Interview with Scott Thomson of Links International

Scott and I met when he was still based in Singapore around 2013 when I was still active in the recruitment industry.

In an industry known for some cowboyish behaviours (similar to many other sales heavy industries), Scott is one of the unique outliers.

He is someone I’m deeply impressed with because of the deep domain expertise he has in the space. 

And he isn’t one of those who can only wax lyrical but also able to walk the talk.

That is apparent in his long stint with Links International

The company is also participating in the technology space and I get to speak with Scott to learn more about it.

Let’s start by hearing from Scott on the chain of events that led him to where he is today.

Hey Scott. Lovely getting to speak with you today. To begin, could you share more about how you landed in the HR industry?

Thanks, Adrian.

I started my career in one of the Big 4 and found myself wanting to be part of something where I could have more of a visible impact in a business and team.  

The Big 4 was invaluable for my training and development but I didn’t really feel that whether I was in the business or not made a meaningful difference to the firm!  

So I decided to take a career break to travel for 6 months and eventually wound up in Hong Kong and was hired into Links where I thought there was a lot of potentials to grow the HR Outsourcing and Tech business.  

When I first started 8 years ago, the main opportunity was providing a managed multi-country payroll solution that could integrate or talk with their systems as they expanded across Asia.  

We tried to find that tech in Asia but many of the payroll systems were at least a decade old.

Some of them even looked like Windows XP!

It does not help that Asia is a fragmented market. Each country would have their own language, legislations and regulations to follow.

The common ones can only support a handful of countries and often could not talk to the systems in our clients.

So after 6 – 12 months of searching around 2014/2015, we gave up on Asia and travelled to the US for inspiration.

We found these ambitious payroll and HR Tech products that nothing in Asia came close to. 

Initially, we got pretty excited before realising that 99% of the US providers were not interested in supporting Asia.

Their home market is already big enough for them to thrive.

After months of deliberation, we decided to build our own system – Links One.

It is a highly integrative Asia-specific payroll, leave and benefit solution that is supported by our 100% in-country HR service teams.

That is an amazing and extensive journey to identify a “pickaxe” that you can use to support your clients. How has payroll requirements change from the time you started with Links in 2013 to where we are today with the massive disruption created by COVID-19?

When I first entered the industry, the HR teams were beginning the current movement of being recognised as a strategic partner and asset of the business rather than an administrative function and a cost centre.  

When it comes to business partnering, HR was always perceived as the ‘poor cousin’ of finance, marketing, sales etc in the ability to add value to the business.  

As a result, HR Tech was usually the last priority to receive investment and created a cycle of HR teams being seen as weaker contributors and not having the tech investment or tools to change this perception!  

It was more common for companies to hire people to fix HR problems rather than to implement technology.  

However, there has been greater adoption of HR tech over recent years and this boils down to 2 main changes we have seen in the space:

The first is the rise of microservices system architecture (targeted HR systems) where systems integrate and talk to one another.

When I first joined the industry, HR tech solutions were low on the investment priority list for most businesses as they tend to be big monolithic ‘all in one solution’, something only large corporates could justify.

A good example of this is MNC clients who have bought and maintained an all-encompassing enterprise-level on-premise payroll solution that attempts to cover multiple countries in Asia.  

A large number of clients are now pulling out these all-encompassing on-premise solutions and moving to manage payroll solutions largely due to the cost of maintaining these ageing products because of the layers upon layers of customisation and annual licencing.

It also comes with the inability of these legacy systems to share information with other parts of the business, as well as the lack of flexibility to change with business needs as requirements change.  

Over the last few years, there has been massive investment in the HR Tech space driven by businesses putting a larger emphasis on their employee experience as part of attracting and retaining talent factors, and also factors like cloud-based development enabling HR tech to be developed and sold more cost-effectively.  

This has been great for HR teams as they have more HR products to choose from and can take an agile approach to their HRtech landscape, by changing their specific solutions as business needs change rather than an expensive rip and replace a monolithic HR system.

The challenge is now how clients ensure they have a single source of truth and ensuring the HR solutions they use can integrate and “talk” with other HR systems and the rest of the business  

And most recently, COVID-19 has sped up the digitalisation of businesses and business leaders are driving hard to ensure their businesses embrace integrated tech solutions to better streamline their operations. 

