Unanticipated challenges in the workplace transformation process

Photo by Hamza Tighza

As organizations move further along the digital transformation path, many have come to realize that the bulk of their challenges lie in an unanticipated domain: the workplace and the people. For most, technologies can be put in place relatively smoothly, but the real struggle lies in preparing the workforce for a new, digitally transformed organization.

In a roundtable discussion in Singapore hosted by ServiceNow and organized by Jicara Media, senior executives from private and public enterprises came together to discuss their challenges. While all expressed challenges relating to technical and strategic issues, the discussion largely centred on issues with organizational culture, skills, and the future workforce.

Strategies for a digital-first organization

When discussing strategies to transform culture alongside processes, the participants cited examples from their own organizations. Research agency A*Star, for example, has adopted an experimental approach.

Said John Kan, Chief Information Officer, Deputy Chairman at the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR), “Researchers will come up with new ideas, but many of them don’t work. We have our own tools and analytics to see which ones are more successful than others. We have project post-implementation reviews every 3-6 months, and we continue every 12 months after that to see the ROI, to see if there’s efficiency. If not, we might just cut it. We’re prepared to fail, but we have to try. There needs to be a culture of acceptance that we might fail”.

Bank of Singapore, which is only just beginning its digital transformation process, has prioritized internal engagement in order to make sure no employee is left behind.

According to Sushil Israni, Head of Risk Transformation at Bank of Singapore, “Our CEO has brought all the different departments into the mix early. To be honest, we’re actually creating a bit of duplication. There’s an element of waste to that. However, from a cultural standpoint, I feel that what it’s done is it’s taken care of problems such as, ‘how do you ensure that everybody feels like they’re part of the journey?’ No one has that ‘I’m left behind’ mindset, we’re bringing everybody to the table. But we have to optimize. We’re trying to start off with having over-engagement, but we’ll streamline it down the line.”

Shirley Cheung, Head of IT Program Delivery at Rolls-Royce Singapore Pte Ltd, commented that traditional enterprises could benefit from non-traditional hires.

She said, “We said we shouldn’t go for just any enterprise IT-certified people and get the same old. We said, ‘Can we just go to a startup to look at how to run the new IT security?’ We need someone else to think differently. “

Understanding technologies and upskilling

The first challenge pointed out by the participants was the inability to make full use of technologies due to lack of understanding on the application of such technologies, at every level of the enterprise.

Steve Ng, Lead, Digital Platform Operations (Digital Group) at Mediacorp, discussed the importance of upskilling. “People need to move from where they were to where we want them to be. They have old systems, but they need to learn a lot of brand new skills. And this is the part we need to manage well, because if we lose them, we lost a lot of our assets. Without them, it’s very hard for us to change.”

The Problem of Shadow IT

One major problem many of the organizations expressed facing is the emergence of Shadow IT, especially in cases where employees implement their own IT solutions, for example, by using Dropbox to share files.

James Zhang, (Former) Vice President, Cyber Security & IT Risks at GIC, highlighted, “This is actually a very big problem. Because if it’s a shadow we don’t have visibility, we can’t set governance, we can’t set standards, we can’t see what’s going on across the entire organization. This is actually one of the drivers for us to actually build instead of buy, because there’re fewer excuses for business to say ‘We want to bypass IT because you guys are too slow.’”

It was suggested that part of the problem might lie with IT departments, and their lack of incentive to implement long-term solutions.

He said, “People prefer expensing technology rather than getting IT involved. [Within IT], there’s a fear of losing control, because with a cloud-based service, IT feels it’s becoming redundant. The biggest problem today is the life cycle of digital transformation is so long. People are unwilling to take decisions that have such long gestation periods. That’s why small projects are things people like, rather than long-term projects which show returns only later.”

Revamping IT’s role

When discussing the lack of incentive to transform on part of IT, some participants commented that IT has been a support function for too long, and that this role is no longer suitable in the digital age.

Said Bryan Sim, Deputy Director, IT Security (Business Technology Division) at Singapore Poolz, “For digital transformation, I feel it’s important to put the digital workers front and centre of the strategy. Being the vanguard of the new workforce, they should be given better recognition, better respect. For example, I was looking at some of my workers. The amount of work, the amount of capacity they deal with, they’re underappreciated by the company. It’s very hard to give them the energy to drive things.”

Zhang agreed, saying, “Business wants to do things at speed. They don’t want process, they don’t want risk management. How do you argue against that? They’re the ones bringing in the money. And you’re just the support function. Also, it’s disappointing when they put the CIO underneath the COO, because it signals to everyone that they see IT as an operational function.”

Millennials and the Current Generation

An interesting discussion later ensued around millennials versus the current generation, both in terms of the workforce and the consumer.

Abdul Aleem, VP, Architecture & Development (Group Technology) at Singapore Post, said, “Today, it’s not like you go to a job, stay there for 10 years doing the same thing. The millennials understand this. They don’t really want to do a 9 to 6 job; rather, they’ll find some part-time work more interesting. The mindset of the worker, the millennials, is definitely changing — it’s one of the impacts of digital transformation.”

According to Israni, consumers are also changing their mindsets, although there are many misconceptions about millennials versus the current generation.

He said, “When we start to segment our future demographic, what we find is that it’s actually a very interesting mix. The truth is that the hyper digitally-savvy younger generation does want relationship management. They just want choices, that’s all. And the other misconception is that we are now building platforms for the future generation of customers. But it’s important that your design takes into account this current generation as well — because if you think about it, our parents and grandparents probably struggled with the PC and laptop era, but the moment smartphones came, the adoption in the senior demographic has increased significantly. And they do have a digital need, although maybe it’s not as profound.”

Will technology replace jobs?

As for the future of technology and jobs, most participants agreed that jobs will not be lost, but that the scope of work will change.

Said Ng, “The future for us is going to be a very data-driven. We’re changing the way people understand and comprehend data, and we can get a lot of insights from it. There’s a lot of skill sets we’re developing over the next few years. Eventually, hopefully in the next 5 years, we’ll be 80-90% automated, but along the way, we’re also looking at how to change people’s skill sets.”

Sim gave an interesting example of the types of new jobs that are emerging, citing, “In China, there’s a new job role called Data Annotators. There are factories of people who look at images and say, ‘This is a face, this is a house’, etc.

There’s an immense amount of work that goes behind what AI is about. These are new jobs, and they’re not very high-skill or very complex jobs.”

Israni concluded the session, remarking that the industry is now in a transition phase that will eventually stabilize.

He said, “At the end of the day, we’re here to make revenue, service clients, and focus on the customer experience. I believe we will experiment with all these new tools, we will find half or so don’t work for us, and we go back to basics, but there will be a lot of improvements and enhancements along the way.”