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Businesses and Governments Must Become Future-Ready to Truly Reap the Benefits of Disruptive Technology
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At the Oracle OpenWorld Asia 2019, DTA got to hear from global and regional business and thought leaders, entrepreneurs, innovators, and shapers our tech- and data-driven future. At the event, we jumped on the opportunity to interview one of the esteemed speakers, Datuk Yasmin Mahmood, for the first time since she stepped down as the CEO of MDEC in January. She was gracious enough to share what she has been up to as well her views on where the enterprise tech industry in the region is headed.

According to Datuk Yasmin, besides taking on the role of Managing Director for FutureReady Consulting Sdn Bhd, for the past few months, she has invested in a few technology ventures in Indonesia, assuming an advisory role in these companies. Additionally, she’s serving as an adviser to countries and international companies throughout the world have also sought her insights into digital transformation and implementation.

These engagements include an invitation to be a permanent member of the Digital Kazakhstan Advisory Board which is chaired by the country’s Prime Minister. In February 2019, she had also shared her ideas with the Prime Ministers of Kazakhstan, Russia, Belarus, Kyrgyzstan and Armenia at the Eurasian Economic Union forum; together with other thought leaders from countries such as the United Kingdom, USA and France. On April 1st, she was appointed Chairman of Pos Malaysia Berhad, Malaysia’s national postal service provider.

The Importance of Becoming “Future-Ready”

Speaking on technology, she pointed out the fact that we are currently in the midst of a revolution. Technology is changing the rules of business and disruption is becoming the norm. This will accelerate very rapidly and business leaders need to absorb, understand and adapt or be left behind. She added that advanced technologies such as Artificial Intelligence (AI), Machine Learning and Advanced Analytics are underpinning seismic shifts in how business is done.

“Technology is finally allowing us to identify underutilised resources and make them available to people so that they can “share” them,” she said. Sharing technology enables more sustainable use of idle resources, cost reductions, and instant business matching. One such example is ride-sharing, which is causing disruption in traditional taxi services. Grab and Airbnb are sharing economy companies that have rewritten the rules of entire industries across the globe.

“They have done so in amazingly short time periods. This pace of change is only going to accelerate. No industry is immune and the greatest risk to your business may no longer be your competition. It could literally be a group of smart programmers about to launch an app that could rewrite how your business is done,” she explained.

The revolution has meant that technology is no longer the backroom support for business. Technology is business. However, Datuk Yasmin commented that these new technologies and the change they bring don’t come without concern – some people are likely to feel affected or threatened and so will resist.

Datuk Yasmin admitted that she is “passionate about technology”. She went on, “Everyone will be impacted by it, and so, organisations – big and small – need to “future proof” their business. As I alluded to earlier, these latest technologies empower the digital economy, and it further reinforces the notion that they should not be underestimated or disregarded.”

As such, she recommends that businesses must be immersed with anyone, or all, of these influential factors to ensure their technology offerings are future-proof and able to take on these seismic shifts that the world is now experiencing. “The use of advanced technologies will be vital, and, thus, it is only appropriate that businesses step up their efforts to spur digital transformation from within at all levels,” she added.

Disrupt, Or Be Disrupted

Nevertheless, futureproofing covers a broad stroke of processes that mostly rely on engaging the ‘digital native’ (the younger generation who grew up with the internet). That one aspect alone, she said, is a necessity as it will enable businesses to be more aware and highly relatable to the ever-changing landscape that on-going and soon-to-come disruptions have brought about.

Datuk Yasmin explained, “Having such engagements in mind will give rise to the interest or, perhaps, instantly spur many towards transforming how they operate to make it more technologically inclusive and be fully prepared for the oncoming wave of disruptions. This is, essentially, a crucial factor for businesses to keep in mind as they study and figure out what is needed for futureproofing.”

Understanding the digital native certainly goes above and beyond deploying new technologies and enhancing how the workforce operates. In fact, she said that the two inter-linked functions would only work when more start to understand and embrace the need to become digitally enabled, not just from a business perspective but in how they go about their daily activities as well.

Automation is one way to future-proof this sector, which is why manufacturers must step up. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) noted that Asia is the global leader in employing robots for manufacturing, at 65 per cent of global usage led by China, South Korea and Thailand. Other Asian countries must follow suit.

