HR & EDUCATION | Contributed Content, Singapore
Vivek Kumar

Dealing with ambiguity: The new talent currency for Singapore professionals?


Machine learning and artificial intelligence are all around us now, from computers which identify and sort our email spams, to ‘DeepFace’ of Facebook which identifies faces with 97.25% accuracy, to self-driving cars on Singapore roads.

In such an environment, what kind of skills would a high value job of 2020 look for?

Admittedly, the answer is complex.

As the recent World Economic Forum report 2016 highlighted, 25% of top skills for jobs we are doing today in ASEAN could change by 2020.

The Labour Movement is working with various groups to identify the emerging future jobs and future skills. For example, with professional associations/guilds – U Associates as we call them, across sectors. And, also with U Circle of Friends of the Labour Movement – C-suite leaders at large companies at the cutting edge of change.

Many future readiness skills emerged from these discussions.

But one 'mindset' was most frequently mentioned – an ability to deal with ambiguity. And to be particularly excited about doing so consistently.

Why are global businesses increasingly looking for talent with such a unique mindset?

A. Speed and non-predictability of change: The regional managing director of one of the largest global social media networks shared his experience – when he was setting up the regional HQ in Singapore, he barely had a sense of the emerging landscape. It was a new company in a new industry, with no rules of the trade firmed up.

He needed people who could foresee where the next challenge would come from and articulate the challenge, not just those who were ready to implement the solution. He started the HQ with a small group of such people and now they have hundreds of high-value jobs in Singapore.

B. Global need for such talent: Creativity in overcoming challenges is the most serious shortcoming identified by executives in new and potential hires – most keenly felt in Asia and Latin America.

In the Global Talent Index – Outlook to 2015 report, released by the Economist Intelligence Unit and Heidricks & Struggles, interviewees were quite candid. "The rarest personality traits," said Karl-Heinz Oehler, vice-president of global talent management at the Hertz Corporation, "are resilience, adaptability, intellectual agility, versatility – in other words, the ability to deal with a changing situation and not get paralysed by it."

C. Develop an 'Asian lens': As most of the CEOs on our panel concurred, a Singapore-only experience doesn't guarantee us an 'Asian Lens'. The region around us is not uniformly developed. As the Asian century dawns, it is critical we develop a better understanding of Asia by having some experience working in cities around us in South East Asia, China, or India.

It is not an easy or risk-free decision to opt for a role in another country. At a recent survey shared by Willis Towers Watson at the SHRI Outlook 2016, Singapore now tops the salaries in the Asia-Pacific region. The gap with developing countries is less pronounced at the C-suite level, but the salary gap widens considerably at the mid-level and junior professional levels.

Although taking into account Purchase Power Parity the salary gaps would look less dramatic, a decision to make a move to a developing country may mean a loss of income in the short term. 

Yet, an ability to survive at a workplace in another country shows a remarkable resilience. Many C-suite leaders in Singapore today have such an overseas experience and it presents them in good light when they're being considered for senior regional/global roles in Singapore. A good example is Fabian Wong, who led Philips in Taiwan & Greater China before he was appointed CEO of Philips in ASEAN last year.

As an individual, an ability to deal with ambiguity may mean future relevance.

Picking-up a new hobby, learning music, or putting ourselves out of our comfort zone frequently could be rather critical. MIT Technology Review recently shared that the human brain processes the visual stimulus with a deep-learning algorithm, which is similar to machine learning. However, humans also use higher forms of cognitive function, in order to interpret.

So, if we are approaching a new landscape in a state of creative flux and ambiguity, human beings have a real advantage to ace in such new situations with limited datapoints. If we can will a mindset shift in ourselves to make us excited about dealing with ambiguity, it could be an invaluable asset for us in the future. 


The views expressed in this column are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect this publication's view, and this article is not edited by Singapore Business Review. The author was not remunerated for this article.

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Vivek Kumar

Vivek Kumar

Vivek is Director of U Associate & U Future Leaders programmes, National Trades Union Congress. He is the Honorary Chairman of Chief Marketing Officer (CMO) Council in Asia-Pacific and keynote speaker at industry conferences around the region.

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