Forget about unicorns; you need to be a Flying Elephant to win in the 21st century

  • Many unaware of fine balance between tech & enhancing data literacy skills
  • MyDigital will need traits of Perseverance & Ingenuity to see through success

Forget about unicorns; you need to be a Flying Elephant to win in the 21st centuryFrom time to time, Malaysians will hear these big, hairy and audacious announcements –

of our Harimau Malaya football team reaching the World Cup by 2014, the hunt for the first elusive Olympic Gold in this century, the vision to become a high-income nation by 2020 and even transforming to be the next Global Halal Hub player.  In 1997, we dreamt of making Cyberjaya and Putrajaya the nexus of our Multimedia Super Corridor, Malaysia's version of the Silicon Valley in the US.

Let's be honest to ourselves and ask if we have achieved any of these dreams?

The hard truth is – far from it.

Nevertheless, we all know that having dreams and grand visions is not wrong, nor expensive, to begin with. That is the main ingredient to bring a nation together to one common goal for the sake of unity, economic progress and even creating a real sense of patriotism. When President John F Kennedy made his iconic "We choose to go to the Moon" speech in 1962, he rallied the American public, private sector and the Government machinery to put the first man on the moon in 1969 (less than a decade of planning and execution!).

Today, many acknowledged that NASA's Apollo program started the Silicon Valley's tech revolution. The Industrial Revolution 3.0 era saw the rise of Microsoft, Bell Labs, Intel and tech talent such as Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Intel cofounders Gordon Moore (of Moore’s Law) and Robert Noyce.  

On Friday 19th Feb 2021, we welcomed the birth of another national blueprint launched by Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin. This time around, we are presented with the Malaysian Digital Economic Blueprint or MyDigital which aspires "to chart the path to strategically position ourselves as a competitive force in this new era."

As fellow Malaysians, we must realise that we have a stake in ensuring this blueprint will be successful when the rubber hits the road. A heartfelt congratulations to all those who have worked with dedication preparing this document in great depth and breadth to launch this timely agenda.

With one vision, six strategic thrusts, 22 strategies and 76 initiatives, we know that we have perfected the art of crafting blueprints and roadmaps. Even the snippets of messaging such as "To ensure no Malaysia is left behind" & Malaysia will lose out in the increasingly competitive global economy if we are not ready for change" will augur very well to readers who choose to digest the 102 page document from page to page.

We at CADS are very excited and truly blessed to be part of this exciting journey and consider the blueprint to be another journey to be taken by us. Various agencies such as MDEC, HRDF, Yayasan Peneraju Pendidikan Bumiputera, MTDC, MaGIC, Sirim, MBOT, Perkeso and JPA are constantly stepping up to be the change agents to enable industries and Malaysian individuals to benefit from digital transformation. Over the course of the past few years, we have worked with all of them, who have proven to be eager and excited to be moving the national digital needle.

Yet, as we all know, changing to adapt to digital is not easy. Infact, it is scary with some data showing that more than 80% of organisations fail at digital transformation.

We wish to offer our experience on how the nation can significantly improve its chance of success and avoid the same expensive mistakes of the past. Like nurturing a newborn, it will take patience and collective effort from the rest of the family members.

Political will from the top

The evolution of the nation's digital economy agenda will need to be continuously refined in specific dimensions to get the right formula of success, once and for all.  From our observation, unfortunately, many are still unaware that one of the main success factors in driving digital transformation is to strike a fine balance between adopting new technology and enhancing data literacy skills in the workforce.

In simple language, leaders at the top could be overwhelmed at the onset to reach the nirvana state of a Data Driven Organization (DDO).  Plus, how do you explain what a DDO is to a Chief Digital Officer of a billion-dollar revenue company that lasted less than four years in her role, or to a public listed tech company CEO that spent less than one month on the job before resigning; or to a senior civil servant who decided to take early retirement?

The point here being that such constant movement among civil servants who move from one ministry to another is detrimental to the nation's digital ecosystem as there will be no continuity in leadership or follow-through in digital initiatives.

