Charting the future of work: People, data and accountability

Senior executives from leading enterprises got together to throw light on their digital transformation journey and the challenges they faced with workplace process automation. People and data emerged as two significant challenges for most participants.

Photo by Avi Richards

As enterprises embark on their digital transformation journeys, what role do automation, Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning (ML) have in building connected workplaces of the future?

At a roundtable in Singapore hosted by ServiceNow and organised by Jicara Media, senior executives from leading enterprises got together to throw light on their digital transformation journey and the challenges they faced with workplace process automation. People and data emerged as two significant foci of challenges for most participants.

The Human and Data Factors

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Koon Chai Lim, Chief Information Officer, Sompo Insurance Singapore explained that managing cultural change successfully was a huge challenge due to which automation was taking place in phases at his company. In the case of Tony Lee, VP, Group Business Solutions & Systems, Capitaland, retaining and attracting new talent was a critical challenge. “We have a strategy moving forward to engage with employees and help them with their experiences in the company so that they become our point of reference.”

For Matthew Johnson, Global Head, Analytics Platforms, Standard Chartered, the biggest test was data. “Most of our IT landscape is very fractured, and getting the data you need at the place that you need it to make decisions is a challenge. Integration is another challenge,” said Johnson. He added that his division had 20 odd countries under its purview. “Each country has its own specific data landscape; integrating that into a common strategy is difficult. Banks are changing from financial institutions to digital institutions, which is also a cultural change.”

Quy-Doan Do, Chief Digital Officer & Chief Technical Architect, Corporate and Institutional Banking, APAC, BNP Paribas (Singapore) also felt that data was a challenge. “Data is a challenge more from a quality perspective for us. Work transformation or transforming methods of working internally is another challenge.”

Billy Cheng, General Manager, Information Technology, Jardine Cycle & Carriage Ltd told the group that his organisation was going through digital transformation and there was a change of culture, organisation-wise. “In the new digital economy, how do we give that exceptional journey to customers, employees and business partners? When we look at the future of work, culture is one of the key areas that is very hard to change. Our challenge is –how do we run the business of technology? How do we manage expectations in an industry which is getting disrupted rapidly?”

Kai Cheong Lau, Chief Information Officer, Singapore Management University, said that he would love to see more of AI helping in cyberthreat detection, both on the inside and outside. “You never have people recruiting enough cyber security experts. With so much data flowing around, there is no way you can get humans to detect at a 100% level of accuracy if there is something malicious in the system.”

Colin Flynn, IT Director, APAC, Robert Walters said that his company was struggling with a lot of legacy decisions while going through digital transformation. The average age of employees at Robert Walters was 26 and the company had grown at a rate of between 15 and 20 per cent per year in the last five years organically.

He said, “The rate of change and the ability to cope with scalability is driving us into digital transformation rather than us having a secure lifelong plan on how to do it. We have cultural issues, users with very high expectations, recruitment in a fast-changing environment. My challenge is managing transformation with legacy systems as well as data. There is also a lot of pressure because of GDPR.”

For Leslie Toh, Director, Enterprise Architecture, Essilor, integration was a challenge. “Not technology integration but the culture and people part of it. We claim that we are going through digital transformation, but we don’t talk about what employees should do to align with that integration. When you transform, you need to do it front to back, but also back to front.”

Ramesh Munamarty, Senior EVP, Technology & Innovation, International SOS said that as it relates to the human and data factors, there were a couple of different challenges  – “Not only is the workforce distributed across 90 countries but the type of data is also very sensitive and ranges across healthcare, financial and government sectors. Data residency and sovereignty is more challenging these days due to the dynamic regulations around data in countries such as China, Europe, Russia and others. In addition to secure data management, change management is a challenge in any digital transformation. The human factor is more challenging than the technology and needs to be managed well in order to achieve the business outcomes desired from the transformation.”

Willie Hui, Director, Solution Consulting, Asia, ServiceNow described a CIO study the company had conducted. The study, which focused on digital transformation, revealed that people and data were the biggest challenges for organisations on their digital transformation journey. “When you embark on your digital transformation journey, ML and AI are important catalysts for digital transformation,” explained Hui. “But the biggest issue is the quality of data. What everyone is talking about here resonates with what our study came up with.”

The Accountability Factor

Rahul Joshi, Head of Content, Jicara Media who was moderating the roundtable, agreed with the direction the talks were taking. “Technology and humans are so intricately intertwined that we can’t really separate the two. Where there’s people, there’s transfer of technology. But who is in charge of digital transformation as a whole? Is it the CIO’s job or the CDO’s? Where does it begin?”

According to Ramesh Munamarty, it was dependent on what each organisation was trying to do with regard to digital transformation. “Digital transformation is a word used very loosely and can mean different things to different people and companies. It depends on the extent of change within the organisation. No one person can be leading it — it has to be a shared responsibility.”

“Digitalisation in the context of retail banking is a business-led initiative,” added Johnson.

Koon Chai Lim said that it was important to get everyone on board for a successful transformation journey. He agreed with Munamarty’s point that it was everyone’s business. “However, the CEO plays a key role since he or she has to push it,” he said.

Flynn explained that, at Robert Walters, ownership of digital transformation was taken as a technology function. “For us, it is run by the central technology function, since our company is full of salesmen. We’ve done it by focusing on capabilities and building an inclusive environment to get them to buy into the vision and roadmap.”

Tony Lee felt that decoding the employees’ DNA was very important. “One needs to get elements of the employees’ daily use of technology. Digital transformation is a scary word for many. What do we want to do to take care of our employees so that they know that we are taking care of them?”

Leslie Toh explained that as part of enterprise architecture integration, everything had to be examined. “If it doesn’t work, it has to be tweaked. That’s the circle of things.”

“Education and research are two key areas at SMU,” elaborated Kai Cheong. “Can robots supplement teachers in the classroom?” he asked. “In terms of knowledge, you can’t beat a robot. But in terms of teaching students soft skills such as critical problem solving and interpersonal communication, humans are required. We can use digital transformation to help professors do things they don’t want to — like grading, for instance. But there are ethical issues that come into the picture.”

Jobs Versus Automation

What did the future workplace look like to the leaders? Would humans become redundant with workplace process automation?

Ramesh Munamarty didn’t see the human element being completely replaced by technology anytime soon, but he felt a lot of the manual and menial tasks would be done away with in the future.  Flynn felt the mass-market part of business would be taken over by AI, while according to Johnson, the rate of acceleration and progress was so phenomenal that re-centring on the human element was important.

“People will become content creators, all other pieces of work that we know today will be gone. In another five years, we will work in a hybrid manner with AI,” noted Tony Lee.

“I see improvement in three areas,” summed up Willie Hui at the end of the discussion. “Speed, intelligence and experience. We will get faster at processes, get more intelligence into how we manage security and experience from using whatever we have will get better and better.”

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