Building a digital economy: ‘Technology is the least of our concerns’

  • The traditional bureaucracy of organisations stifle human potential
  • People need deep skill sets now to solidify positions in the future


Building a digital economy: ‘Technology is the least of our concerns’


THE shift towards a digital economy is an inevitable phenomenon and one that is not far off in the future as more and more companies embrace digital transformation. But, what does the digital economy entail? At the recent two-day Innovfest Unbound 2018 in Singapore, panellists shed light on this topic in a session entitled Building A Digital Economy.

The panellists leading the session were CEO of FWD Singapore Abhishek Bhatia, senior director of innovation and digital partnerships at Visa Akshay Chopra, principal digital strategist APAC of Adobe Padmini Pandya, CEO of Darius Cheung and head of strategic product development at EZ-Link, Jasper Kuan. The session was moderated by global customer growth and innovation specialist at Salesforce, Tiffani Bova.

The discussion opened with Bova asking panellists what they believe the digital economy means. Abhishek referenced McKinsey & Co saying, “Going digital is the ability to move fast and keep up with competitors and empower customers who tend to adopt technology at an amazing pace.”

Breaking it down further, Padmini shares her concise one-word description of the digital economy, “Infrastructure. It is absolutely the backbone to any organisation and industry. It makes up all the information, communication and channels of how you manage and organise yourself.”

The people side of a digital economy

Although talk of a digital economy and the pace of change it brings can intimidate and inundate many, Akshay abated concerns by saying, “Digital transformation is an ongoing process.” He explained that although industries will experience change, it will not occur straightaway. “Change will happen progressively and will continue.”

Addressing the significant impact of technology on people, Padmini who is experienced in organisational behaviour and industrial psychology provided some insight, “In the process of digital transformation, technology is the least of our concerns. Among the three important aspects which are technology, process and people, it is the people that are really struggling to catch up right now.”

She further elaborates, “While a lot of us are talking about the fourth industrial revolution, we are also still in the midst of the third one simultaneously. So we have organisations, people and governments at completely different stages of evolution moving at an exponential pace right now.”

Padmini raised a point about how organisations treat their employees and people’s behaviour in light of the digital economy, “While we talk a lot about customers, I am more concerned about employees. We are just starting to understand that the customer, employee and citizen are all the same person.”

Taking a cue from Padmini, Abhishek shares his thoughts saying that the same person reacts very differently to technology as a consumer than as an employee. “As a consumer, we take to social media at the snap of a finger but as an employee within the confines of an organisation, the bureaucracy carried forward since the 18th century stifles the adoption of new ways.”

As CEO of FWD Singapore, an insurance company which started operations in 2016, Abhishek says that even as a fairly young company, the nature of the people they hire has changed. “We don’t necessarily hire from the insurance industry but we also look to the IT and e-commerce sector. As the mix of people within organisations change, it will drive industrial change going forward.”

Don’t start fresh, your skills are still relevant

Spinning off from the disruption people will experience, the panel discussed key competencies that employees should have as organisations move forward rapidly.

Although on the surface it is a commonplace presumption that people are resistant to change, Padmini shares her contrasting view, “I don’t think it is fair to treat people’s apprehension towards change casually. It is a massive journey that will go on for years and a lot of them have already done the easy, enthusiastic work. Now, they are up against the really tough parts.”

She gives the example of banks which are 200 to 300 years old trying to transform and be agile, “That in itself deserves some applause because rethinking IT and organisational design in a matter of just three to five years is not for the faint of heart.”

She further adds that while becoming more customer-centric is great, the internal disruption banks will face will transform the careers of a lot of people as aspects of the business model changes. “These businesses have to adapt to change without a timeout – they don’t get to not worry about their revenue and share prices.”

She stresses the need for people to have deep skill sets to solidify their positions in the future, “What I have learned from my own career is that you need to be a generalist to a certain extent to connect the dots. But you have to be a specialist as well, find your strengths and double down on that.”

While the advent of the digital economy is daunting, Akshay says, “The discussion of this topic makes it sound like you should throw away everything you know and start fresh, but there are many skills and attitudes that will always be relevant.”

He says that the ability to work with people, good work ethics, discipline, the ability to foster relationships and other skillsets are still relevant, perhaps even more so than it was before. “But right now, what is needed even more is the ability to pivot.”

“The tools that you use and your industry knowledge will change now and in the coming years. You need to be agile and comfortable changing the way you work,” Akshay explains.

While in-work experience has always been an important determining factor in the hiring process, the current landscape of change may be reassuring to some. “Experience is overrated,” Kuan says. “If you have been at a company for 16 years, what you have learnt in the beginning is no longer relevant in this digital economy.”

He believes that curiosity is an important trait, “Don’t be satisfied with what you know. There are always ways to better and opportunities to learn.”


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