Park & Yoo, 2001). Through a series of surveys of HR professionals over two decades, Ulrich and Brockbank (2005) identified HR competencies that make more of a strategic contribution with an impact that explains more than 40% of business performance. Knowledge of external business issues, markets that companies serve, and internal and external stakeholders are needed for HR to become a strategic business partner.

 Second, another general HR practice is that the role of HR is to impact its business. Human resource work begins not with HR but with business (Ulrich & Brockbank, 2005). HR, as an HR manager from an MNC explained, eventually leads to “service level agreement,” which means that understanding business is a must for business-related HR. Delegating roles and responsibilities from HR to line management or business units is needed to do that. The general principle must be that line management recruits, develops, and manages employees, and HR helps where appropriate (Plompen, 2005). HR can support its business units through motivation, conflict management, and competence development. Infosys, a very successful startup in India, shows that its heavy investment on training had a direct effect on employees’ commitment to the organization (Kets de Vries, 2006).

 Finally, as an HR director from an MNC indicated, it is important to have better HRM or HRD systems, but it is equally important to know that only people can make a difference. Hewitt’s 2003 Best Employers in Asia study, for instance, showed that engagement was the measure of commitment that employees have to an organization (Joo & McLean, 2005). There is a strong need for increasing the value of a committed workforce at times of change like the national economic crisis in Korea (Bae & Rowley, 2001; Cho & Park, 1999; Cho, Park, & Wagner, 1999; McLean, 2001). Both the systems thinking of process and people and employment with a human face (Budd, 2004) are a necessity for better alternatives in the IT industry and in other industries as well. This is a relevant way of thinking, especially for IT companies whose major focus has always been on technology and services.

Recommendations for Practice

 A strong emphasis on global talent, R&D workforce, performance-based incentives, and government-led HR strategy was drawn from IT companies’ HR practices in South Korea in this study. In particular, almost all IT companies in this study responded that their primary HR program in the future will focus on how to recruit, retain, and develop talent more aggressively for their continued growth. The first step in the strategic management of a company’s human resources is selection of assets with skills consistent with its business requirements (Raghuram, 2003). The recruitment of appropriate personnel for Google, for instance, would play an even more essential role as the company’s market capitalization grew (Verma, 2006). Also, as Microsoft showed through its growth strategies (Bartlett, 2001), IT companies can attract the best only by setting up a well laid out talent management process, including a competency profile, formal development systems, and reward programs.

 Large-sized Korean IT companies like Samsung have their own global recruiting offices all over the world, while small and medium- sized companies, due to a lack of global connections and resources, have difficulty in recruiting global talent. S&M firms, therefore, should find ways to access global recruiting channels and pipelines to stay competitive for the future. A government-led national strategy for the IT industry will help to form an alignment of large and small and medium-sized firms so that they can share resources for global talent recruiting.

 HR forums, as a CEO of a medium-sized firm suggested, are necessary for information sharing and human resources exchange with larger firms. SEMATECH, a Texas-based R&D consortium of semiconductor manufacturers, is a good example of sharing talent and training ground for domestic and international member companies, such as Intel, HP, IBM, Texas Instruments, and Samsung (France & Jarvis, 1996). As a result of this shared effort, SEMATECH consortia members make up half of the worldwide chip market as of today ( index.html).

Recommendations for Policy Development

 The human resources available for employment in any country emerge either from the educational system of that country or the educational systems of other countries, in the case of an immigrant workforce. From this study, it is clear that the IT industry (and we expect this to be true in most industries) needs a workforce that is flexible and open to change, a workforce that is process-oriented, and a workforce that is capable of moving into management positions. They need to have comfort in a global context, probably requiring them to be comfortable in a second language.

 Particularly in a country like South Korea, the typical educational curriculum pays little attention to these outcomes. Thus, if the government is serious about developing its human resources for success in a global economic context, then there is need for significant changes in the school curriculum, throughout the K-12 system, but also throughout higher education. Thus, language development, focus on interpersonal relationships, cultural perspectives (their own and others), critical thinking (rather than rote learning), and process-focused problem solving are all essential components to a curriculum that will turn out the workforce needed for success. Further, while there remains some value in cognitive excellence as exhibited in South Korean educational systems, it is also important to move away from exams that focus on providing the right answer as the sole criterion for educational success and incorporate measures that look at critical thinking outcomes.

 With these changes, holding on to current successes but expanding to meet new challenges, the South Korean workforce of the future is much more likely to achieve excellence in the challenging economic environments to which the world is likely to be subjected in the future.

Recommendations for Further Research

 One interesting research topic emerged from this study: how did the seven startups become either large or medium-sized firms over the past ten years or so? Were there any particular HR practices supporting their business success in a short period of time? A follow-up study of those IT companies may show their unique HR strategies and practices, using case studies and in-depth interpretive approaches, as shown in other case studies (Barber et al., 1999; Gangani et al., 2006; Hustad & Munkvold, 2005; Noble, 1997; Pattanayak, 2003).

 Another interesting research topic would be gender diversity (Creswell, 2006; Freeman, Mead, & Manthy, 2006; Hewlett & Luce, 2005). The three female HR executives in this study were found only in MNCs. One possible reason why female professionals prefer working at either MNCs or startups is due to flexibility and less gender discrimination (Fenwick, 2003). The fact that none from large firms was found to have female HR executives calls for an in-depth study of what is happening in South Korea (Onishi, 2007) and what can be done to better the workplace in terms of gender diversity.

 This study had certain limitations in terms of scale and methods. Due to the small number of respondents and the purposeful sampling, the results are contextualized and, therefore, cannot be generalized. Another concern is related to data collection methods. Methods other than email interviews and a survey, as utilized in this study, may be required to gain more in-depth understanding and triangulated results. A replication of this study, addressing its limitations, would be a helpful next step. Follow-up studies such as comparative case study of startups’ HR practices, a broader survey, a comparative study between IT industry and other industries, and between other countries, therefore, will clearly show what HR practices are to be promoted for the continued growth of the IT industry in South Korea and other fast-growing countries.


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