Digital talent as the platform to manage digital disruption

There has been a lot of talk in Singapore about the Smart Nation initiative. But the question is, who is going to make this happen?

Game-Changer - Chan MengIt is certainly not the government, asserted Khoong Chan Meng, Director & CEO, Institute of Systems Science (ISS), National University of Singapore. The government is definitely an enabler of technology since technological developments have to occur within the framework of policies and regulations. However, the responsibility does not lie solely on the government; it has to involve the whole society -- people have to be willing to leverage and make the best of these smart innovations.

Therefore, the platform that really matters is digital talent, and they are the ones who can bring about this transformation. "Without digital talents in your company, organisations can have the best physical platforms and best products, but they will not go very far before they are again disrupted," Khoong said.

What exactly is a digital talent?

A common mistake made is the assumption that digital talent is equal to information technology (IT) professionals.

"Digital talent is something found in everyone. What this means is that everyone in the current generation we are living in, are being exposed to all things digital - they are digitally exposed and digitally comfortable. All they need is a small nudge and they will be able to harness this digital potential in them," explained Khoong.

For example, a sales person or a finance person can harness this digital potential and leverage technology to help them in their work, which might not necessarily be directly related to the work they are doing. But this would help to make their work easier. Increasingly, many entrepreneurs and startups don't call themselves tech startups. But the main ingredient that they have is very much the digital savviness that they have.

These are the digital talents. It is not about what knowledge they have, but what they do with the knowledge that they have, Khoong asserted.

So for example, "they should have this savviness about being able to find, process or share data -- and it is not just a numeracy skill, or knowing how to crunch numbers. The ability to handle data is an important digital skill," Khoong shared.

"And underlying this technological and data savviness, there is, very fundamentally, this ability to solve problems and develop a creative solution out of them," he said.

The importance of value creation in age of changing notion of jobs

One important quality of a digital talent is that he has to be able to find new ways of value creation, not just value addition, according to Khoong. It should not just be about automation or making something faster -- this new value has be a quantum leap for the customers.

This is important because the fundamental notion of jobs will change, in the sense of a paradigm shift. As we move forward 10 to 20 years, there may come a day when we no longer talk about jobs or careers -- we only talk about the ways in which work can be done.

Gaming is something that is going through a paradigm shift, but it is not because of the creation of the game itself. Rather, it is the fact that this experience called gaming is now finding its ways into different applications in the workplace, in schools and so on.

The digital talents are the ones who are now thinking of how they can use gaming to create new products, new experiences, and new business models.

How to develop a digital talent (as an IT leader)

With regards to how to develop a digital talent, Khoong said that we have to recognise that essentially every business is becoming a digital business. Therefore, as an educational institution, ISS is developing talents for all the industries out there.

This means that they have to see how, in those companies, businesses are being transformed, and as a result how their jobs are being transformed. Consequently, the skills that the employees need will also change.

But even as the skills required are changing, Khoong noted, the ways in which the employees learn those skills may also change.

It is now important to get people to learn by building and making things, instead of just listening to lectures and looking at PowerPoint slides. With hands-on learning, they get into the process of problem solving.

Back in their own organisations, they must have the culture of continuous learning, making things, and letting their employees explore and experiment with different ideas.

This is important because in many organisations, the era of the minimum management layer is gone. These are the managers who, instead of solving the problem, just outsource or delegate the work down to someone, and then they just manage the problem solver.

Currently, the layers in organisations that remain and which are valued, are the ones who create value -- and value creation requires problem solving.

What makes it difficult for an organisation to digitally transform?

Organisations can be constrained by a variety of factors, including lacking talents to allow them to do a paradigm shift to something very different, said Khoong.

They might also be facing short-term pressures, he added. For instance, organisations might want to maintain cash for short-term sustainability rather than investing in a long-term innovation. Sometimes, innovation requires an investment which has a fairly long and uncertain payback.

Another reason could be due to a sense of denial, that disruption is here and they are going to be disrupted, Khoong said. An example is Kodak. For about 150 years, Kodak had always felt that it was a front-runner for film photography. So although they invented digital photography, the company's management never let digital photography take over the traditional film business. It was always kept at the sides, while the company paid attention to the film business, which they decided was their crown jewel. But suddenly it fell off a cliff and by the time it happened, it was too late to rescue the digital business because many other companies have actually pushed ahead with digital photography.

In conclusion, Khoong asserted that throughout all the cycles of industrial revolution there has been disruption. It is not the first time that we are experiencing some kind of disruption. Therefore, we have to constantly keep in mind that this disruption is a constant, and we have to keep up with it by being prepared. This is why we have to think in depth about what future jobs are going to be like, and what the future skills landscape is going to be like as the platform to manage digital disruption.

This article was first published in on 10 Nov 2016.