COVID-19 has also increased payroll complexity and compliance significantly, as Governments around Asia are constantly announcing new incentives and relief measures (e.g. wage subsidy programmes) that impact payroll as the pandemic and their local situations fluctuate. 

Historically, HR tech targeted big companies which had the budget to adopt large changes and neglected mid-sized businesses. 

However, we envision mid-sized businesses in Asia to be the largest market and adopters of HR tech to streamline their operations due to their rapid growth. 

You mentioned a couple of payroll challenges that prompted you guys to consider creating Links One. Are there other challenges that current payroll software struggles to resolve?

There are quite a number of them. 

High growth SMEs that are expanding into multiple countries can’t keep up with payroll requirements.

They also cannot justify an in-house team that can support 3+ countries payroll or might be using multiple systems to calculate payroll which can lead to incorrect or late payroll calculation that impacts employee experience and leads to staff turnover.

In some businesses, payroll is the only employee experience or contact they have with the HR team so it’s critical that the employee experience is user-friendly and leave a good impression.  

Without a single system, the employee experience is often inconsistent.

As shared earlier, the inability to integrate is painful and that impede real-time reporting and business decisions are either slow to be made or made with incomplete information.

Lastly, remaining compliant with increasingly complex data privacy laws when handling, storing and protecting employee personal information can become a full-time job.

With all said, payroll is still a relatively cluttered market. And businesses seldom replace their system as long as it does the job. Was that a concern when the decision for Links One was made?

One of the key motivations for us is seeing how our clients are being held back in growing their businesses across Asia because they are unable to move ahead in their HR transformation journey.

They may have this great new global HCM being rolled out into Asia but their payroll solution can’t be integrated into the new HR tech landscape as it’s too old and doesn’t support API or file transfers or doesn’t support all of their locations.

It is going to be a massive exercise and cost to customise around the existing system or ‘rip and replace’ it and maintain the systems and customisations going forward.

We aim to resolve that by turning payroll into a plug and play managed service for clients that seamlessly integrates with a clients existing system (e.g., Microsoft Office, Gsuite, Workday, SuccessFactors, SAP, etc.) and enables simpler access to an employee-friendly, scalable payroll model without having to rip and replace their existing HR systems.  

For example, using Single Sign-On employee’s don’t need to remember different passwords, website addresses etc and can access payslips straight from the existing systems.  

How industry-agnostic is Links One?  

Links One is agnostic of the industry with the bulk of clients either being rapidly growing medium-sized multi-country businesses in Asia or medium to large businesses undertaking HR transformation or digitalisation.

The former include tech, fintech, and pharma businesses, where their fast growth has meant that they need to scale up their payroll as their current systems are impeding their business expansion and affecting their employee experience. 

And the latter include many large retailers, luxury retailers, logistics, corporate businesses, and financial institutions needing to build a scalable and robust payroll model, automate their HR administration and processes, like employment document generation, enhance the HR experience for employees and ensure best-in-class compliance and remove key man risk for business continuity planning purpose.

I understand that Links One has an RPA feature. How is that useful for end-users?

Our clients may have required information from different countries and platforms to do their pay run successfully.

Since many grapple with integration, these are often done manually.

By using Selenium, we developed RPA applications to automate this process. 

This has saved operators a lot of time and improved accuracy by preventing human mistakes. 

We also regularly release new features on Links One, which means we have to do a lot of testing to ensure the updates do not have a negative impact on the system. 

Selenium helps automate these regression tests which saves us a lot of time. 

What’s next for Links One? 

On the road map, we are looking at a few things:

  • On-Demand Pay – Enabling employees to access their earned salary any time during the month to enhance flexibility and financial wellness for employees (release date: September)
  • Increasing Library of BI Based Reporting and Analytics – Including Salary, benchmarking, Flight Risk, IoT Based Reports (release date: October)
  • Increasing range of HR Tech we integrate with – massively scaling the range of HRIS / HCM products we integrate with by leveraging Codeless Integration 
  • Time & Attendance – development of time and attendance capabilities and IoT connections
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