Datuk Yasmin singled out automation as a vital component of digitisation and companies that are open to employing the latest technologies to automate their various processes will stand to profit from greater profitability, productivity and operational efficiencies.

For these reasons, she’s always one to encourage local companies to start embarking on their digital transformation journey if they haven’t done so already. “At the end of the day, the way forward is for businesses to embrace the idea of being disruptive and not be disrupted,” she added.

Disruptive Tech Will Bring About Positive Impact, Eventually

Currently, there are many buckets of technology, both in the digital world (such as AI, IoT, AR, VR) and in the physical world (bioscience, material science) that are so disruptive and are enabling capabilities that were imagined as fiction ten years ago.  But the one which Datuk Yasmin feels will become mainstream and will have the most pervasive impact is artificial intelligence (AI).

She believes that the widespread adoption of AI will bring about a net positive impact. “I’m a very optimistic person; but also, if you look at previous revolutions of the past, when horse carriages were overtaken by cars, for instance, it created a whole new industry. Car manufacturers directly, but also in terms of roads that were built, new property developments that were created, and we became more productive, more inventive, and our lives were eventually made much better as a result of that completely disruptive revolution.”

That said, the interim period could be painful. The Great Depression actually started from the fact that people who were owning horse stables could not pay their loans, and then the whole banking system came down.

To drive the point home, Datuk Yasmin shared that predictions state that up to 54% of current jobs will be made redundant by 2030 as a result of AI adoption. But on the flipside, 400 million to 800 million jobs would be created. “So at what end of the stick are we going to be? Are we going to be at the net negative or net positive? Answer: It depends on how we pivot.”

Datuk Yasmin does have some concern about the rate of AI adoption in Asia, including Malaysia, due to the resistance of adopting technology in general. “Recently, I was in a meeting with a Malaysian company who’s one of the top names in the world when it comes to providing AI technology. In less than three years they were in 20 countries, but they have more business in Europe and Australia than in Malaysia,” she said.

Closing the Digital Skills Gap

To prepare local companies and workforce for a more digital, tech-savvy future, she mentioned that there are a few areas that need to be considered, such as talent development. “How we approach the re-skilling of older workers who may be affected by technological disruption is something really very crucial.”

In developing countries like Malaysia, something as fundamental as the lack of connectivity could also be a drawback for businesses that are looking to innovate and be future-ready. But things are looking up as governments become more aware of the importance of laying the right technological foundations.

Again, citing Malaysia as an example, Datuk Yasmin commented on how the Minister of Multimedia and Communication has come out very strongly to say that Internet connectivity is the fuel of this industry; like electricity during the Industrial Age. “He has made it clear that it is a basic human right, and he is looking into making this into a constitutional reform,” she added.

In terms of systemic and structural changes, Datuk Yasmin believes that everything begins and ends with education, and “there is a lot of discussions right now about how you reform education for this new world”.

She then shared that the current consensus on this matter revolves around two aspects:

  • The first is about teaching kids to think; it’s about Higher-Order Thinking Skills or problem-solving skills. If we teach kids how to solve problems, and how to be creative – how to be passionate about – solving problems, that would be a big bet that is in the right direction.
  • The other part is about exposing kids – and everybody, in fact – to programming or coding. This teaches people to look into the problem and create the algorithms to solve it. And what it does is it gives this whole concept of thinking skills and apply it to today. Things like algorithms, sequencing, and debugging; those are skills that are still relevant until today.

In universities, Datuk Yasmin has also worked to bring more relevant curricula. “That is also a challenge,” she said, “because things are actually changing so fast, and what can you do about rapid accreditation? If it takes 1 year to accredit a course, it’s going to be too late in our world.”

All said, Datuk Yasmin stressed the importance of the young in ensuring that the Southeast Asian region is a beneficiary of the AI revolution should be a top priority for governments. “The young are going to be leading the world when the time comes. The young are the ones with the right; they are the digital natives; they are so comfortable with this.”

“How do we help them to not just be consuming, but also producing? How do we prepare them to always be ahead of the curve, as opposed to behind the curve? It will be the young who will actually do this.”

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