Modern workplaces in Asia: The best of times

By Ralph Haupter, President, Microsoft Asia. This article was originally posted on LinkedIn.

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times …”  That’s how Charles Dickens saw the French Revolution. But what about the revolution that’s happening now: The 4th Industrial Revolution?

Today, I’ll just use the first half of his famous phrase and say: This is the start of “the best of times”.

Okay, it is inevitable that the accelerating advance of digital technology will throw up some daunting challenges. For instance, business models and company cultures will be disrupted, and cyberattack threats will remain ever present.

But let’s look further ahead. I say that because we are watching a bold new era unfold – one that can generate immense opportunities if mindsets are changed, workers empowered, technologies embraced, and data protected.

Digital experiences and tools have the potential to unlock the creator in all of us. We will be able to do more than we have ever done before. This will change the way we live. And, it will certainly change the way we work.

The rise of the “modern workplace” has already begun. Here, employees have unprecedented access to data that is democratized, but always secure. They enjoy flexible and mobile ways of working, using digital tools that liberate rather constrict them. They communicate and share knowledge seamlessly – not just across a physical office, but potentially across the world in diverse and internationally distributed teams.

In a modern workplace, business leaders use technology to harness the collective ingenuity, creativity, and critical thinking of all employees. Hierarchies and silos within organisations are dismantled and collaborative teamwork is part of the culture.

When work becomes a thing that you do – and not just a place where you go – agile, data-driven, and customer-centric cultures take hold. Great ideas are implemented, new products and services are created, and workers become much more productive.

Data-driven solutions have the potential to transform any sector or industry. The principles of the modern workplace can be applied in unexpected ways and places, big and small. This shift bodes well for Asian businesses as they can tap relatively young, and more technically adaptive, workforces to compete in increasingly competitive global markets.

An impressive example of modern workplace thinking – and action – can be found at DBS, the largest bank in Southeast Asia. For nearly 50 years it operated as a traditional financial institution. But, with ambitions to grow and facing aggressive competition from FinTechs and other rivals, it has been busy reinventing itself as a digital enterprise.

DBS envisages the banking experience of the future as being largely branchless, paperless, and even cashless. To get there it has adopted a truly digital mindset – not only among its leaders but across its entire staff. As one executive puts it, DBS might have 22,000 employees, but it is thinking like a start-up. New technologies are eagerly embraced, learning is embedded in its work culture, and it even has its own hackathons. So it was hardly a surprise when it was named World’s Best Digital Bank last year.

A key part of its transformation has been the early adoption of cloud-based productivity technology, in the form of Office 365, across its operations. Ultimately, the bank sees the cloud as a stronger place to secure its precious data than on-premises storage – which is a vital factor in building customer trust and meeting regulatory compliance. The cloud is not only secure, it is flexible. DBS employees who have ready access to relevant data on-the-go are more mobile and efficient. They are nimble and responsive. They engage customers, build relationships and pursue business leads outside the physical office and traditional office hours. In short, they are more competitive.

Now, let’s look at a different country, sector, and scale, but a similar outcome. In Malaysia, the Nando’s restaurant chain has driven growth and stayed ahead of its rivals by adopting real time data and analytics infrastructure to cover its 70 outlets.

Managers at individual restaurants can now access up-to-the-minute sales information, employee rosters, inventory data, and even customer feedback on a smartphone dashboard. This is empowerment at its most practical. With this information, they can make informed, insightful and immediate decisions – from ordering in extra provisions to identifying what dishes are selling well on its menus. Data is no longer held exclusively by head office. Instead, employees in the field are also encouraged to collect, analyse and act on it.

The benefits of a modern workplace model are there also for exporting manufacturers who compete in ever-more demanding markets around the world.

In the garment trade, for example, fashion trends can change faster than the weather. What is in vogue one day can quickly fall out of style. Because of this, retailers want shorter lead times from order to delivery. Design and sales processes must keep pace with changing consumer preferences, particularly when shipping a consignment to an overseas retailer can take weeks. Otherwise, you might find inventory still being sewed in your factory is suddenly no longer wanted on the racks of foreign stores.

Hong Kong’s Crystal Group tackled this challenge by modernizing its workplace. It adopted an Azure Cloud solution and deployed Windows 10 Enterprise and Microsoft Enterprise Mobility Suite. Thousands of its employees use connected devices to run applications covering styles, quotations, and sales. This infrastructure provides security, mobility and speed across almost all aspects of its business.

The result is “fast fashion”. A designer can now pitch a concept to a potential buyer on a laptop screen. Tweaks can be made on the spot and instantly sent back to the factory where a prototype sample garment can be run up and presented in less than a day.

Previously, a designer would travel to a customer’s office juggling multiple devices and folders with style printouts. While back at the Crystal office, an assistant designer would convert the drawings into soft copies and then upload them into a quotation system. Overall, it used to take up to seven days before a customer could sign off on a design. The change, as one executive puts it, has turned Crystal’s business model “inside out” and has made its customers happier.

Empowering employees, accelerating processes, delighting customers – these are just a few stories from data-driven modern workplaces across Asia.

Watch this space. As I say, this is the start of the “best of times”.

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