No shady business behind ADAX

  • Contrary to anonymous claims, MDEC, CADS, HRDF erect solid governance structure
  • National Big Data Association administers BDA Talent Development Grant from 2018

 

WHETHER data science is the sexiest job of this 21st century or not is debatable. But you will not get many arguments from businesses about the increasing importance of big data and analytics (BDA), as data science is also known.

And with companies increasingly looking to hire data analysts, demand has outstripped supply. That is the scenario today.

The Malaysian Digital Economy Corporation (MDEC) knew this supply deficiency was going to happen back in 2015 when it first started working on plans to help not just Malaysia but Southeast Asia address its looming shortage of data analysts.

MDEC’s answer was the creation of the national big data initiative called ADAX (Asean Data Analytics eXchange) that was approved by the government in 2016 with US$37.7 million (RM150 million) in funding spread over four years. The funding comes from the national Human Resource Development Fund (HRDF) with the funding programme officially called BDA Talent Development Grant.

“We were asked by the government in 2016 to fund the upskilling and reskilling of our talent in the area of data science and we had no problems with this as we foresee this to be an important high value skill of the future,” says CM Vignaesvaran Jeyandran, CEO of HRDF.

The first batch of training programmes were offered in March 2017.  According to data from the National Big Data Association, which helps oversee the programme, 2017 saw 2,621 data professionals trained of which 459 were data scientists, 333 were data professionals from SMEs and 113 were unemployed graduates who took data professional courses. The remainder 1,716 were from the various companies that sent their staff for the 76 courses that were offered throughout 2017.

Except for the unemployed graduates, all participants must be from companies that are contributing to the HRDF because the fund receives its monies from a small levy from its member companies and can only allocate training and development funds back to its members.

Accusation of corruption, bias selection found to be baseless

With ADAX off and running, MDEC and its CEO, Yasmin Mahmood’s vision for it to become the definitive Data Analytics Exchange Hub for knowledge, resources and collaboration for the Asean region has hit a speed bump with the accusation that all was not above board about the programme, specifically around MDEC’s choice of partner to run ADAX, The Center for Applied Data Science (CADS).

To get a true picture of ADAX and the governance around the US$37.7 million BDA Talent Development Programme, Digital News Asia spoke to Sharala Axyrd, CEO of CADS, HRDF’s Vignaesvaran and Sureshnantha S, president of the National Big Data Association (NBDA).

The NBDA was brought into the picture to be a key party in the ADAX initiative as both MDEC and CADS felt that the presence of a neutral party that has the best interests of the data science ecosystem at heart would strengthen the governance around ADAX.

And to get to the point, having spoken to the various parties, excluding MDEC, DNA finds that all is above board in both the selection of CADS as the party to manage ADAX and in the selection of training providers.

Only the accusation that CADS charges a very high fee for its data science programmes has some merit but here, Sharala points out that one of its programme is run entirely by Harvard Business School professors coming to Malaysia and the course fees there are not cheap plus they are in US dollars.

In terms of governance, even before the accusation came about two weeks ago, late last year, CADS had already brought in a Big 4 accounting player to review the governance around ADAX and to make recommendations to plug any gaps around the programme. Sharala tells me that those recommendations have been made by the global accounting company and will be implemented soon.

With minor edits, we are running the response from Sharala to questions DNA posed to her around the ADAX initiative below. But the key takeaway is an open tender was called in 2016 to pick the best party to run ADAX; that no one party, not even MDEC as the driver of the initiative, has an outsized say in any decisions around selecting training companies to offer various programmes under ADAX; that the US$37.7 million will not go to ADAX but will be fully disbursed over a four year period at equal amounts of US$9.425 million with the money going to the various training providers whose programmes have been chosen by a three-person committee led by the NBDA and which includes a data scientist.

Most significantly, from January 2018, the NBDA is now the party that administers the BDA Talent Development Grant with HRDF giving it the fees for the training programmes which NBDA will then pay to the training companies. It may be a bit cumbersome but all parties feel this is the best way for fees to be paid to the training companies.  

Sureshnantha of NBDA admits to DNA that he was shocked at the allegations hurled at HRDF, MDEC and CADS around ADAX. “I thought it was a hoax and wondered who would do something like this. I didn’t know how to respond.” But the experience has thought him one thing he says. “I’ll never believe anything on social media and have advised my family as well.”   

Digital News Asia: What was the genesis of ADAX?

 

No shady business behind ADAX

 

Sharala Axyrd: ADAX is a platform initiated by MDEC to develop the ecosystem, build a critical mass of talent pool in the Big Data Analytics Category and to foster collaboration amongst businesses, start-ups, academia and professionals so that Data Analytics becomes an integral part of business innovation and decision making.

The ADAX platform was first introduced during the MSC Malaysia Implementation Council Meeting in October 2015 as a regional platform that brings together innovative talent development models and showcases the latest Big Data Analytics (BDA) technologies.

ADAX objectives are:

  • Advocacy - through DDO (data driven organisations) for industries, public sector and universities
  • To build ecosystem – through data sharing, use cases, trainings, setting up framework and tracking of quality and number of data professionals in the country.

