Connecting the workplace using AI, ML & automation

How do organizations begin their digital transformation process, and how can they build a more connected workplace using new technologies such as Artificial Intelligence (AI), Machine Learning (ML), and Robotic Process Automation (RPA)?

At a roundtable in Kuala Lumpur hosted by ServiceNow and organized by Jicara Media, senior IT executives from large enterprises in Malaysia came together to exchange ideas.  They agreed that digital transformation can be challenging, but that they have embraced AI, ML and RPA as part of their transformation process. The also touched on topics such as the talent shortage in IT, standardizing IT and processes, and the relationship between IT and business.

Understanding an organization’s needs

The first step to digital transformation, participants agreed, is to come up with a strategy based on a good understanding of an organization’s needs instead of blindly adopting one-size-fits-all solutions.

Said Ong Hong Hoe, Senior Director, Corporate Technology, at research lab MIMOS, “I hear all the problems from customers or collaborators, who are always looking for technology to do transformation. I always tell them, don’t start with technology, always start with your problems. You need to understand your process and your people. Technologies are tools.” 

Added Azizi Khan, SVP, Head of Digital Enablement, at AmBank, “One of the biggest problems in Asia is that people tend to buy boxes. When you’re building a system, you know your data intimately, you know the requirements intimately. You know where the roadmap or the strategy needs to head. But if you plonk in one box after another, you end up with a convoluted mess….there’s never been a drive to understand the organizational needs as a whole.”

The challenge of finding and retaining skilled talent

A common thread that ran through the discussion was dealing with the global shortage of skilled IT talent, and that talent retention is one of the biggest challenges organizations are currently facing.

Jason Heng, Head of IT Strategy & Development, YTL Comms, summarized the views of all the participants, saying, “The skillset is a challenge. And when people get a better offer, either in Singapore or in other countries, they will go away easily; in Malaysia, even though we want to pay a reasonable salary, it’s really tough to match. The shortfall in IT resources is a worldwide problem. But we fight to keep our key people and we try to train our younger people to not be operators of systems, but to be developers of systems”.

Standardizing processes, systems, and applications

All the organizations represented at the roundtable are in the process of digital transformation, and are attempting to standardize systems and processes. But is standardization across disparate systems, geographies — and in the case of conglomerates, businesses — even possible?

For DKSH, it is. The enterprise has successfully standardized almost all its systems, and is completing a digital transformation process that began in 2004.

Said Sunthar Maniam, Senior Director, Group IT Infrastructure, of DKSH CSSC, “We embarked on the digital transformation journey in 2004. So it’s a fairly long journey. Today we have a single instance of SAP, where users all the way from New Zealand right up to the US use that one system.”

On the other hand, Berjaya is not aiming for complete standardization, being a large conglomerate with over 200 companies under its umbrella.

Eugene Chung, Head of Strategic Group IT at Berjaya Corporation, said, “Our core businesses are very, very different. It’s easy to ask why we haven’t standardized workplace, processes, and IT. If you’re doing it for one single business, I think it’s not a big issue. But if you’re trying to consolidate and centralize the entire group onto one platform?”

Instead, the group is taking a piecemeal, step-by-step approach to standardization.

Chung continued, “When we say we want to standardize something, there must be something common in the business line throughout the whole group. Instead of using IT as the focal point, we go after the business case. Let’s take the example of HR. We thought, ‘Why don’t we standardize it?’. But you cannot implement it for all 200 companies at one go. So we started out with 10, 20, then 30 companies, and slowly we got them on board”.

Maniam concurred, saying that DKSH took a similar approach. “First we had to establish a template – like what Eugene said, find the commonalities across the different business units, different pillars. Then, we established a global template. Once we established a global template, we started pulling countries together.”

The changing relationship between IT & Business

The participants stressed that the digital revolution has changed the role of IT, who will now have to play a proactive role in driving the business.

Said Steven Chan, Senior Change and Release, at Astro, “Business looks at how to make money, and they tell IT, ‘I want to do this. How can technology help me?’ But the technology should be at the front-end, together with business, to overcome business challenges.” This requires a greater understanding of business on the part of IT, and vice versa, so that the two traditionally separate functions can collaborate more closely with each other.

For DKSH, this has meant assigning IT partners to different business units. Explained Maniam, “How does IT have value in the business? We have to elevate our IT organization to be part of the business. So we have created IT business partners in each pillar of our business.”

