Preparing workplace technology for big shifts

Storage, compute, network, applications…the IT traditional layer is soon going to get infused with exciting technologies in the near future. How will infrastructure and applications evolve, and how will they change the way people work? Meanwhile, the COVID-19 pandemic has had a huge transformative impact on our workplaces. But how ready are we to continue this transformation into a post-pandemic “New Normal”?

These were some of the questions explored at a panel discussion at the recent Frontiers of Work Conference 2021. Moderated by Krishna Baidya, Director and Head of Asia-Pacific Connected Work Practice at Frost & Sullivan, the panel consisted of:

  • Alvin Rodrigues, Field Chief Security Officer, APAC, Infoblox;
  • Jimmy Yeoh, Chief Information Officer, Asia-Pacific and Emerging Markets, DHL; and
  • Tony Lee, Vice President, Information Technology, Capitaland.

Can you share what transformation means for your organisations, especially with the impact of COVID-19?

Jimmy Yeoh: DHL is in the business of transporting and delivering packages internationally, so COVID-19 hit us on multiple fronts. The nature of our business is physical, and this means many of our teams work in the office, from operations staff doing physical delivery to customer service. The lockdown in many countries had a major impact on the organisation, and if we did not get our act together and find ways to continue operating, all business would stop. So we had to reengineer many of our processes to allow work-from-home, connectivity, and virtualisation. This was a transformation that was needed if we wanted to survive, and involved the application of technology to solve these problems.

Tony Lee: At Capitaland, we had our malls and hospitality businesses to run and manage, so it was a major change that needed to take place. Fortunately for us, we had digitalisation programmes that were running way before, and quite a number of our digital stacks were able to hold up. We enhanced those stacks moving forward to help with remote working. We also worked with Singapore’s requirement for SafeEntry, putting front-end technology and contactless engagements forward in an increased manner over time and quite aggressively. At the back end, we also implemented more contactless technologies such as DocuSign, which helped keep papers flowing, projects going, and the business running as best it could.

Alvin Rodrigues: Speaking to many organisations at the advent of COVID-19, the main mantra many had was survivability. They looked at their digital and physical processes and determined what they needed to focus on to continue delivering value to their customers. Now several months into COVID-19, they are looking at the decisions they made in the past, because in that quick pivot, they may have taken shortcuts or compromises. These companies are now taking a second look at right-sizing their strategy. But the key is still to understand the purpose and objective behind transformation, and the best way to look at it is not at technology, but at the value that company delivers and the processes necessary to support that value. Technology then comes in to enhance or bring those processes to the next level.

Consolidating what we have done over the past year, what lessons can we take from this, and what can enable us to prepare for the next 2-4 years?

Alvin Rodrigues: One key benefit from COVID-19 is that we have broken down the geographic boundaries that limited us before. We can now collaborate with highly-skilled and talented people from anywhere in the world, because we have technologies such as Zoom. We can also engage people and organisations without the need to travel. So, I think all these technologies that encourage sharing and collaboration will become more pronounced and important in how we drive ourselves and collaborate with other people.

However, we must make sure that the social aspect of these relationships is not removed from the equation. If we become all work and no play, that makes for a very boring working environment and leads to undesirable effects on workers who become isolated.

Tony Lee: My personal view is that the human calling is important. When people plan to get together now, they are going to find the time more precious, and the event becomes more important than it was before COVID. This also means that venues must live up to what we expect today of a post-COVID era, such as having contactless technology, and being fully connected – not just between the people meeting physically but also digitally.

Jimmy Yeoh: For DHL, we did have Business Continuity Plans (BCP), but when COVID hit we realised these were not quite up to the mark. There were two important lessons. Firstly, when folks understand the purpose of BCP, they can respond quickly. Because there are no expectations or Service Level Agreements, folks go ahead to collaborate and get the work done. In a crisis, everyone comes together and transformation becomes simpler.

