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Running the digital transformation marathon in emerging markets

In the Asia Vision Series, we explore key industry trends and issues with our subject matter experts and visionaries. In part 1 of 3, Michelle Simmons, General Manager, Southeast Asia New Markets, Microsoft Asia Pacific, tells our writer Geoff Spencer why digital transformation in emerging markets in Asia is akin to running a marathon. She also says technology is opening the door to potentially massive social and economic benefits. 

Sometimes someone can alter how you look at life in a most unexpected way and in a most unexpected place.

For Michelle Simmons, that person was Rose – a legally blind, but unstoppable, woman in her 60s who simply would not take “no” for an answer. And the place? A marathon event held in one of the world’s remotest corners – the western tip of Antarctica, just below South America.

Michelle was into running, but she lacked confidence in her own potential. The most she had ever run before had been 10 kilometers and this time she was only planning to take on a half-marathon. Like many people, she had regarded marathon runners as being super-fit, special, and even elite. “But Rose was older and running marathons, and she had a disability and was still making it happen. She challenged me to run my first full marathon, and I did just that.”

On race day, Rose’s doggedness became Michelle’s inspiration. As she limbered up at the starting line, Michelle overcame her self-doubt. She ran across a glacier, up and over rocky terrain and through icy mud patches. She pushed on and dug deep, even when a howling polar storm blew snow across her path parallel to the ground. She stayed at it for the full 42 kilometers and crossed the finishing line.

“It was a great lesson: Anything is possible with some tenacity, perseverance, and commitment to make it happen.”

Fifteen years later, this remains a defining experience for Michelle, who is now Microsoft’s General Manager for Southeast Asia New Markets. Eight of the nine countries in which she operates – Bangladesh, Bhutan, Cambodia, Laos, Maldives, Myanmar, Nepal, and Sri Lanka – are among the world’s poorest nations. The ninth, the oil-rich Sultanate of Brunei on the island of Borneo, has wealth. But it is also facing far-reaching economic challenges as energy prices sag.

Her wide-ranging brief is to help modernize underdeveloped economies and companies through digital transformation in line with Microsoft’s global mission: To empower every organization and every person on the planet to achieve more. Wherever she is – be it humid Yangon, crowded Dhaka, or slow-paced Vientiane – she constantly applies the life lesson she learned on the Antarctic ice.

There are plenty of challenges. More than 95 percent of the companies in her multi-country patch are small to medium-sized businesses with little, or no, tech experience. Their government bureaucracies are often buried under with mountains of paperwork and archaic procedures. Their infrastructure and public services are basic, and in places, almost non-existent.

For these countries, starting off on a digital transformation journey seems as daunting as Michelle remembers starting off on her first marathon. But she is convinced they can do it, just like she did.

“Just like I could run a marathon with little (athletic) background, an emerging country can also adopt technology and embrace digital transformation and benefit from that with little background in technology from the past. Companies today can embrace the technology right away. They don’t need to wait a long time.”

Michelle was born, raised, and educated in the United States, where she also joined Microsoft. She later was posted to Singapore and then South Korea. In 2014, she took on her nine emerging markets, which she admits was an eye-opening experience.

“One of the things that really surprised me was the lack of infrastructure … The roads were in poor shape. There was a lack of public transportation, a lack of utilities as well, and so the physical infrastructure was behind,” she says. “That’s still largely the case, but in the last three years or so the digital infrastructure has changed and grown rapidly.”

Take Myanmar, for example. In 2010, only 10 percent of its people had mobile phones or internet access. Today, the country has more mobiles than citizens and 90% of the population is online. Similarly, companies and governments – which a few years ago lacked basic resources and skills to build their own IT systems – are now increasingly moving their paper-based operations directly into the cloud.

And that means, that unlike early tech-adopter economies in the developed world, emerging markets do not have to wrestle with the complications of legacy IT systems. The very fact that they were unwired backwaters in the recent past makes them digital clean slates for the future. This promises to be an exciting advantage. “They can advance much faster and even leapfrog developed countries,” says Michelle.

This paper-to-cloud transformation is already reaping massive benefits and revealing new opportunities and empowerment across various economic and social sectors.

“When you look at the world, there are two billion people who are unbanked globally – and about 450 million in Southeast Asia alone. Technology is changing that. People, who perhaps had to travel tens of kilometers in order to get to a bank, can now have access to banking services through their mobile phones, through technology,” she says. “That’s changing people’s lives in these emerging markets. They can set up a business. They can be a part of the formal economy … and it’s enabling governments to have more productive societies so that their countries can advance.”

Paper-to-cloud transformation not only boosts business and finance, it can also save lives. Michelle points to how the Cambodia Children’s Fund and the Cambodian National Police have been able to step up their fight against child trafficking by digitizing mountains of paper records into easily accessible databases. Information on missing children, that used to be kept in unlinked paper files, is now available to investigators anywhere, on any device, and at any time on the cloud. That means greater numbers of kids are being located and rescued from lives of misery and danger. “They are solving these cases faster and they’re able to return more children home to their families.”

Read the next installment of this interview series here, where Michelle Simmons shares more on the importance of empowering people, especially the underserved, to succeed in the digital economy. 

Enjoy reading more Asia Vision Series interviews with our other thought leaders and subject matter experts here.

Michelle Simmons
General Manager, Southeast Asia New Markets, Microsoft Asia Pacific

Based in Singapore, Michelle leads Microsoft’s business across nine countries that make up some of Asia Pacific’s fastest growing markets including Bangladesh, Bhutan, Brunei, Cambodia, Laos, Maldives, Myanmar, Nepal and Sri Lanka. Before her current role, Simmons was the senior director of Marketing & Operations for Microsoft Korea. In this capacity, she was responsible for business operations, marketing, customer satisfaction, and driving overall business priorities for the Korean market.

Geoff Spencer
Digital Content Editor, Communications, Microsoft Asia

Geoff has worked extensively in Asia as a reporter, correspondent and editor for The Associated Press, The Sydney Morning Herald, and MSN, as well as the US-based Asia Society. He has covered a wide variety of big stories over the years, including the Asian financial crisis, the fall of the Suharto dictatorship in Indonesia, East Timor’s independence struggle, and the hunt for Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan after the 9-11 attacks in New York. His journalistic interests are now focused on how the world is changing through digital transformation.