Originally published in Advancing ASEAN in the Digital Age Book, 14 November 2017.
Driving ASEAN’s talent transformation through technology
The digital revolution has touched every part of our lives – economic, personal as well as social. But while exponential technologies can create unprecedented economic opportunities, it is people, skilled and capable of participating in this revolution, who will convert these opportunities into economic reality.
How will ASEAN businesses and policy makers position the regional workforce to harness the power of advanced technologies in the long term?
The prospects of ASEAN’s workforce – and by extension, economic growth in the region – are under threat. Even as new technologies, notably automation and Artificial Intelligence (AI), propel innovation in businesses and the broader economy, they are increasingly replacing low and middle-skilled jobs in the region’s traditional industries. For the existing – and future – workforce, the question of skills relevance looms large. According to the International Labour Organisation1 (ILO), in Cambodia, where garment production dominates the manufacturing sector, half a million sewing machine operators are at risk of having their jobs automated. A million shop sales assistants in Thailand, 1.7 million office clerks in Indonesia and a million call-centre operators in the Philippines are also at risk of being replaced by machines2.
The ILO estimates that 56 percent of all employment in Cambodia, Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam and the Philippines is at risk of displacement due to technology over the next decade or two. These countries account for 80 percent of the region’s workforce and having more than half at risk of job displacement would be a significant blow to economic growth.
The challenges of job losses and shifts are evident not only in the employment market in the region, but also businesses themselves – a growing number of new jobs created by the same technological revolution in industries such as healthcare, banking, finance, and insurance, remain unfilled for the lack of skills needed. While this is not a problem unique to ASEAN – the World Economic Forum reports that more than 40 percent of employers globally report talent shortages3 – it is one that businesses and policy makers need to address urgently.
The new match: Human and machine
The great technological breakthroughs of the past — electricity, railways and IT — boosted productivity significantly, but did not create entirely new workforces. By contrast, advanced technologies such as AI are redefining the relationship between humans and machines — and it is one that can lead to net employment gain and meaningful, more productive jobs. AI has the power to transform the workforce of the future, not simply replace today’s jobs. Accenture’s research reveals that AI could increase Singapore’s labour productivity by 41 percent by 2035, the highest among developed economies, and nearly double its annual economic growth rate over the same period, underlining the combined strength of human and machine4.
Across ASEAN, companies are already taking advantage of new technologies to complement and enhance the skills and ability of existing workforces. In Malaysia, for example, Sime Darby Plantation supports field employees with the Sime Darby Digital Supervision (SDDS) system5, which makes use of GPS-enabled handheld devices to allow real time, online reporting from the field. This technology improves the transparency of field harvesting activities and removes barriers to communication between estate managers, assistants and supervisors, helping them make better and faster decisions.
In Indonesia6, meanwhile, drones at a paper and pulp plantation record information on the ground, previously painstakingly collected by human workers. Part of a connected forestry and agriculture precision system, the drones transmit this data to mobile devices, where it is analysed by intelligent decision support systems so interventions by workers are faster and more precise.
Jobs freed up by automation are not lost. Employees shift to fill new roles created by technology. At Accenture, employees freed-up by the automation of 17,000 back office jobs were reskilled and now fill much-needed higher-value roles within data and analytics7. They also supervise machines that perform simpler tasks. AI helped us streamline processes while offering our employees the opportunity to take up more complex, satisfying work.
The reality is that businesses need to invest not only in new technologies but also in helping workers transition successfully to new jobs by equipping them with new, relevant skills. Notably, today’s business leaders must be mindful of the need to reskill at the top of their organisations as well. Several companies in Malaysia are experimenting with ‘reverse mentoring’, roping in younger employees to mentor senior leadership, including CEOs, on digital trends8. At the same time, these senior employees pass on valuable institutional knowledge to new talent rising through the ranks.
However, Accenture’s Digital Performance Index analysis in Malaysia found that just 30 percent of companies have made the effort to improve their employees’ digital skills through formal training9. This lack of action is preventing companies from unlocking the economic potential that can be brought about by new technologies.
Agile workforce champions
According to the World Economic Forum (WEF), four in five executives agree that the future workforce will be structured in project groups rather than by job function. This calls for a different kind of employee – one that is adaptable, tech-savvy, functions effectively in teams, and learns on the go. Innovative companies that become agile workforce champions will be better positioned to unlock greater economic potential in the future.
Eighty percent of 3,100 IT and business executives we surveyed globally believe that these flexible and fluid workers will be their most valuable employees in the digital age. Leading employers today are prioritising breadth of skills and ability to ‘quickly learn’ and ‘shift gears’ over ‘deep expertise for the specialised task at hand’10.
Given the rapid pace of innovation, the skills needed by such a workforce are a moving target. The key to turning your workforce into an agile one is continuous upskilling. One study showed that companies that invest US$1,500 annually in each employee would see profit margins that are 24 percent higher on average than those that don’t. What can companies do to become agile workforce champions?
Provide opportunities for continuous learning: Connected learning provides employers with readily available, relatively inexpensive, up-to-date tools, and provides employees with anytime, anywhere learning. A wide range of digital tools from MOOCs (massive open online courses) to wearable technologies can be paired to suit different preferences and learning styles. Companies in the region are already experimenting with this. During a four-month trial, ten Singapore Power11 engineers conducted video conferences with their supervisors via wearables that allowed supervisors to see exactly what the engineers were seeing, and to guide them through the job.
