The push for digital transformation is touching every aspect of the business world, obliging companies to adapt, innovate and rethink their approach to operations and investment.
However, all this change is not just a matter of making best use of the latest technology by migrating to the cloud, exploring the potential of AI (artificial intelligence), or finding ways to incorporate robotics in a manufacturing process.
It also has far-reaching implications for the whole world of work in terms of everything from corporate structures and management strategies to skill requirements and future job creation. And if businesses — whatever the field — are to keep up and compete effectively, they must take a holistic view and be ready to act.
“Digital transformation is not just about technology, which is only the enabler,” says Alan Wong, managing director and country head of leading recruitment consultancy Kelly Services Hong Kong. “Companies have to reorganise themselves. They need to look at every area, become more agile, and understand the impact for employer and employees.”
As with any source of disruption, Wong acknowledges there are bound to be both upsides and downsides, depending on one’s perspective and prospects. Where a senior executive sees the chance for greater efficiency and lower costs, a worker is worrying about job security or redeployment.
And for all the optimistic talk of new business models in the digital economy and the opportunities they can bring for programmers, data scientists and the like, there are corresponding concerns about computers taking over and the resulting elimination of roles for clerks, administrators, bookkeepers, legal assistants, financial analysts, traders and more.
“Some of the repetitive, manual jobs will disappear in future, as well as some which require decision-making, for example in the financial markets, where technology can take over,” Wong says. “In view of that, employers need to reassess the skill sets and experience of their staff and how they are going to cope with the changes. They have to consider new strategies and realise that digital transformation is not just about buying in new technology to do work faster. It is also a question of planning how to work differently, being ready to provide training and supporting cultural change.”
That is something Wong emphasises in discussions with clients. Importantly, though, he is also putting the principle into practice with his own team.
“In our business, we make a point of talking about the impact of AI and technology,” he says. “When I first shared my thoughts with the team, they asked if there would still be a seat for them. I explained that technology would take the place of some back-office jobs and why employees everywhere need to re-skill, reform themselves and grow in their jobs. In a B2C business like ours, though, clients still want the ‘human touch’, and machines can’t create that.”
These days, he notes, if any company intends to transform through technology, two of the most crucial elements are training and communication. Employers should be aiming to develop a real learning culture, which goes well beyond simply sending staff on a series of training courses and assuming that’s enough.
Ideally, any kind of training should be interesting and fun, and everyone in the company ought to be involved, from top to bottom. There should be suitable focus on practical, problem-solving skills. And staff at every level should develop the ability to adapt quickly to different situations, whatever their main role or assignment.
“As a business leader at a time like this, you should also be looking to enhance communications,” Wong says. “Digital transformation is not just about efficiency, cutting costs or making machines do more. You need good communications to share your views and objectives. That doesn’t just mean talking about what’s good for shareholders, but what matters to employees too. That is often what makes the difference when it comes to winning in the marketplace.”
So, while Kelly Services is making use of a new system, programmes and data analysis to learn more about the preferences and habits of contractors and clients, they are also making a particular effort to re-skill staff in the communication aspect.
“We want them to be more customer-facing,” Wong says. “And companies in other sectors will also need to do more to connect with clients. A robot might be able to do the work of a loan officer in a bank, and people may think we have this technology and these platforms, so we don’t need to talk. But I still believe that most people value the human touch and, by adding that, you can really stand out from the crowd.”
When assessing the broader job market, Wong is encouraged to see that employers are putting more emphasis on soft skills when recruiting for IT and digital roles. It is not always easy to find candidates with the right technical skills, but at the end the day these can be learned.
Increasingly, therefore, hiring managers look first for people with good communication and problem-solving skills. They want to see candidates who can understand the business requirements, interpret instructions, and clearly explain what they are doing and why.
“In my view, digital transformation will lift productivity and enhance operational efficiency, but not everyone will benefit from it,” Wong says.
He notes, for instance, that demand in Hong Kong for IT professionals with specialist skills in, say, robotics is outpacing supply. As a result, employers — and the wider community — must take appropriate action to avoid being left behind.
“There is a lot companies can do about this,” Wong says. “But perhaps the government also needs some new policies to help train people for the new economy and to take care of those who may suddenly find themselves out of a job.”