YTL Comms, on the other hand, has chosen to expose business to the world of IT and coding. Said Heng, “We set the motto or strategy which says, ‘Everyone, even in the business, has to become a coder’. We want everyone to be coders. IT cannot be a walled garden anymore. We need to federate IT out, open it up”.

How enterprises are using AI, ML, & RPA

Most organizations are already using AI, ML & RPA, to varying degrees, depending on their business requirements. For some, these technologies are used to automate tasks and increase productivity.

Said Kannan Krishnasamy, Assistant Vice President, IT Department, at Astro, “What’s the objective of RPA for the support department? They’re doing some repetitive tasks, so we need to move resources to some productive tasks. For the coming Financial Year, we’re looking at how to implement AI and machine learning to the help desk and call centre. We want AI to be at the frontlines for customer-facing departments.”

Jimmy Wong, Executive Director, ITS, at KPMG (Malaysia) agreed, “Mostly, we’re looking at automating application workflow processes. We don’t need to do fancy things, just the little things that save our people time — instead of spending 3 hours on a process, they just need 15 minutes. That, to people, is good enough.”

Certain organizations are using AI, ML & RPA in other, markedly different ways.

Said Simon Kong, Head of Technology, Digital Asset Management Unit at Media Prima, “For the media industry like us, we’re using AI and ML for data, because we need to keep user stickiness on our app, to encourage them to keep watching.”

Said Kevin Khoo, CIO of Sunway Berhad, “Last year, we started our journey on RPA. Since then, we have implemented 7 robots and created a lot of capacity.”

KPJ Healthcare Berhad has similarly embraced robots, but is facing a cultural obstacle in their transformation process. Said Shahrul Nizam Bin Hj. Mohd Idris, the group’s Head of Strategic Operation & Technology, “We always want to be the first hospital to implement technology — the past few years, we’ve already invested in AI, like IBM Watson, but the doctors are reluctant to use it. We also invested in robots for PR — we use robots to greet people, but the technology is not being accepted by people. We have the budget, but our minds are unwilling to change”.

How do IT executives deal with the hype of new technologies?

Many participants commented on the challenge of dealing with the hype generated by technologies like AI, blockchain, and other buzzwords.

Said Khan, “Last year’s go-to phrase was blockchain and cryptocurrency, and this year it’s AI and RPA. You keep getting these newer and newer words that need to make sense in an organization, but people have no clue. How is an organization going to transform?”

Ong concurred, saying that in most instances, the technology is not well-understood. “A lot of times, people say ‘Let’s do something AI’. Actually, what they really mean is, don’t do things the traditional way…what they want doesn’t involve machine learning, language understanding, or sensory inputs. And when people say RPA, what they really mean is, you just create a bunch of rules and you execute those rules. There is no artificial intelligence involved.”

However, the participants agreed that these technologies will play a vital role in the coming years.

Said Rani Nathwani, CIO of Prince Court Medical, “The healthcare industry, I feel, is a very knowledge-intensive and labour-intensive industry. Where I see AI coming in in the future is in the use of predictive analysis in diagnosing diseases and who is more susceptible to a particular disease, like diabetes for example.”

Khoo agreed that new technologies will fundamentally change the nature of business and work, describing a recent experience. He said, “10, 15 years from now, I don’t think I need to look further than how I’ve experienced work in China. I was visiting a 50,000 square feet auto warehouse with only 2 people working in the entire warehouse. The forklifts were autonomous, the whole supply chain is robotized.”

Conclusion: AI vs Jobs

The discussion concluded with one of the biggest questions in tech today: will AI take over jobs?

To Ong, AI is a necessary tool that will perform tasks humans are incapable of. He said, “AI is a self-fulfilling prophecy at the moment, because the more digital transformation you’re doing, the more data you’re generating; and essentially, you need a machine to look into that data. Humans can’t possibly do that.”

He said, however, that automation will bring about a renaissance of the creative and people-centric industries, as people will engage in work that cannot be done by machines.

“Will AI take over jobs? It’s just like any other industrial revolution, jobs will be lost and new jobs will be created. I think it’s to get the next generation ready for the next wave. The next wave is essentially about soft skills – communications, artistic skills – because those are the ones that are very difficult for a machine,” he concluded.