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Commentary: Give workers permission to disrupt – one way Singapore businesses can accelerate digital transformation

Business leaders must shape an organisational culture that encourage workers to embrace digital transformation, says Randstad’s Clarence Quek.

Commentary: Give workers permission to disrupt – one way Singapore businesses can accelerate digital transformation

Office professionals at work. (File photo: Unsplash/Mimi Thian)

SINGAPORE: Singaporeans are scared of failing even at a very young age.

The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) test found that three in four Singaporean students grapple with a fear of failure.

As much as 78 per cent of our 15-year-olds see failure as a frightful scenario that could scuttle their plans for the future.

As we get older, we unknowingly carry this same fear into our working lives.

Many of us have experienced our job scope shifting with rapid advancements in technology and evolving demands. But automation and digitisation have frozen some people in panic mode, wondering if their jobs will be at risk.

READ: Commentary: The fear of failure cannot help Singapore reach our best

READ: Companies hunt for talent as Singapore tech sector continues to grow

According to a 2019 Randstad Workmonitor survey, about half of respondents expect that their jobs will be automated within the next 10 years and worry about being made redundant.

How do workers get over this fear and be prepared for the future? How can firms help workers embrace digital transformation instead of being held back by a fear of failing?


First, instead of seeing digitalisation as a destination, workers and companies will benefit if they see digital transformation as a journey with multiple pit stops. Organisations will have to constantly review and realign their objectives to meet future needs.

(Photo: Unsplash/Dylan Nolte)

Having an online website or a social media account does not complete that journey. Neither does downloading Slack without effectively using it for collaboration and greater productivity.

Building a culture that drives innovation demands renewed thinking regarding strategy and a mindset change. Business leaders will have to relook their fundamental framework of how they work and operate.


One common refrain we hear is how much a data-driven culture can power digital transformation but simply acquiring more information is rarely sufficient.

Organisations on a digital transformation journey often collect large amounts of employee and customer data, which can indeed be a potent new source of new business opportunities.

But in order to realise these benefits, firms must marry these with new skills in their employees – in using data to draw insights and discern actionable improvements to the delivery of goods and services by a firm.

Companies must also empower their employees to use and make sense of data to disrupt and drive change. Employees should be expected to use data-driven trends and insights to make informed and smart decisions to drive outcomes.

READ: Commentary: Why aren’t more Singapore businesses transforming? Mindsets aren’t the key obstacle

Workers in Singapore's CBD. (File photo: Sutrisno Foo) People cross a street in Singapore's central business district. (Photo: Sutrisno Foo)

The influence of data analysis skills will reach new heights in 2020. 

The Udemy’s 2020 Workplace Learning Trends Report indicated that advances in data science will allow the most adaptable organisations to work smarter and more efficiently, in many sectors including engineering, marketing, finance and cybersecurity, further demonstrating that the demand for data-related skills is not just limited to one particular sector.

We should expect to see the creation of hybrid roles across all levels of seniority, which will require employees to have a good mix of such technical skills along with the traditional need for business acumen.

READ: Commentary: The future is tech but where is Singapore’s engineering and IT talent?

For instance, 75 per cent of locally-based employers we engaged with mentioned they want to hire strong product sales managers, who will no longer focus on revenue and how fast they can meet business goals but also be able to measure granular metrics such as duration of a sales life-cycle, conversion rate and average margin per sale to improve productivity and chart their own progress.

In a tight labour market, the most successful businesses will be the ones that can build a team of skilled employees who have market awareness and can develop new solutions to generate higher and more meaningful revenue.

But do firms invest in training to prepare workers to adapt to new tasks and take on new roles?


Because digital transformation is a journey, firms must also develop a roadmap that allows innovation to flourish and guides the training agenda.

A man in an office. (Photo: Pixabay/StockSnap)

A company’s culture and appetite for change can often be a powerful driver, with middle to senior-level executives the navigators who can chart new ground for the company.

Senior executives should be developing long-term strategies that drive innovation and give their employees a useful framework within which innovation is nurtured and encouraged.

However, many leaders are swamped with resolving pressing business challenges and simply do not have enough time to think about making pragmatic changes.

This cannot be the case. If leaders want to disrupt, they must embrace new ways of working that catalyse idea generation and fast-track innovation.

They will also need to empower and trust their teams to make fast decisions that can help them achieve their desired targets within a preset risk framework.

Leaders who are seen as shakers and movers include Mondelez, a fast-moving consumer goods company, which has piloted 11 cross-functional teams to drive innovation in key categories, including a SnacksFuture hub. 

Big Pharma group CVS has an innovation centre that operates like a start-up that tests and implements new concepts including its new SMS messaging service which has since reduced the number of phonecalls to their pharmacists.

FILE PHOTO: People walk by a CVS Pharmacy store in the Manhattan borough of New York City, New York, U.S., November 30, 2017. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton

To drive these innovations, it is not uncommon for companies to hire highly-skilled executives with professional experiences in business management. These individuals are very highly sought-after because of their ability to build products that can meet future consumer needs.

But it is not always about bringing in new talent or setting up incubator teams. There are more fundamental changes to organisational structure and culture companies need to implement to drive change.

READ: Commentary: The next frontier for Southeast Asia's growth? Digital skills

Moncler, an Italian apparel company, took a bold step to shift away from seasonal collections and towards fresh monthly collections, a move rarely seen in the high-fashion scene.

With 12 campaigns a year instead of just two, Moncler re-organised their offices to comprise cross-functional teams and ensured collaboration and inclusivity.

Instead of a top-down approach, the organisational hierarchy moved towards shared leadership and responsibility, where people across all levels were empowered to execute initiatives.

Singapore celebrities attend the 2 Moncler 1952 + Valextra launch party. (Photo: nonlinear)

This approach has been adapted by companies in other industries as it promotes creativity and innovation. With more autonomy and flexibility, employees can develop new products and solutions and drive incremental innovation.


There are many uncertainties when organisations tackle digital transformation but one thing is clear: If you keep to old ways of doing things, turn down risky ideas or enforce multilayer approvals, no amount of talent can drive change and disrupt. 

How do you know you have an innovation culture? Look around. Do your people work well together? Are there new ideas germinating over recent months because of cross-functional collaboration? Are they recognised and rewarded when collaboration breeds results?

READ: Commentary: In this tough job market, retraining alone is no silver bullet

READ: Commentary: Career Mobility is the new Career Stability

For digital transformation to take place, employers need to relook the fundamental ways in which their employees carry out their roles to meet targets.

Having a collaborative environment and strong leadership support are critical ingredients in ensuring a progressive journey towards building a more innovative and creative culture. 

Instead of hiring from outside to drive transformation, business leaders should tap on current employees. These are the people familiar with the firm’s products, services and partnerships.

(Photo: Unsplash/CoWomen)

Start by helping them increase their appetite for change and risk through experimentation and providing adequate support when necessary.

While it is common to face some inertia, especially by long-serving staff, these are expected transition costs to be born in the push towards building an organisation that embraces change.

Digital transformation isn’t just about adopting new technologies or hiring a brand new team of millennials with new skills.

It’s about ensuring that you have a team of employees with the requisite skills ready and empowered to drive change, who are given the permission to disrupt and do not fear failing.

Clarence Quek is a Senior Client Solutions Director at Randstad Singapore specialising in human capital solutions for Information Technology companies and start-up firms in Singapore.

Source: CNA/sl


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