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Rethinking tech talent strategy for digital transformation

Dean Tong
Dean Tong1/8/2021 07:00 AM GMT+08  • 4 min read
Rethinking tech talent strategy for digital transformation
With the world now a huge digital economy, firms need to develop digital talent in all and not just a few, says UOB's Dean Tong.
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Communications and Information Minister S Iswaran recently said in Parliament that while technology talents in Singapore have grown by about 10,000 year-on-year, demand for tech talents will continue to outstrip supply. Even before Covid-19, the Infocomm Media Development Authority projected that local demand for tech talent will increase by another 61,600 till 2021. Covid-19 has only widened the demand-supply gap as the demand for tech talent to help companies compete in a digital world increases.

But companies should not be dismayed at the gap in tech talent. In today’s digital economy, most of us are digitally-conversant. With a growth mindset and the opportunities to reskill and upskill, it is no longer as difficult for people who are not technically-trained to contribute to technology-driven innovations.

Involving all employees in ‘technology roles’

At United Overseas Bank (UOB), as part of our digital transformation, we wanted to embed artificial intelligence (AI) and data analytics (Aida) into our operating DNA, so that it becomes everyone’s business, regardless of technical capabilities, to think of how AI or other new technologies can solve business problems.

To provide opportunities for employees to innovate with technology, we started a biennial event called the AI-deathon. This involves bringing together over 7,000 employees, regardless of technical backgrounds, from seven countries to pitch ideas and to build prototypes of Aida solutions for the banking industry. These range from fraud detection to personalised marketing and AI-assisted conversations. Selected solutions have the chance to be developed and commercialised.

We ensure employees are equipped by having AI and data experts impart them knowledge on financial technology, while pairing them with senior leader mentors for an appreciation of business realities. We also provided other professional development opportunities such as courses and workshops in technology and innovation topics.

As we continue to rethink our tech talent strategy and look to grow our own talent quality, there are two people-strategies that companies can employ when it comes to successful digital transformation.

Strategies for developing digital talent in all

First, companies need to provide opportunities and incentives for employees to come up with incremental improvements for existing products and services. The desired outcomes are typically cost savings, greater efficiencies and better user experience. Every employee has the potential to make a difference in how their company operates. But it requires thinking beyond existing services and exploring what comes next in our digitally-connected world. Employees need to have curious minds and be keen to push the boundaries in their area of work. This comes down to how companies hire for attitude and groom for altitude (to level up).

Second, companies have to be generous in creating work and head space for breakout teams to innovate and to truly transform the business. Every company can use innovation as a differentiating factor and developing in-house capabilities can sharpen its competitive edge for the longer term. Innovation project teams can be formed from interested individuals from a variety of functions, rather than just the technology or research and development team. The team’s brief would be to use the various skills and experiences of different people to identify pain-points experienced by customers, to design a solution to the problem, and to bring the idea to market as quickly as possible. The company must also provide opportunities for employees to be released from their day jobs so that they can focus on achieving these outcomes, alongside necessary support in mentorship, equipment and resourcing.

Finally, employees also need to be trained up to be good communicators. All innovations — incremental or breakthrough — come with risk. Stakeholders need to be assured that the risks can be managed and are worth the try. This is also why UOB encourages its employees to pitch ideas in the AI-deathon. The competition is not just to crowdsource ideas, but also to encourage an enterprising mindset in our people to design business-relevant solutions and to be able to pitch and to persuade stakeholders towards new paradigms.

With the world now a huge digital economy, the leap from a digitally-conversant workforce to a workforce of digital talents is not as daunting as it seems. It is our duty as businesses to help our people believe they have what it takes to drive business transformation. We need to equip them to see their ideas reach fruition. We have to develop digital talent in all and not just a few.

Dean Tong is head of human resources at United Overseas Bank

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