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Digital Dialogue: Embracing the workforce of the future

Many sectors in Malaysia are struggling to match the expectations of the new-generation workforce.


Digital technology has won hearts and minds the world over for improving productivity while keeping costs low. It is undeniable that the wave of digital disruption sweeping through workplaces is fundamentally changing work—and jobs—as we know it.

The fact that there are more mobile phones than there are people on this planet clearly illustrates how digital technology has infiltrated our lives.

The disruption has created room for more skilled jobs in many sectors and industries, and it has put an end to mind-numbing and laborious tasks. Businesses globally are revamping their operations to focus on reskilling and upskilling, apart from introducing diversity to their workforce.

But are Malaysian businesses reacting fast enough by adopting the rapid change and embracing the workforce of the future? There appears to be no right answer as the adoption of digital technologies at the workplace is still fragmented. Many sectors in the country are still grappling with innovation and struggling to match the expectations of the new-generation workforce.

Accenture recently hosted a dialogue on the impact of digital disruption on the workforce. The panels for the dialogue from both the public and private sectors discussed their opinions on the need for Malaysian organizations to adapt digitally.

The panellists were iflix Malaysia CEO Azran Osman-Rani; TalentCorp Malaysia CEO Johan Merican; Sime Darby’s senior vice-president of group leadership and talent, Nadiah Abdullah; Multimedia Development Corporation (MDeC) vice-president Niran Noor; and Maybank’s group chief human capital officer, Nora Manaf, while the moderator was Accenture’s ASEAN talent and organisation strategy lead, Lee Yun-Han.


Lee Yun-Han: Hierarchies are collapsing, organisations are getting flatter, rigid constructs of job descriptions are increasingly irrelevant. People take on roles rather than jobs. Based on our global study, 90 percent of organisations say they are making changes to their structure and operating model to reflect this, however they are struggling to realise the benefits.

What are some of the ways you see Malaysian organisations embracing digital technology to create an agile organisation that encourages people to work in a more connected ecosystem?

Azran Osman-Rani: I think any attempt to take an incremental approach, frankly, is futile. You literally have to obliterate and rebuild or you die. That’s the reality. Effectively, there’s been a value transfer as new models are being developed, value is being destroyed by traditional models precisely because any attempt to say, ‘we are going to do this incrementally’—is simply inadequate. There isn’t the ability to take your time and rebuild because the world is moving so much faster. If you can’t keep up, you are going to be left far behind.

Johan Merican: I don’t disagree with Azran on the urgency to embrace change but I feel that the majority of organisations, especially large established ones are not in a position to obliterate and rebuild. Nevertheless, mind-sets must change. There is no point in having the technology but not being open to using it. We see a lot of organisations being quick to change in updating and improving their products but a lot slower embracing the latest thinking and technology when it comes to HR matters and managing people. The traditional way of HR, ‘the one size fits all HR policy’ is particularly outdated given the increasing diversity of our workforce, whether in terms of gender, ethnicity, age, etc. If we can segment customers to optimize sales, we should have a more customized approach for employees to optimise performance.

Lee: Recognising that the world is changing is important. However, are people ready for such organisations? This is not just in Malaysia; globally, 52 percent of the C-Suites agree that it’s going to have a significant change that will result in a complete transformation of our industries. But Malaysian executives are not quite ready to embrace this. How is work changing and what does it mean for reskilling and upskilling?

Nora Manaf: I think it would be delusional to say that everything will go digital. I don’t think so but I am also challenging that. Because with digital, with the disrupters, it’s really about leveraging social connectivity. And if you talk to the millennials, the actual millennials, they are very social people. They want to touch, they want to speak. Technology is a net creator of jobs; it’s not going to reduce jobs. What technology does is, it takes away the drudgery of tasks and that allows capacity to be freed up.

Johan: Technology aids things that require repetition and can be automated. In that sense, work gets taken out so that people are able to focus on value-added corporate work. In this age, the HR function is no longer to just approve leave; it’s more strategic.

Nadiah Abdullah: In the past, I wouldn’t say that we were very administrative. Perhaps in the 1990s but we have been doing a lot of activities now. Right now, a company is more reliant on analytical data to connect all the dots and see where it is, where it is headed and how the people are performing their work. I wouldn’t say that by going digital, we will remove the workforce. If anything, it just makes things faster, better, cheaper but you still need the mental faculty to be able to synthesise, analyse and make sense of the data. With that, you need people who possess strong mental faculty or analytical skills, from which you can deduce to give a meaningful interpretation.

Next question, if we do have a certain workforce and numbers, what do we do? Do we reskill them or do we replace them? To me, it’s a combination of both because sometimes, analytical and strategic thinking is the result of thoughts. However, there is a certain extent to which companies can go to provide training to equip their personnel with current skills needed by the industry. Companies should note that a minority group of their workforce will always be more resistant to constant change within an industry and therefore less likely to succumb to the demands of the industry. This will result in them being left out and in time replaced by others who are better equipped. It’s just about who is fit for the role.

Niran: MDeC’s aim is to bridge the gap between the expectations of citizens and industries and how the government provides services. Our direct involvement is really about the digital government transformation for online service delivery. Our advice to the government is that we need to stop assessing amongst ourselves; instead we should go out there and ask the citizens how we are faring in providing the service. The government is focusing on setting up an online service centre that really has to be ‘start-up like’, that cares about what people can contribute to improving the services based on the users’ expectation.