On the contrary, we at CADS have successfully witnessed the fruits of success for some states in Malaysia that fully embrace the digital transformation across multiple agencies. Since 2018, the mandate given to us in our engagements with these states was very clear from the start – to help the states create and cultivate a robust data-driven culture contributing to their digital economy. 

With strong data governance now in place in these states, real-time data today are being analysed effectively even by non-degree holders to ensure the public delivery service is of world-class standards.

State officers transforming into Data Professionals with new critical skills in data storytelling and predictive analytics applied to various projects with no significant investment in new technology. We are proud to see that this Data Driven state culture has achieved a more sustainable outcome.

It was not all smooth sailing though. The biggest challenge these states faced were:

  • Highest level of civil servants making time to learn and understand the need to become a digital leader.
  • Getting the leaders to commit the team to attend upskilling training and critically –applying the lessons back at work.

We also take for granted the simplest things, that anyone can possess a laptop. Yet civil servants in the states we worked with only had desktops initially, which were available at the office. We found that providing a laptop for each individual instead of a PC helped to drive digitisation into the culture.

Forget about unicorns; you need to be a Flying Elephant to win in the 21st century

When we studied more than 100 different Malaysian organizations last year to gauge their maturity level to be a DDO, we were not surprised when we compiled the results. While most have kickstarted their digital transformation, many are still struggling to progress to a higher maturity level.

At CADS, we strongly believe that the MyDigital Blueprint must enable a nationwide digital transformation movement to create our very own Spotify, Airbnb, Google and Netflix.

Malaysian Companies Data Driven Maturity Level

Forget about unicorns; you need to be a Flying Elephant to win in the 21st centuryData Literacy – Quality vs Quantity

While Data is now the new oil in the IR4.0 era, we can all agree that humans will remain the greatest asset. In the blueprint, we are encouraged to see the new revised targets to develop professional digital talent, including 20,000 cybersecurity knowledge workers and 30,000 data professionals by 2025 that the Ministry of Human Resource (MOHR) will lead.

Let us not forget the importance of taking stock of the original target set in 2017 of 20,000 data professionals by 2020. While it is not clear on where we stand with regards to achieving that target, clearly, there is work to be done in Malaysia. As revealed in the 2020 Global Skills report by Coursera, Malaysian workforce skills in Technology and Data Science were recognised as being in the lagging and emerging categories respectively.

Continuous partnership with the industry  

We know very well that it is easier to criticize than participate constructively in a large scale transformation, especially at national level initiatives. The skeptics, unfortunately, are tired due to past transformation failures. That is understandable, but we firmly believe it is not healthy and productive for the country.

But to take the analogy of the blueprint to a newborn baby again, the serious partners amongst us in the industry will continue to play our role as the trusted partner with the Government.

That means mutual tough love throughout the journey must flourish to ensure that Malaysian companies, governments and individuals will benefit in the longer term and become a robust digital nation in the eyes of the world. We will need to continue to agree to disagree on many things, especially at this early phase of the blueprint rollout.

Forget about unicorns; you need to be a Flying Elephant to win in the 21st centuryThe creation of 500,000 new jobs by 2025, in our view, will need to be further stretched (given that on average, more than 100,000 jobs were created pre-pandemic annually). We wonder why the target is only to attract two Unicorns (homegrown or foreign) by 2025 and not 20 Home Grown Unicorns. And while the unicorn target is modest, yes, there is the vision to be a regional leader in the digital economy and achieve inclusive, responsible and sustainable socio-economic development.

The day before the launch of the MyDigital blueprint, NASA created another bit of history by landing its latest rover on Mars and bringing the first helicopter to another planet. The name of the rover and helicopter are Perseverance & Ingenuity. MyDigital will need both traits to see through the success of the blueprint this time.

Forget about the unicorn; you need to be a Flying elephant* to win in the 21st century.

*Flying elephant is a term coined by CADS for its Data Driven Organization™ maturity model.

Sharala Axryd is the founder/CEO of The Center of Applied Data Science (CADS), an Applied Analytics and Big Data company which developed its own Data Driven Organization™ maturity model to help clients with their digital journeys.

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