Boosting the data talent pool

  • Collaborating with Harvard Business School to upskill SMEs
  • Has Asean data startup accelerator with data scientists as mentors


Boosting the data talent pool


THE Kuala Lumpur-headquartered Asean Data Analytics Exchange (ADAX) aims to produce 20,000 data professionals (10% of them data scientists) by 2020, having already produced 1,000 data professionals and 200 data scientists last year.

“For the first year, we have been mandated to create at least a 1,000 data professionals and 400 data scientists. We recognised that to reach the long-term goal, the 20,000 data professionals by 2020, we are nowhere close to it so that is why the partners we have brought in are very crucial to accelerating this.

“We’re getting industry to come here to get them to look at encouraging and upskilling their employees to become data professionals, so that we can start churning out those numbers,” ADAX chief executive officer Sharala Axryd tells Digital News Asia in a recent interview.

ADAX is the world’s first physical data exchange established to nurture a growing pool of data scientist and data professionals in the Asean region and is spearheaded by the Malaysian Digital Economy Corporation.

Part of the ADAX’s efforts to create this talent pool is by helping small and medium enterprises (SMEs) adopt a data driven approach and upskill their employees. To this end, ADAX has formed a collaboration with Harvard Business School.

“When we started this journey about two years ago, this is an initiative we took to produce world class talent. So we approached world class academia like Harvard. One of the reasons we approached them is because they have a programme called ‘making business relevant through data analytics’, which is to get companies to adopt a data-driven organisation approach.

“For companies to stay relevant, we need the leaders of our companies to change their mindsets. Since they run this in Boston, they actually came over and delivered the programme last year and it was a success. We’re going to do at least two more programmes this year. Last year, they trained 60 decision-makers from companies, half of them were from SMEs and the other half from multinational corporations (MNCs),” she explains.

Drawing in SMEs

What will incentivise SMEs to fork out the cash to train their employees? “When an SME is a high-skilled one, they are willing to pay. If the journey is right for them, they are willing to invest their time and money to build this knowledge,” she opines.

“We’re giving scholarships and grants. The training grants are funded by the Human Resources Development Fund and awarded by ADAX to SMEs. The grants are for SMEs, fresh grads, for upskilling and for women,” she adds.

The HRDF has allocated RM165 million to accelerate the development of data scientists and professionals for Asean. RM150 million will be allocated for training providers to build a network of industry-ready data experts, while RM15 million will be allocated to empower women leadership in data science and ICT.

What kind of awareness are they creating for SMEs to train and invest in data professionals? “It was ADAX and HRDF that convinced Harvard to accept SMEs in the cohort for Harvard Business School because in the US they only train MNCs. We do meetups, we also do some analytics for SMEs,” Sharala says.

According to her, the long-term plan is to ensure that Malaysia has companies that have adopted data driven journey to stay relevant in business. “To become a high-economy and innovative country, it is important that they embrace the data journey, with the talent pool available.”

ADAX has also collaborated with the The Open Data Institute (ODI), which runs programmes for SMEs and startups to help them embrace open data.

(Updated to correct the name of the institute)

“In Europe and the advanced nations, things are applied differently and we brought this knowledge back to be adapted to our local landscape. This has been part of the Asean data startup accelerator programme.

“We have 10 startups from Asean countries here guided by ADAX data scientists. It's a partnership between ODI and MDEC, both parties are funding it together to make it happen,” Sharala explains, adding that ADAX has 10 in-house data scientists from various industry verticals mentoring the startups.

How many more startups are they taking on board the accelerator programme this year? “We are planning two cohorts, one with 10 and the other minimum 10, maximum 20. They have to pitch for it and their idea has to be accepted before they are enrolled,” she says.

An idea is born

When asked who in the industry were consulted for the establishment of ADAX, Sharala points out that MDEC has a big data taskforce that comprises representatives from all the industries, SMEs, technology providers and also academia.

“So, the idea for ADAX was pitched by MDEC chief executive officer Yasmin Mahmood in that taskforce. MDEC also has an international advisory board for big data and Yasmin put forth the idea to them and it was a no-brainer to form ADAX because it was needed by everyone.”

Did they model the ADAX after any particular initiative? “When we looked around (and we can now safely say that this is the world’s first physical exchange platform), there were initiatives done by the European Union, by associations. So, there are private sector-driven initiatives, and government initiatives like the Open Data Incubator for Europe. But ADAX has the government and private sector coming together, to make this work and there are no initiatives like this out there. So, we’ve identified Malaysia’s landscape and Asean’s, what is needed and it’s a work in progress.”

What kind of best practices from abroad did they adopt for ADAX? “When we went to the US and saw that their data science incubator programmes were targeted at PhD holders, one of the things we were conscious about is, when we come here, we don’t have the Facebooks and the Twitters who created big data, but we have MNCs who need to move fast into big data analytics. So, we wanted to find ways to enable that quickly, which means upskilling the existing people with the domain experts so they stay relevant in their industry.”

Asean on board

When asked what ADAX’s plan is to get all Asean countries on board, given that each is at a different level of development, Sharala says they are taking it step-by-step.

“The main reason for an Asean platform is to collaborate with Malaysian-owned Asean companies, to leverage on getting the talent to all these countries. We want to tap into them to build leaders in analytics in the country that can actually support their own industry.

“We want people to recognise that we’re not in competition with Singapore when it comes to data analytics but that Malaysia has its own credibility to attract investors. And we’re working towards getting the talent people for investors to come and invest in the country.”

She adds that hopefully within a year or two, that with collaborations with Indonesia, Thailand, Philippines and other countries for data analytics, they could probably even replicate the ADAX model in other Asean countries if it is successful.

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