Azran: But the fact that you have to re-evaluate—"do I reskill this person?"—slows you down from the onset compared with saying, ‘I’m going to start with a blank sheet of paper and I am going to get the best from around the world’. One thing I want to introduce is the concept of speed. You need an organizational rhythm that happens on a daily basis, so that work scope and priorities change daily. The availability of analytics provides you the numbers so that organisations can adapt on a daily basis. It is about creating an organisation and culture with a mind-set that my job is not over in a span of 3, 6, or 12 months.

My job is what I see today. You have the ability to shape your task on a daily basis. The one advantage that disrupters have is speed and agility to pivot on a daily basis. Having that ability to galvanise the whole organisation on a daily basis. You don’t wait for a weekly meeting, monthly review, quarterly cycle or annual performance review. How archaic is that? If you don’t have speed, you are going to be left far behind.

Nadiah: People may think that plantations would be the last industry to use the Internet of Things. Sime Darby, however, is pretty mature in having virtual tagging, electronic eyes connected to GPS and so on. The plantation workers walk around the estate with their iPads and iPhones and every time they pass a diseased tree, they will take pictures and send it to R&D for instant advice. Sime Darby’s leadership is actually driving the adoption of technology because we believe it’s inevitable, you must innovate and adopt digital otherwise you would be left out.


Lee: When we talk about who executes the task, we are not just looking at recruitment as the primary means of getting work done. The concept of the permanent employer workforce is getting more archaic as talent is everywhere. It is about how we creatively source for talent at scale.

How challenging has it been to look for relevant digital talent needed to run your business?

Azran: I think the great thing about what the internet has enabled is creating a global market for talent. It’s not just where the talent is today because we know that’s where the scarce resources are. While we have a great team here in KL, they are just simply not enough. We can’t wait for very strong technology developers to come up here. So, we have got to be able to go out and comb the world for the best developers. That’s how you have to survive in this world.

Johan: We speak about how we really need to embrace a diverse workforce because the demands of competition and globalisation mean that businesses need more diverse skillsets to succeed. We also have a workforce that is multigenerational, so you really expect to see organisations having top management and employees that reflect diversity across different spectrums. Unfortunately, this is not the norm in Malaysia. We recently released our 2015 survey involving the largest listed companies, where we found 31 percent of listed companies still have no women on the board. About 24 percent —that’s almost one in four—have no ethnic diversity in top management and 31 percent also have no board members below the age of 50. It seems like there are still many organisations stuck in an industrial revolution mindset that "it is more efficient if I’ve got a leadership team that looks and thinks like me".

Azran: It’s a great opportunity for a start-up to come in because it’s easy to go against dinosaurs like that.

Johan: While it’s great to have start-ups like yours, the truth is that Malaysia’s large organisations continue to drive the economy and they need to fix their attitude, to optimise on Malaysia’s talent pool. We need more organisations like Maybank, who have embraced diversity—having clear goals, track their diversity metrics and transformed work practices to support diversity and inclusiveness at work.

Nora: Yes, absolutely. We take pride in a proven track record of disciplined tracking, consistently for some years now. For example, only about 14 percent of our workforce was 30 years old and below a few years ago. And we turned that into 34 percent in just four years through targeted intervention. The question is, will they stay? If we are not attractive, if we aren’t creative in creating a work climate that engages the younger generation, it will show in our retention ability. Our retention ability is 92 percent for under 30-year-olds. We have a healthy 8 percent of over 55 year olds, and we are strengthening a ‘Guru’ culture in the organization.

The four different generations in the workplace today operate in a harmonious work climate. The key is everyone including the over 55 know they have a place in the team as long as they are able to perform and contribute. Women representation in Maybank was zero in top management but today we are at 34 percent. These are some of our current pursuits—to ensure we are inclusive while leading the people forward.


Lee: Moving on to the question of leadership in the digital era, the digital disruption is poised to change how work is led and managed. Organizations constantly grapple with developing future leaders.

What do you think are the top three qualities that leaders or organisations need to have in managing the workforce of the future and what is the best way to develop this?

Niran: The one thing that will really make a difference is having leadership that understands how technology is going to disrupt in the future. Otherwise, they will stay within their comfort zones.

Azran: Actually, the reality is that leadership hasn’t changed. More so today, in a world that is volatile, complex and ambiguous, you need decisiveness. You need to be able to have both courage and moral conviction that this is the right thing to do amid imperfect information, amid very challenging situations and, therefore, ensure your organisation has a strong voice for action, which basically needs to just move ahead. The core role of a leader is more critical than ever. It means that you lead by being inspirational, by galvanising people with an exciting picture you want to paint and you invite people along on your journey.

Nora: One is to navigate complexity and build global acumen because the world is getting more complex. You underestimate how difficult it is for someone who previously only had to manage one business in one country to cover the entire Southeast Asia the next day. To get to know how each of the 10 countries is actually very complex. Also, learning agility is even more important today. I agree that one has to be more decisive but you cannot be obstinate and overconfident; that’s where the learning agility comes in. You make a decision but you must be willing to admit that it’s not probably the best and you respond to what’s happening in front of you—immediately galvanise, influence and inspire the team to make a quick change.

This article was originally published in The Edge Malaysia, January 2016. Republished with permission.


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Yun-Han Lee
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