The pandemic has forced CIOs to rethink their roles as businesses shift gears from digital transformation to digital acceleration.

Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, all eyes have been on the CIO, and how they are helping companies and employees transition to different working arrangements – with minimal impact to business operations, productivity, culture and employee morale.

A 2020 IDC research found that business leaders in Asia Pacific (excluding Japan) expected 38% of their revenues to be generated from digitally enabled products, services, and customer experiences – up from 21%.

This means that CIOs now have a bigger mandate to build a sustainable, resilient digital infrastructure that could leverage data and AI solutions. On top of that, they must also be able to work together with other CXOs, who are becoming increasingly invested in tapping on and adopting digital solutions, to cater to new patterns of demand from customers.

In the last 12 months, Jimmy Yeoh, Chief Information Officer, DHL Express Asia Pacific has led the charge in equipping thousands of employees to work remotely while driving the company’s digital acceleration in the region with the launch of several initiatives.

He shares with DigiconAsia how his priorities have shifted and how his role has transformed since the pandemic, as well as the new dynamics of working with other CXOs in the organization.

How has the CIO’s role transformed over the last couple of years?

Yeoh: It goes without saying that the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted all aspects of the business, effectively forcing each and every function to adapt to the ‘new normal’. In fact, digitalization has now become top of mind, as businesses roll out digital tools and applications in record time to ensure business continuity.

From previously advocating digitalization and recommending multi-year digital projects, CIOs now find themselves in a position where they need to work together with other CXOs and functions to accelerate adoption and integrate digital systems quickly.

This means CIOs no longer just have to look at making sure digital is not an afterthought, they must also ensure that digital brings about positive business value in response to the pandemic.

Today’s CIOs not only need to “keep the lights on” by ensuring employees are well-equipped to work from home, they must also have a strategic vision of the business as well as share the responsibility of enhancing customer and employee experience.

What critical changes did you experience in your role as CIO in the last 12 months?

Yeoh: I must say that it was our ability to work together to respond and adapt very quickly to the pandemic by adopting digital technologies so that our services remain undisrupted.

In the last 12 months, DHL Express saw a surge in shipment volume as a result of an increase in adoption of cross-border e-commerce. Coupled with challenges such as movement restrictions and nationwide lockdowns in some countries across the Asia Pacific region, we needed to ensure that we continue to provide timely deliveries and quality customer service to the best of our ability.

For example, overnight, we had to set up an offshore operations center to minimize impact of these restrictions on our operations. Across Asia Pacific, we had to make arrangements so that our employees could either work from home and/or alternate remote working environments.

Thanks to the swift action of our team of committed IT specialists, we were able to reconfigure our global IT network and applications to allow close to 19,000 employees in the region (excluding China) to be able work remotely from any location. But we might sometimes forget that this overnight transition is unprecedented and definitely not an easy feat. This requires ongoing maintenance, fine-tuning and upgrading of systems to ensure that employees can work effectively remotely.

We also fast-tracked our adoption and rollout of technologies, such as live chat digital assistants and robotics to support our customer experience operations teams. This was only achievable due to the collaborative effort between the IT/digital team and all the other functions – be it for customer service or operations.

I think the other critical change for me was seeing how IT has become a critical partner for the business and not just a support function. We need to ensure that as we focus on business continuity against the backdrop of COVID-19, we also constantly think about leveraging digital technologies and harnessing data to help us become more efficient, productive as well as make the workplace a better one.

How has leading the charge in equipping thousands of employees to work remotely impacted DHL Express’s digital transformation in Asia Pacific?

Yeoh: The pandemic has shown us that new capabilities can be introduced within a short time when everyone is open to embracing change, works with a positive mindset and collaboratively to solve a problem. The willingness to experiment and try out new things and sometimes fail fast is a good example and model for how we have accelerated digital adoption in our organization.

What are some digital initiatives DHL Express has launched recently in the region?

Yeoh: Digitalization has always been our priority so the transition to remote working was not all that difficult, thanks to our team of dedicated IT experts.

In fact, the transition has propelled our team across all functions to think “digital” and “virtual” first. This includes making sure we are able to remain connected and collaborative, even without facetime.

Across the Deutsche Post DHL group, we plan to digitally connect all 570,000 employees and upgrade everyone to a digital “smart workspace”, supporting agile collaboration on projects. We are also investing over €2 billion on digital transformation projects from 2021 to 2025 to improve the experience of customers and employees, while also increasing operational excellence. The same goes for DHL Express, where we have relaunched a mobile app to keep our colleagues connected and updated. We are also migrating to smart digital tools and applications to support digital, agile collaboration on documents and projects.

In addition to live chat digital assistants and robotics, we have also digitized our HR process by automating recruitment, allowing digital onboarding, and enhancing the training process. We are constantly looking at implementing technological innovations that are relevant and sensible for our customers, employees and operations, by paying attention to our customer feedback.

What are some insights you can share on working together with other CXOs, who are also driving the digital agenda for the organization?

Yeoh: As the role of the CIO evolves to share more responsibilities in enhancing other functions, it is crucial to remain close to the business and understand its direction, short- and long-term priorities.

This also requires the CIO to have a strong relationship with the other CXOs by regularly communicating with them and being present across the business functions. This would enable the CIO to fully grasp the business needs, challenges and opportunities, to develop meaningful innovative solutions.

In your opinion, how should organizations in Asia Pacific prioritize their digital investments in the next 12 months as businesses start to recover from the effects of the pandemic?

Yeoh: The last 12 months has disrupted many of the established practices of face-to-face meetings, business travel, physical audits, site surveys, customer meetings and social engagements that were necessary for effective collaboration and building trust between employees.

There is a need to develop a new digital collaboration environment to support new ways of working to substitute these in-face interactions.

With the new norm and safety considerations arising from the pandemic, the ageing workforce and increasing labor costs, there is urgency to accelerate investments in automation across operational processes, data analytics and experimentation to leverage robotics, machine learning and artificial learning.

However, speed of implementation is key here as multi-year integration programs are often exhausting, yet yield little value. CIOs need to work together with the business to find where the gaps are and what drives value in order to make targeted and necessary investments.