Singapore’s 2021 budget is due to be unveiled in less than a month, and all eyes are on the measures to be announced. If last year’s budget measures — amounting to almost 20% ($92.9 billion) of the country’s GDP — were aimed at providing immediate relief from the pandemic, then this year’s budget will likely shape how the government plans to support businesses to emerge stronger from the pandemic. But what are companies after?
Changes in working environments, standard procedures and practices have forced businesses to take on a much more rapid digital-first approach to survive. ‘The Work Ahead: Asia Drives Digital’s Future’ report, based on a Cognizant survey of 1,200 business leaders across APAC and the Middle East, including 120 leaders in Singapore, sheds light on how businesses are reinventing operations to thrive against all odds.
Becoming Digital to the Core
Businesses in Singapore felt the impact of the pandemic the most across the region — 52% of them, compared to a regional average of 44%. COVID-19 acted as a watershed moment for businesses. They had to supercharge their digital strategies overnight, transitioning in days or weeks to work-from-home and online modes of working.
As a result, almost half of local firms (47%) agree that the pandemic accelerated the adoption of new, digital ways of working. They recognise that becoming digital to the core is key to a faster and stronger recovery. Further, local businesses are looking to generate 19% of their revenue from various digital channels by 2023, up from 11% today, representing the highest growth among all APAC countries.
In order to emerge stronger from the pandemic and meet these revenue targets, companies will have to construct the right mechanisms. The study reveals that according to local executives, the top three digital forces that will have a strong impact in helping them adapt are hyperconnectivity between machines, devices and people (48%), AI (47%), and process automation (40%).
The Hyperconnected Enterprise
COVID-19 is inhibiting connection between people, with governments imposing restrictions on the duration that employees can work in the office. During the pandemic, organisations have had to find new ways of enabling their workforces to stay connected. Already, 90% of local businesses have their employees working remotely, and almost half have employees using both personal and work devices to conduct business.
Organisations looking to drive stronger employee engagement outcomes must build out their IT infrastructure to facilitate this shift to hyperconnectivity for the long term. While incorporating the latest technologies such as 5G into IT stacks more extensively can resolve common employee pain points, business leaders should also prepare to address the risks that hyperconnectivity could bring.
Analysts already warn that Asia is the world’s surveillance hotspot, partly due to measures taken to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, and is at risk of serious privacy breaches. According to one study, 51% of Singapore organisations suffered at least one data breach or cybersecurity scare after shifting to a remote-working model. Indeed, hyperconnectivity will further heighten consumer and employee expectations, pushing organisations to optimise online experiences while ensuring they keep their data safe.
Working Smarter with AI
The rise of AI is intertwined with the growing adoption of automation and analytics, as businesses work to imbue these technologies with intelligence. By merging AI with analytics, organisations will improve data management, decision-making, and customer engagement.
Most recently, AI proved to be a major boon in the race for discovering the COVID-19 vaccine. By utilising AI-enabled systems, researchers were able to churn through years-worth of data to derive actionable insights on potential cures within months. In Singapore, some healthcare institutions are using AI to predict whether patients are likely to be fall-risks and allow management to take the necessary preventative measures.
From automating driverless cars and detecting digital threats, to predicting profitable market segments for specific products, AI’s potential has come far enough that it is only limited by human imagination. Companies who want to remain competitive in the future of work must learn to leverage AI to affect better problem-solving, prediction, and analysis throughout their businesses. They must also recognise where AI can do things faster and more accurately than humans.
Process automation is no longer optional. Many businesses see the adoption of technologies to facilitate greater automation across industries as inevitable, and COVID-19 has accelerated this rate of adoption. In a world where manufacturers, producers, and other organisations have had their supply chains disrupted, automation is essential in restoring productivity.
The days of automation mostly being applied to the factory line are long gone. Organisations across various industries are finding new and innovative ways to advance their workforces. In Singapore, for instance, the Public Hygiene Council has engaged experts to drive the adoption of automated cleaning technology, such as robotic floor sweepers, to address the industry’s unsustainable dependence on elderly and foreign manual labour. In the healthcare industry, some employee benefits start-ups are helping organisations automate the processing of medical claims to reduce manpower hours and administrative costs.
New Age of Digital
In 2016, when Cognizant released its previous Work Ahead report, the digital era was just taking hold. Back then, Asia Pacific companies, especially Singaporean firms, were already ahead of Europe and North America in their advanced technology investments, spending an average of 15% of their total annual revenue, compared with the global average of 11%.
Fast forward to 2020, when the pandemic turned the world upside down, these investments seem to have paid off as local businesses were quick to respond, compressing many long-term digital projects into the space of weeks and months.
These businesses are now entering the next phase of their relationship with technology. With government support in meeting the greater ambitions of enabling human-machine work, Singapore can show the rest of the world how the future of work will unfold and lead the second act of the digital economy.
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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Manish Bahl is a Cognizant Assistant Vice President who leads the company’s Center for the Future of Work in Asia-Pacific and the Middle East. A respected speaker and thinker, Manish has guided many Fortune 500 companies into the future of their business with his thought-provoking research and advisory skills. Within Cognizant’s Center for the Future of Work, he helps ensure that the unit’s original research and analysis jibes with emerging business-technology trends and dynamics in Asia Pacific, and collaborates with a wide range of leading thinkers to understand and predict how the future of work will take shape. He most recently served as Vice President, Country Manager with Forrester Research in India.