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Achieving true digital transformation: It’s not the tools, it’s the people

Ryan Meyer
Ryan Meyer • 6 min read
Achieving true digital transformation: It’s not the tools, it’s the people
AI may continue to upend industries, but investing in people and their skills will safeguard organisations aiming for longevity. Photo: Pexels
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The Asia-Pacific (Apac) region is booming with opportunities for digital transformation (DX) — and Southeast Asia’s digital economy is expected to reach $1 trillion in 2030.

Hence, all classes of established professionals — especially those hawking all manner of “world-class” services — have embraced this notion, learning how to employ technologies such as generative artificial intelligence (AI) in their work. A PwC study shows 79% of CEOs in Apac said they were refocusing their investment efforts on DX.

Yet the region’s path to truly digitally transform is not as straightforward, as the tech sector continues to parry challenges such as economic headwinds, continued layoffs, and the rise of AI — posing the need to rethink their structures and organisational processes to keep up with competition while managing cost efficiency.

Nine out of 10 organisations in the region aren’t equipped with the right talent to realise digital transformation (DX), nor do they have the proper organisational systems in place, riddled with outdated legacy systems and mindsets. While there are entities in the DX space offering higher value consulting, accounting, or technology solutions, the extent of these services can be surface-level and do little to get to the root of true digital transformation.

If companies want to get serious about DX – then it has to go beyond acquiring the shiniest tech out there, and get down to the core of digital transformation: transforming people.

It sounds easier said than done; after all, it is cleaner and easier to buy ‘stuff’ than it is to invest in people. Executives can put a definite price on a piece of technology, whereas the return on investment is less tangible when spending money to teach someone something — and can even sound counterintuitive in this labour climate.

See also: What does it mean for every company to be an AI company?

Yet here’s one critical way to think about this: any investment in hardware is discounted as soon as it is purchased, whereas an investment in human talent begins to appreciate as soon as that person is deployed. It’s even more crucial at a time when we expect automation technology to rewire the work and talent needed to make these tools work.

L&D needs to be reimagined

For the past couple of decades, organisations have diligently set up learning and development (L&D) departments responsible for devising programmes that give employees opportunities to gain new skills and progress in their careers.

See also: How tech companies are retaining female talent in Asia Pacific (Part 2)

However, this function is often watered down into an academic exercise, seen chiefly as a retention benefit instead of a strategic investment. Yet, in the age of AI, L&D can no longer be on the sidelines. It needs to take up a larger role in shaping organisations’ playbook. According to a LinkedIn report, 4 in 5 people worldwide want to learn more about AI and how they can use it in their work. In Asia, 58% viewed digital skills as important to their careers.

L&D should, therefore, be reimagined within the organisation where it can provide a competitive advantage and be scored against profit-and-loss performance, such as under leadership with a cross-functional view of the business, such as the Chief Digital, Data, or Innovation Officers.

Get everyone involved in innovation

It seems the mature enterprises, especially those established long before the era of tech giants such as Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix, and Google, have over-indexed on order and hierarchy – establishing systems and protocols to de-risk most activities, effectively organising themselves out of the ability to truly transform.

Siloed innovation labs are certainly not the answer. It quarantines the ideation and creativity away from the business itself and is an attempt to harness the innovation process rather than unleash it. Innovation is rarely, if ever, a singular endeavour where one person or department is responsible for changing the game. Instead, businesses should upskill large numbers of their most brilliant talent to use technology to build, test and iterate.

The key is to have many people across various areas of business, all working simultaneously towards the company’s goals, while embracing the disorder from the bottom-up and top-down.

For instance, businesses will more likely see success by training a large portion of their staff in data science or software engineering and turning them loose in their respective roles as this could spark innovative solutions and increased productivity with new skills applied in unexpected aspects of their work.

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Here’s an example: A large regional bank in Apac desperately needed digital talent and realised it would require more than 200 modern data analysts and 700 full-stack software engineers —not bankers— in the next few years to transform the business and stay competitive with the onslaught of new fintech and financial services. This bank has embarked on a process relying heavily on reskilling existing talent, equipping back office and branch employees  — those who already understand the organisation’s operations and goals — with data analytics capabilities. This move provides growth opportunities for its people while helping the bank maintain its organisational culture. And it saves them money, too.

Moving beyond job descriptions

Ultimately, successful DX is a human question, not a hardware question. Can your people use the tools you’ve invested in to transform the business? Can you help them develop the skills they need, and do you have the right leadership in place who is capable of steering the company through change?

In an ever-changing world of work, companies must adopt the flexibility to look beyond typical job descriptions and not become too laser-focused on finding people to fill in roles who have done that exact job before. They also need to learn how to place a premium on transferable skills, as well as emerging tech skills for up-and-coming areas.

Ultimately, organisations need to develop systems that allow people to learn, experiment and apply their new skills for the betterment of the organisation.

To win and realise true digital transformation, focus on bringing people in who have the basics, who demonstrate an appetite for learning, and who understand that as technology evolves, adopting a growth mindset unlocks true potential. This will ultimately lead to a much more streamlined and sustainable pipeline of talent who are likely to stick around and apply their ever-increasing knowledge to the success of the business.

Ryan Meyer is the managing director for Apac at General Assembly

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