ADAX was established at the end of 2016 as a result of a successful public private partnership between MDEC and Ansys Sdn Bhd, the company that I founded when I was running my telco training business. It is expected to help Malaysia achieve 20,000 data professionals by 2020; a goal set by the Malaysian Government in 2015.

How did CADS get involved?

Sharala: BDA Task Force issued a call for collaboration to identify a suitable partner for the Public-Private-Partnership (PPP), where five proposals were submitted from industry partners. Evaluations were conducted on the 26th June 2016 and the Center of Applied Data Science (CADS) was selected.

While CADS was identified as a clear vendor-neutral provider that would be able to advance the objectives of ADAX, it did not fulfill the commercial criteria required (i.e, entity needs to be in operation for three years or more, paid up capital requirements, etc.) to be the collaborative partner of the PPP.

Hence, Ansys was chosen over CADS, as it fulfilled the commercial requirements for the PPP and had a ”common shareholder” in myself that was able to deliver the credibility and vendor-independence to operationalise ADAX so that the intent of CADS proposal could be carried out verbatim without watering down any of the ADAX objectives.

Why is the National Big Data Association involved?

Sharala: Recognising the importance of Data Science & Analytics in the new workforce, HRDF allocated US$37.7 million (RM150 million) over the course of four years to pledge their commitment to increase quality talent within Malaysia by endorsing more training and courses in the BDA industry.

Though this fund allocation was not given to ADAX, the allocation of the fund to the Big Data initiative in Malaysia was a testimony to ADAX as a credible, functional platform for upskilling and reskilling the Malaysian workforce in Data Science & Analytics. This ties with HRDF’s ultimate goal to create more high income jobs and help Malaysia’s transition towards a developed economy.

Thus, the BDA Talent Development Grant was awarded to NBDA. ADAX helps to develop the BDA ecosystem and tracking of the data professionals in Malaysia.

How transparent was the process to pick the 19 service providers?

Sharala: The process is very transparent. The selection process can be found on the ADAX website and NBDA website. The selection process is evaluated by MDEC, HRDF and the representative from NBDA. Training providers are evaluated based on the BDA Talent Framework as below:

 

No shady business behind ADAX

 

Does any one party have any undue influence, be it subtle or obvious on how the training providers are chosen?

Sharala: No, there is no influence by any measure. Every training provider has to go through the selection process as mentioned above. No exceptions are made at any given time.

Does any private company have an outsized role in ADAX?

Sharala: No private company has an outsized role in ADAX.

Ansys is the chosen private entity that was selected to participate in the PPP collaboration for the ADAX brand project.

Ansys was given the master license to use the ADAX brand in delivering the “20,000 data professionals by 2020” mandate & KPIs of the PPP.

You are running ADAX and at the same time you are one of the 19 service providers. What processes are in place to ensure everything is above board?

Sharala: As mentioned in Q4, every training provider has to go through a rigorous process before being selected and CADS has no role in this process at all.

In 2017, ADAX worked to manage the selection of ADAX Training Providers, to ensure that it meets the needs as set forth by the BDA Talent Framework (shown in Q4). ADAX had a strict governance for ADAX training providers (table below):

 

No shady business behind ADAX

 

ADAX is the main advocate of the BDA ecosystem and it tracks the number of data professionals in Malaysia by collaborating with the various training providers in the industry but by itself ADAX/Ansys is not one of the 19 service providers. ADAX acted as a secretariat to administer the talent development fund in 2017 but the role has since shifted to NBDA in 2018. The shortlist of courses which meet the BDA Talent Framework criteria now falls under the purview of NBDA.

Once received and validated, proposals sent by training providers will undergo the evaluation process consisting of a two stage evaluation as follows:

  • Technical Committee - The committee is chaired by Data Scientists (industry) and is tasked to evaluate the adherence of the proposals to the BDA Talent Framework;
  • Selection Committee – The committee is chaired by MDEC and consists of representatives from HRDF and NBDA. The Committee endorses the selection of the Training Providers evaluated by the Technical Committee; and
  • HRDF Selection Process - The proposed courses are submitted to HRDF for their internal selection process and successful applications shall be directed to the Secretariat (ADAX in 2017; NBDA in 2018) for registration process in the INBASE System. (INBASE is one of the strategic initiatives under HRDF where pool funds are awarded for Value Added Programmes identified by the Sectorial Training Committees  to support the national agenda to attain a 35% Malaysian skilled workforce by Year 2020.)

What role did the Big 4 Accounting firm play in the whole process?

Sharala: As mentioned before Ansys Sdn Bhd is the private partner in the public private partnership with MDEC to operationalise ADAX. Doing a public project for the first time Ansys wanted to ensure appropriate governance is in place. Therefore engaged a Big 4 Accounting firm to do an internal review with the objective to improve and strengthen the governance framework and internal controls of the ADAX project on a continuous basis. They have just completed their review and we are in the midst of implementing their recommendations.

 

Related Stories:
 
Sarawak set to become a data driven state
 
MDEC to spearhead bigger push for big data adoption in Malaysia
 
Boosting the data talent pool

 

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