Digitization calls for ‘massive investment in retooling of workers’

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SINGAPORE — Men and women in suits rushed to meeting rooms at the Capella Singapore.

The venue was vintage Singapore — a blast from the late 1800 era as the Capella hotel was built around two colonial structures, actually former military buildings that were restored.

But the agenda was everything but old: digitization.

They are actually senior executives — managers and directors from Thailand, Philippines, Malaysia, Japan and parts of Europe — about 40 of them, huddled for a lecture by the Lausanne-based International Institute for Management Development (IMD), as part of a five-day management course the business school holds twice a year in Singapore and Switzerland. The case study for that class was the story of DBS Bank’s successful digital transformation.

The Singapore-listed bank’s transformation was over half a decade in the making from 2009 and started with eliminating wastes from paper to customer time. It literally broke down barriers, dismantling traditional branches and making the bank nearly invisible by allowing customers to go around with the bank in their pockets. It meant cutting headcount to be replaced with leaner, central teams of about 15 people. The result was a bank that scales across regions with little investment, yet with high customer satisfaction scores — a lender unrecognizable from what it was about a decade ago.

DBS is a trailblazer in digital banking in this part of the world, and more are expected to follow suit.

Digitization and artificial intelligence (AI), despite their clear benefits, do have a downside: they are a threat to jobs in the region, the Asian Development Bank said.

However, judging by the attendance at IMD’s management classes, Asian executives are embracing the shift, reconciling their old-school mind-sets with those of the young millennials.

“I think the best ones [companies] will digitize quickly, especially when there’s exposure to international competition,” IMD President Jean-Francois Manzoni said in an interview.

The banking sector, as well as companies in the logistics and insurance industries, is likely to adopt fast, capitalizing on data analytics most of them have been using in the past decades.

“Asian economies tend to be younger. There are lots of reasons this [digitization] will happen faster in Asia,” Mr. Manzoni said.

For workers at risk of losing jobs to AI, it’s not all doom and gloom. Google, for instance, has been testing driverless cars, but the trucking industry is still alive.

“Drivers do not just drive,” the IMD executive pointed out. “While some jobs will be lost, jobs in other areas will be created as well.”

That’s where government help must come in.

“There’s a need for massive investment in retooling of workers,” Mr. Manzoni said.

“There are some generations with a digital disadvantage… we need to have investments,” he said, noting that learning is “not a matter of age” as there are people in their 80s who still want to learn.

“At some point, it becomes a national issue how to make people retool,” Mr. Manzoni added.

Countries that “do not help youngsters to be prepared for the world” and say that “they’re too old to retool” risk having their citizens “falling by the wayside,” fanning labor discontent.

Wealthy Singapore, with its lifelong learning investment fund, provides the template its Asian peers can emulate, he added.