June 10, 2016
Preparing ASEAN’s digital workforce
By: Janet Yap

One focus at the World Economic Forum in Kuala Lumpur this year was on ASEAN’s need to master the digital economy, which is expected to add up to US$1 trillion to GDP in the next decade. To achieve this, we need to go beyond ticking off a technology checklist for digital business models and infrastructure.

Rapid technological change and the inability of employees to keep pace have caused organisations to go into a state of digital culture shock. To get past this and be a successful player in this bold new digital world, organisations must take a People First approach, using technology to help workers keep up with change and create value.

The need to build the digital workforce in ASEAN is urgent. In a survey of 31 countries, those in the region scored the lowest average on our digital fluency model, which measures a person’s ability to use and embrace digital technologies to become more knowledgeable, connected and effective. This problem is especially so among women and helping them embrace digital can close the workplace gender gap that is prevalent in this region.

The ASEAN ICT Masterplan (AIM) 2020 acknowledges this need as it outlines recommendations to develop “the human capacity necessary” for the region’s transition into a digital economy. AIM 2020 wants to strengthen the digital workforce via reskilling programmes and create standards through which the workforce is ICT-literate and competitive.

As these macro-level initiatives are implemented, individual organisations should also start preparing their workforce for the digital economy to stay competitive. There are three aspects to consider.

Groom chameleon workers

The first is grooming “chameleon workers”, who can move from assignment to assignment across the organisation, adapting quickly to changing conditions. 80 percent of the 3,100 executives we surveyed in Technology Vision 2016 believe this chameleon worker will be their most valuable employee over the next three years. Chameleons exhibit the two top attributes that companies look for: proficiency with digital technology and a willingness to embrace change.

Many of these chameleon workers will be millennials, who became the largest segment of the workforce in 2015. By 2025, this group will account for 75 percent of the global workforce. In ASEAN, 55 percent of the region’s working age population will be in the 20-39 age bracket in 2020, according to our research.

Millennials have different expectations of the workplace, valuing collaboration and work mobility. With the right engagement strategy, organisations can leverage their excitement for technology, teamwork, and digital acumen to push forward on their digital transformations.

Use intelligent automation

Second is the need to understand the full potential that intelligent automation represents, and how it can complement the workforce. With plummeting cost and advances in areas such as robotics, artificial intelligence and data analytics, intelligent automation is the newest “recruit” of our workforce. But far from replacing human workers, this transformation is about helping workers be better at their jobs. With intelligent automation taking over mundane tasks, human workers can focus on higher-value work.

For example, drug companies are using intelligent automation to analyse massive amounts of complex data to improve drug safety. As intelligent automation handles many of the routine data tasks, physicians can focus their attention on specific cases, and review them in as little as 10 minutes compared to the four or five hours required in the past.

Conventional wisdom suggests that employees are barriers to digital progress, yet our research shows the opposite to be true. A survey of 2,500 employees showed that employees (particularly the young) are upbeat about anticipated advancements from digital technologies, citing the benefits of innovation (71 percent), agility (69 percent) and productivity (68 percent). They believe that digital technologies will improve their work experience and job prospects.

Tap external talent

Finally, companies need to go beyond building the internal workforce and tap external talent. Many in the new-age workforce are forgoing full-time employment to be freelancers, choosing whom they work for and for how long. Freelancing appeals especially to millennials who do not want to be tied down to one job, and to parents who want flexible work hours so they can spend more time with their children. According to, with 110,000 users, Malaysia is in the top 20 countries where the number of freelancers has been growing quickly.

While companies must take an active role in creating the skills they need by making training a critical component of their talent management strategy, it is not always possible to find all the required skills in-house, given the rapid pace of change. Freelancers provide quick access to a wide range of deep technical skills, which helps companies stay agile.

Only in ensuring that people are able to keep pace with change by building the right digital skills and mind sets will ASEAN be able to seize the opportunities presented by the ongoing digital transformation.

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