Small Talks Circles (STC)

Spring 1989, twelve multinational companies gathered at the Shanghai Portman Hotel to inaugurate a ground-breaking forum, an initiative carefully thought out and implemented by the municipal government - (translation) - " Foreign Enterprises Advisory Committee for the Mayor of Shanghai ".  During a meeting chaired by the then Mayor/Party Chief Zhu Rong-ji, he asked emphatically what one single ‘gift’ foreign companies could give China to help accelerate its development. The floor spoke vehemently on the transfer of technology, transfer of western management practices, that foreign direct investment (FDI) was crucial and of paramount importance as China stood on the cusp of the 21st century.  Edgar M. Bronfman, former Chair of the Seagram Company Limited, had the vision and wisdom to delve into a wonderfully refreshing subject… Edgar senior and I expounded on the often ‘forgotten elements’ in education... 

Fast forward two-and-a-half decades.

Small Talks Circles (“STC”), currently under experiment across university campuses could very well be such a gift, with Hong Kong characteristics and sensibilities. STC are held in corporate offices in regular intervals. The outings could best be described as pre-dinner cocktail receptions, that being a typical social or corporate culture of the West. Offering to students from all disciplines the program has a four-year rollover cycle. The preferred model, hypothetically, is a compulsory, non-credit course in which a student must fulfill certain minimal ‘cocktail hours’ before he could apply to the Senate for degree conferment.

The concept comes about as the undersigned, founder of STC, makes on-going observations on the behaviours of young men and women on university campuses in Hong Kong, Guangzhou, Shanghai and Beijing as they make their way through the intellectual journey. The signs are so incredibly alarming that a great majority of today’s graduates would have difficulty engaging in conversations in simple English, crafting a decent job application letter or resume.

The influx of overseas-educated returnees (sea turtles), and students who are born and raised in English-speaking countries eyeing the China job market puts extra pressure on local graduates and exasperates their pain.  The situation could only get worse as the trend intensifies.     

Untested, my own supposition is that STC dovetails perfectly with mainstream Hong Kong secondary education, a disciplinarian experience where students follow a rigid curriculum largely ‘unchallenged’ by parents or even teachers. The insurmountable workload stifles independent thinking, creativity and objectivity. However, or rather unfortunately, year after year our very own have been ranked among the best in the world in maths or science subjects (PISA).  The lopsided results create a deadly blind spot among local academics negatively reinforcing their already limited sight line. Focusing on exam results, blindly relying on memorization or endless hammerings has its pitfalls obviously. Perhaps the trade-offs would be lack of good command in English (and Chinese), inter-personal and communication skills, self confidence, knowledge on current affairs, knowledge or the ability to appreciate arts and different name a critical few.  Hongkong students, by and large, do not consider personal appearance, basic hygiene, or even a keen sense of humour essential ingredients in the 'success' recipe. Comparing with their counterparts in the West Hong Kong students are visibly behind in these areas, the foundation of what is commonly known as ‘soft skills’. The deficiency affects their outlook in life, and greatly reduces their chance for advancement in a highly competitive global environment. In fact, the entrenchment could have far-reaching, negative consequences impacting the society as a whole in the long run. Imagine 90% of our graduates today could only bear down mediocre positions in commercial organizations or government when they reach their prime, wouldn’t Hong Kong be sliding to the very bottom of an abysmal dark hole in a matter of 10, 20 years ?

STC invites seasoned executives from different industries as ‘anchors’ at these cocktail receptions where students will mingle freely with the brightest in town in a business-like environment. There should be no specific topics assigned for these gatherings, though we would encourage students to get into a habit of reading the two local English newspapers, or tuning in on CNN, BBC, FOX, CNBC, Nat Geo...etc. to brush up on the latest in current affairs.

We would predict with faith that students who come to our events regularly will turn out to be exceptional, well-rounded individuals – that they will be confident and well-versed on subjects outside their academic programs…and, indeed, be suitably prepared for the onslaught of the real world few short years away.

Summing up the long-term, multiple impacts brought about by STC :

1. A tactile experience to get intimate with the working world with a head-start. 

Flip side - In the absence of STC students don’t get the chance to interact with company executives until years later.

2. Students will be inspired by ‘anchors’ whom they have identified as mentors, and using the experience as a beacon to build their career. 

Flip side - In the absence of STC the ‘mental development’ may seep through slowly after graduation, which then maybe too late !  "Do I have the necessary skill set/talents for a particular industry ? Am I cut for managerial or technical positions ?".  Self realization must come early for students to make suitable choices, or make adjustments while it is still not too late to do so.

3. Students are encouraged to come out of the ‘shell’ overcoming shyness, as they will be painted into a corner at these gatherings so to speak where they are expected to socialize and make small talks. 

Flip side - In the absence of STC students spend 4 years in a textbook cocoon not having the opportunity to develop the all-important social skills.

4. Students are given a unique platform to observe and improve on many fronts - confidence in public speaking (English), writing skills, interview techniques, fashion sense, self-grooming techniques, creativity,..the list goes on.  The experience will motivate them into putting efforts behind areas they need to work at. 

Flip side - In the absence of STC students will go to university career advisers two weeks before a job interview asking for a futile crash course or a quick fix...  Even for graduates fortunate enough to land entry-level jobs many such problems surface quickly and will be lingering on indefinitely...

Given Hong Kong’s education model the way it is, Small Talks Circles should bring forth positive, practical results because the program is designed to tackle weaknesses head-on, upfront and close. So finally, our future managers and politicians are given yet another spoonful of ‘vitamins’, with long-term good side effects being directed to the people and society as a whole.

Philip Leung
Small Talks Circles
July 1, 2011