Business Today speaks to Catherine Lian, IBM Malaysia’s managing director on accelerating the inevitable and the importance of addressing the skills gap in an industry that is in need of faster progress
By Poovenraj Kanagaraj,
The outbreak of the Covid-19 virus left an unprecedented impact on the world’s economy, and in several countries, the impact is far from over. The three-month imposed MCO that took place in Malaysia on March 18 happened to be a wake-up call for many businesses across the nation. While many have had an early transition into the digital realm, pre-Covid, the arrival of the virus proved that that the progress that was taking place is still not fast enough.
In order to prevent the impact taking on a more severe toll and to make a stronger comeback, business owners had no choice but to accelerate the digital transition that was already taking place.
“What we’ve seen is that organisations who were already on their cloud and Artificial Intelligence (AI) journey’s, were able to accelerate their digital transformation faster than others,” says Catherine Lian, IBM Malaysia managing director, who believes that the crisis had cemented the fundamental value proposition of the cloud and AI.
“Companies in Malaysia must now scale faster to meet the demands of a decentralised workforce. Digital transformation has literally been thrusted upon businesses and tech adoption curves that typically have taken months or years are being sped up to days or weeks,” she adds.
As Putrajaya authorised businesses to re-open in order to facilitate the opening of the economy, priorities turned towards modernisation. AI in Malaysia is no novel concept, with the healthcare and legal industries having chosen to implement some form of AI services in daily operations.
Even the ailing, Malaysia Airlines Bhd had implemented an AI-powered solutions system as part of the airline’s revenue management transformation strategy.
Having been around since 1961, IBM has been working with both public and private sectors – to support the government’s objectives of preparing businesses across any industries for the challenges and opportunities arising from trade liberalisation and globalisation.
The company has also been collaborating with the Smart Modular Technologies in the manufacturing sector to enable robots with AI in its manufacturing process to lead in Industry 4.0 in Penang.
Additionally, IBM collaborated with the City Council of Penang Island to develop various smart city initiatives as part of the Penang 2030 development plan.
“In this collaboration, IBM Malaysia continued to be a trusted partner for the Council to leverage emerging technologies to help deliver the capability and competency of public services under Cloud, AI, IoT and Blockchain,” Catherine tells Business Today.
“When we talk about technology like Cloud computing, AI and Cognitive, it’s always looked upon as a game-changer. These technologies have become more a business imperative than just a technology to adopt and therefore is no longer considered a cost-saving investment alone, but also more a driver for business innovation,” she opines.
Recently, IBM announced the IBM Cloud for Financial Services which has already seen several global banks adopt the system. In Malaysia, it aims to enable financial institutions to accelerate its core systems to be “future-ready”.
Players in the financial industry adopting it will also be able to comply to the technology risk management and cyber resilience requirements stipulated in the Bank Negara Malaysia’s Risk Management in Technology (RMiT) framework.
Creating ‘New Collar’ Workers
“Malaysia is experiencing a shortage of ICT and STEM skills as a result of industries being reshaped by data science, AI, cloud computing and cybersecurity,” Catherine highlights.
The managing director referred to a report by Kelly Services Malaysia’s 2019 Malaysia Salary Guide which stated that the country is facing challenges in building its digital workforce, as reflected in the fast-growing demand for digital talent despite a comparative shortfall in supply.
“Malaysia need to focus on creating ‘new collar’ workers, a workforce that is equipped with skills in Cloud, AI and other emerging technologies,” she says.
However, major roadblocks in getting here include limited AI expertise, data science skills, increasing data complexities and concerns about trusting that AI decisions are fair, safe and reliable.
IBM also believes that technology like AI will continue to augment human job, not replace them. “Which is why every worker in Malaysia needs to prepare for some sort of technical skills and aptitudes for technology solutions,” Catherine stresses.
“The future jobs can be filled by what we call “new collar” workers. These skills for AI jobs can be achieved through modern vocational training and innovative programmes like coding camps.”
According to the IBM Institute for Business Value (IBV) report, in the next three years, as many as 120 million workers in the world’s 12 largest economies may need to be retrained to adapt to new types of jobs created or changed by AI.
“Unfortunately, the time it takes to close a skills gap through training has increased by more than 10 times in just 4 years,” the report states.
With a growing category of jobs, especially in areas such as cloud computing, cybersecurity, and digital design, Catherine says these do not necessarily require a four-year degree.
Industry involvement as Catherine points out fuels the opportunity to engage with learning in a significant, long term manner that develops workforce talent with a focus on inclusion and diversity.
In accordance to this, IBM also urges for Malaysian organisations to continue to upskill and reskill the existing and future labour pool with digital and cognitive capabilities.
“One solution is to prepare the emerging workforce through career and technical education, led equally by public high schools, community college and hands-on experience with the private sector,” Catherine says.
Recently, Ecole 42 or better known as 42, a famous coding school that was first launched in Paris, France made its way to KL. The school which was a result of a partnership agreement between Sunway Education Group and 42 is one of the first of such schools to be launched in Southeast Asia.
Focusing on project-based learning imitating real-world work, the school encourages students to learn time management and build conceptual frameworks that can be applied to industry challenges and problem statements.
“We have to face new types of jobs, environments and technologies. Education has to move together with such advancements – that is why I take it that 42KL is moving in the right direction,” said Minister of Communications and Multimedia, Saifuddin Abdullah, who was present at the launch.
MDEC’s Surina Shukri also pointed out that with the likes of 42KL, more high potential Malaysian tech talents will be unearthed and will further help Malaysia become a digital workforce hub in the region.
Additionally, IBM Malaysia collaborated with the Ministry of Education and MDEC to launch the ‘P-TECH’ programme to address the digital skills shortage in Malaysia. The programme is targeted vocational college students from the underserved communities develop digital skills and job readiness at the secondary and early tertiary education level.
Malaysia had also announced the formation of the National Data and Artificial Intelligence (AI) Policy by mid-2020 to position the country as a hub in Southeast Asia for grooming AI talent, and support its efforts in building commercial AI ecosystem.
Catherine believes that the need for digital governance and collaborative approach with the private and public sectors in the country would further facilitate in the scaling up of enterprises and government priorities in the AI industry chain.
“IBM firmly believes as the country moves forward and navigates post-crisis, companies will look at ways to fully embrace cloud-bases support systems along with their remote working strategies,” she concludes.