Accenture Connected Learning12 combines classroom training with a digital learning environment that connects a company’s employees with relevant professional content and experts from both inside and outside Accenture. Companies can develop highly specialised skills at scale and respond to changing business requirements almost as quickly as they occur. Employees enrich their professional capabilities, develop the critical skills needed to stay relevant, and enhance their own career opportunities.
Adopt a broader definition of workforce: The definition of workforce must be broadened to include a combination of internal and external talent – full-timers, freelancers and contractors – assembled into project teams and disbanded as needed. For businesses, a more flexible workforce model means being able to match demand and supply of skills to meet needs as they arise, plug gaps, and speed products to market.
Companies also need to rethink how they access talent in the digital economy. Millennials, a generation of tech-savvy talent, prizes flexibility, eschew hierarchy, and are keen to shape their own career paths. They plug into technology platforms to secure short-term gigs on a part-time, freelance or ad hoc basis. Our research13 shows that this freelance trend is strongest in emerging markets where 86 percent said they were interested in freelancing compared to 59 percent in developed countries. On-demand labour platforms are where gig workers meet businesses. Flexing It links over 1,600 organizations in ASEAN and India, and has curated over 50,000 professionals for its corporate clients. Thai platform Fastwork14, meanwhile, matches 4,000 freelancers from 50 different specialisations to their clients.
Shape the talent pipeline at its source: To secure tomorrow’s talent, business and policy leaders must reach back to the source of the talent pipeline: the primary and secondary schools, specialised vocational institutions, and universities that are incubating the next generation of employees. National curricula should produce students with skills relevant to the digital age, but who are also capable of critical thinking, problem solving and creativity – the ‘human skills’ that cannot be automated or codified. By 2020, WEF anticipates a growing demand for cognitive abilities (52 percent), systems skills (42 percent) and complex problem-solving skills (40 percent) as part of core skill sets of jobs15.
In summary, agile workforce champions are those companies that focus on creating a new, modern workforce — specialized, flexible, augmented and adaptive, the kind of workforce required to gain a competitive advantage in existing and new markets16.
Put people first
There is little doubt that digital technology has the potential to improve productivity, and unlock new and immense value for the region’s businesses and economies. But it is people who will be key to harnessing this potential. Businesses and policy makers need to put their people first, at the centre of change, and ensure that they are relevant, adaptable and able to rise to the challenge of the digital revolution.
To do this, business will need to become digital on the inside, and they will need to do this rapidly as human and machine interaction dramatically alters so many aspects of work. This will mean upskilling internal employees and creating opportunities for greater collaboration. It will mean combining internal employees with external talent to form highly targeted and effective project teams. And it will mean taking an active hand in developing tomorrow’s talent.
Taking these steps is critical to developing an organisation that is agile, able to change course, and that will thrive amid constant disruption. And they must accelerate action, while opportunities of the digital age remain within reach, or risk rendering workers – and their businesses – redundant.
ASEAN is in the enviable position of building on a large and young workforce that is already highly engaged with digital technologies. What is needed is for the region’s business leaders and policy makers to move together, with renewed purpose and focus, and quickly and decisively equip workplaces and workforces for the digital age. If they are successful, the region will have a valuable pool of talent that will not only flourish in a future augmented by new technologies, but do so in a way that drives economic prosperity for the region as a whole.
1Jae-Hee Chang and Phu Huynh, Asean in Transformation, The future of jobs at risk of automation, International Labour Organisation, July 2016
2 The end of the line, The Economist, Feb 2016
3 Unlocking US$100 Trillion for Business and Society from Digital Transformation, World Economic Forum, Jan 2017
4 AI could 'double Singapore growth rate' by 2035, The Nation
5 Innovating for the future, Sime Darby Annual Report 2016, P27 and 78,
6 Joy Tang, “RGE April Group benefits from connected forestry and agriculture system,” TechTrade Asia, April 2016
7 Nicky Cappella, “Accenture automates 17,000 jobs without layoffs,” The Stack, January 2017
8 “Learning from young mentors,” New Straits Times, October 2015
9 Lim Yin Sern et al., “Malaysia’s Digital Performance Index: Faster Than Ever”
10 drian Lim, Allan Oung, Kwan Chee Kin and Fong Siew Keng, “People First: the Primacy of People in a Digital Age, Malaysian Perspective,” Accenture, p. 30, 2016
11 Singapore Power turns to wearable technology to boost productivity, The Straits Times
12 Stacey Jones and Sam Hyland, “Accenture Invests More than US$840 Million in Employee Learning and Professional Development,” Business Wire, January 2016
13 Ellyn Shook and Mark Knickrehm, “Harnessing Revolution: Creating the Future Workforce,” Accenture, 2017
14 Christina Morales, “How This Freelancing Platform is Changing the Way Thai People Work,”
15 Ellyn Shook and Mark Knickrehm, “Harnessing Revolution: Creating the Future Workforce,” Accenture, 2017
15 Leading in The New, Harness The Power of Disruption, Accenture
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About the authors
Alison Kennedy is a managing director for Accenture Strategy in ASEAN, where she works with executive teams to drive strategy initiatives that transform their organizations. Ms. Kennedy has specific functional experience and specialization in merger and acquisitions (both pre- and post-merger activities), geographic expansion, growth and innovation, and business and organizational design.
Azwan Baharuddin is the country managing director for Accenture in Malaysia. He is passionate to help Malaysia achieve its digital aspirations and has focused the company to be innovation-led in building a future-ready nation. With an economics background and a personal passion in technology, Azwan has spent over 20 years implementing and managing IT projects around the world.