How APAC organizations have responded to crises via digital transformation, and the impact on workers and the workplace.

A recent study by Cognizant titled The Work Ahead reveals that, while most Asian businesses were quick to respond to the pandemic — compressing many long-term digital projects into the space of weeks and months — and are therefore emerging stronger from the pandemic, many companies and their employees felt its negative impact.

According to the study, businesses in APAC and the Middle East have reached a point of clarity in terms of the real purpose of digital tools and made great strides in understanding what the human-machine balance of work should be.

To understand the changing nature of work, commerce and success in this new reality, Cognizant’s Center for the Future of Work surveyed 4,000 senior executives across Asia Pacific and the Middle East, with 120 from Singapore. The objective of the study was to gain insights into how organizations worldwide are gearing up for the second act of digital transformation and why Asia seems to be leading the charge.

“Companies in the region are leveraging machines to free up human workers to do what humans do best: innovate, make decisions and lead their companies out of this crisis and through future challenges,” said Manish Bahl, author of the report and Associate Vice President for Cognizant’s Center for the Future of Work – Asia Pacific.

“By meeting the greater ambitions of what it means to enable human-machine work, they stand to learn much more from one another than from the West and provide an example to the rest of the world of how the future of work will unfold.”

DigiconAsia discusses some of the key findings of the report with its author:

Manish Bahl, Associate Vice President, Center for the Future of Work – APAC, Cognizant

In ‘The Work Ahead’ report, you mention that organizations in APAC and the Middle East are setting the example for the rest of the world in adapting the workplace in response to crises. How is that so?

Manish: We found that Asia-Pacific organizations were quick to respond to the crisis by accelerating their digital initiatives and compressing many long-term digital projects into the space of weeks and months, putting them in a better position to emerge stronger from the pandemic.

Digital ways of working and behaving, forged and refined in the heat of battle against COVID-19, will not be “put back in the box”. The difference for Asia is that it has come through crises before ― be it the 2008 global financial crisis or the 2003 SARS outbreak ― and emerged stronger.

Only 33% of Asia-Pacific companies in our study believe the virus will have a large to very large impact on their business performance in the long term.

We’re near the end of the first quarter of a new year, and 2021 still looks uncertain for many businesses. How is the nature of work changing, and is there a clear shift from jobs to tasks? What does that mean for enterprises in APAC?

Manish: Of any technology, AI will have the most significant impact on work, according to 93% of APAC respondents – versus 89% in North America and Europe.

AI alone won’t cut it. Rather than relying solely on AI and automation for the work ahead, businesses must blend and extend the strengths of humans ― innovation, decision-making, judgment, leadership, etc. ― with the capabilities of machines ― accuracy, endurance, computation, speed, etc. ― to create a partnership to achieve business goals.

The future of work demands an acute focus on the relationship between humans and machines: how the two will collaborate, and how the current workforce and the business itself will adapt to AI. The era of human-machine collaboration is already here, and companies must be prepared.

We found that 65% of companies in Asia Pacific do not clearly understand the difference between “jobs” and “tasks”. To create the future of work based on humans and machines, companies will have to adopt a task-based approach towards work. They will have to deconstruct jobs into tasks and identify which tasks are best performed by humans versus machines.

The next time you read a fear-mongering headline, try replacing the word “job” with the word “tasks”. You’ll see that it’s not whole jobs being automated but certain aspects of the job. That’s why we predict that 75% of work will be augmented ― not obliterated ― by intelligent machines.

Wave goodbye to repetitive tasks that no one wants to do (think, form-filling) and welcome with open arms the kind of work that deserves that prime spot on our LinkedIn page ― brainstorming, complex problem-solving, ideation, and so on.

What are the skills that businesses in the region will find most desirable in workers over the coming years?

Manish: Human skills are required to take maximum advantage of machines. Decision-making, strategic thinking and learning will become the top three most important skills in 2023. These skills are best performed when workers are supported by the insights generated by AI and data analytics, and freed by intelligent automation from performing rote and repetitive work.

Increasingly, the human role will become more focused on what gets done with data-driven insights, which requires a renewed focus on decision-making and strategic thinking. Imagine a machine taking over the underwriting work in the insurance industry and agents and frontline workers spending more time with customers.

The work ahead requires humans to double-down on human-centric skills to make the best use of machine-driven insights. As the future of work unfolds, what makes us human is what will make us employable.

How should APAC organizations prepare for and invest in the right digital-age skillsets?

Manish: The biggest challenge for organizations is their lack of ability to prepare the workforce with the right skillsets.

Preparing the current and future workforce with relevant skills requires a reboot of traditional, decades-old training and learning models and approaches. With so much at stake, it’s essential for learning to move from a responsibility of L&D (learning and development) and HR departments to a key agenda point for boardroom discussions so that concrete decisions can be made.

The future of work is the mirror image of the future of learning.

Companies should leverage AI technologies to reboot the century-old factory model of training. AI will make training (and learning) personalized. What if every employee has a personal AI assistant software to guide them about their learning needs, customize content according to an individual’s learning appetite, and make learning fun and not a compliance requirement?