The second lesson is similar to what Tony and Alvin have mentioned on the social aspect, and we need to ensure we do not lose sight of it. Over the past months, people have been missing the canteen discussions and water cooler discussions, because that binds you together and keeps you plugged in. Moving forward, we need to engineer that into the technology stack or find a way to support it.

What are some of the exciting technologies you and your companies are embarking on and how can we maintain the human factor as we develop them?

Jimmy Yeoh: Firstly, we have over 100,000 employees. So the question for us is how we can bind the organisation together, and we need to find the technology that helps us collaborate, to keep us involved, and make sure the people are being cared for. So, we are investing a lot in enabling technologies that help us collaborate better.

The second thing is safety. For an organisation our size, we need to take into account social distancing, and obviously technology plays a role. For example, we could automate and reduce the more laborious work that requires physical contact, and so we are spending a lot of time looking at this. Robotics, automation, machine learning, AI. We are looking at these things, but we always want to focus on people first.

Tony Lee: We think having technology is important, but we are not a tech company. We use tech as an enabler. Things like AI, robotics, etc, are in the pipeline, but it is business-driven and not technology-driven. So when we sit down with the business leaders, we need to have a business case, ROI, and a clear understanding of what we are trying to get at and achieve, especially if we are trying to engage with end users such as shoppers or customers who are leasing properties. We must understand exactly what we are trying to get to and deliver.

Alvin Rodrigues: Fundamentally, we need to keep something very core in mind. Technology is an enabler when we are looking at change, adoption, and driving new ideas and innovation for the organisation to keep delivering value in the way that their customers want. COVID has placed a lot of business restrictions on us, but necessity is the mother of invention. So we look at new ways and technologies to continue delivering this value, and so the whole purpose and core drivers become what is the desired business outcome. Technology is meant to make our lives easier, but at the same time one of the challenges is that it divorces us from being human.

How do your organisations think about the importance of data and how it can help to improve your processes?

Tony Lee: Within Capitaland, we have a fantastic data team, and our strategy is for everyone to be able to visualize and use the data.  We want to have citizen developers and citizen visualisers who can use Power BI. This is a good path to start because it enables everyone to have the ability to figure out what they are trying to present to the leadership for decision-making, and what they need to run their own areas of work. One of the things that we need to be aware of is that as more people come on board and many organisations want to have citizen developers, a lot of experimentation will happen because everyone is learning, and it is important for us to skill everyone up. But there is a cost to building and a cost to maturing, and that is something we have to watch for. At some point, you will have a lot of bots and dashboards running around, but it is important for us to get through this step.

Jimmy Yeoh: If I want to improve my customers’ processes and the experience of my customers’ customers, we have to help them optimize and let them know what is happening. We are a big organisation, and traditionally many big corporates have centralised teams. I think we are going through a rapid change, and there is recognition that we need to empower and enable everyone to become data-savvy. It is a feedback loop, where we see what is going right or not right, and I think if we can embed analytics into the organisation it will help us to transform.

Alvin Rodrigues: Building on what Tony and Jimmy have described, I see it in two broad categories. Firstly, it is about the use and harmonisation of data for internal consumption to drive efficiency and effectiveness of the business. Next, it is about the value chain and the role of data to empower and harmonise the workflow so the product can achieve and deliver at the end.

From here, you need to think about data and data protection. You need to think about and have visibility on access management from device and user levels to mitigate against third-party or multi-factor risk that might be part of the entire value chain. There is also insider threat or data exfiltration, which is something we see a lot in the media today with company data being compromised and stolen. With people working from home, it is a situation where we are accessing company information without enterprise grade security, and so we must look at different ways of securing these forms of access. How do we allow people to work from anywhere whilst giving them access to enterprise-grade security? How do we ensure that people who need access to the data are people with the right level of role and responsibility? There is a lot going on in this space while we look at empowering and enabling the individual.

In some industries, you also have regulators putting pressure, such as the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) in the EU, or Personal Data Protection Act (PDPA) in Singapore. Data is becoming the fuel of the new economy, and at the end of the day, we must consider how it is used, how it is accessed, and how it is repurposed.