By Kawal Preet, President, Asia Pacific, Middle East and Africa, FedEx Express,
Digital disruption is changing the face of Asian business faster than ever, particularly in the post-coronavirus era when there’s a new urgency for businesses to more aggressively digitize in response to rapid economic shifts.
What’s needed most right now to accelerate innovation, drive growth and do business amid uncertainty is ready-for-anything agility and adaptability.
Yet when we think of digital disruption, it’s often the highly visible world of tech that springs to mind – phones, drones, autonomous vehicles. Or now, remote working and video conferencing software.
But the overarching focus of the new trends centers on invisible technology and with it, a new mentality – how we can harness intelligence to fundamentally change how we connect, run our business, or simply, make life easier for customers.
- Artificial Intelligence (AI) fueled enterprises
The main trend driving all others is that ongoing digital innovation will continue to be powered by artificial intelligence (AI) – the complex, computer-driven intelligence that’s seeing systems taught to learn through huge amounts of data and computing power.
Already, AI affects our lives in transformational ways – the navigation apps we use, the media services we stream, or the ride sharing apps we rely on. We are also turning to AI for help in diagnosing and treating coronavirus, and in technology tools to track and fight the pandemic.
In the future, more technologies will be embedded AI – not just in our homes or transport, but in our enterprises.
Currently, more than 50 percent of companies in Asia Pacific have launched AI with the top three priorities including customer experience, faster and better business decisions and increasing operational efficiency. Others are using AI to increase sales – for instance, one Japanese clothing retailer improved its sales 10-30 percent by understanding how to better allocate staff.
In addition, the science of predictive data analytics is transforming the business landscape, using machine learning and statistical modelling to predict future behaviour and outcomes. We’ve gone from being able to look at what happened, to what is happening, to predictive analytics about what is going to happen.
- Democratization of machine learning to empower more digital upstarts
At the same time, AI’s offshoot, machine learning – whereby intelligent algorithms find and apply patterns in data that fuel our latest AI apps and advancements – is becoming more ‘democratized’.
Machine learning is now so widespread it is fast becoming less of a disruptive technology and more an integral part of companies’ competitive strategy. In fact, technology is transforming so fast you don’t need coding or data science skills to do it. That’s a real game-changer, especially for Asian SMEs.
We expect to see empowered Asian companies starting to build more of their own AI solutions, thanks to the power of ubiquitous, high velocity computing in tandem with off-the-shelf algorithms.
We also expect to see more digital upstarts with business models built entirely on new AI-enabled services and product innovation. Take, for example, Native Union, an up and coming luxury tech brand that’s tapping into global demand for wireless charging.
- Wider Adoption of Robotic Process Automation (RPA) across Asia Pacific
Robotic process automation (RPA) is among the fastest-growing segments of the global enterprise software market, which grew more than 100 percent globally in 2019. Businesses in Asia, big and small, are spearheading the mass adoption of RPA, particularly in the manufacture of consumer electronics.
With high cost-effectiveness and scalability, RPA uses robotics to automate and streamline tedious tasks – it’s in even greater demand now because of new requirements for social distancing and less human-to-human contact in business processes.
Bots have also been used by authorities in Asia Pacific during the COVID-19 pandemic to gather infection data and speed up collation and contact tracing. But the advantages of RPA were clear long before coronavirus. For instance, in Singapore, we used a robot to automatically send messages for missing scans to on-road couriers to improve customer service. That’s turned a three-step process – ordinarily taking FedEx staff up to four hours daily – into a 20-minute automated task. Our teams, freed up from collating this information, instead focus on value-added solutions and interaction with customers.
- Strategic Automation to become integral
The future is also intelligent when it comes to something even less visible – strategic automation.
Strategic automation means taking a holistic approach, aligning business values with automation. Rather than focusing short-term on specific areas which might need automating, strategic automation looks at the overall needs of the business to free employees up from simple or repetitive responsibilities, so they can focus on more meaningful work, enabling more real-time decision making and further optimizing operations.
We know from our own experience that when launching any new technology, core business values such as compliance, accuracy, consistency and reliability, scalability, job satisfaction, cost saving, productivity improvement, and customer experience – are key to decision-making about when and what to automate.
In the future, it’s the bots themselves that could be making more decisions – automatically identifying the best processes to automate, acting on insights and intelligence.
- More connected, intelligent networks
The once sharply defined lines between the digital and physical worlds are continuing to fade, and the next phase will see an environment where the physical and digital worlds are indistinguishable.
This is about technology we don’t see – or even think about. Take for instance, banking. Already we tap to pay. Or healthcare – where sensors, for example, are bringing real time insights to the secure movement of sensitive goods.
The challenge for business is to ensure connectivity and intelligence that’s customer-centric.
Our own teams throughout Asia Pacific are increasingly using technology to personalize small business interactions and optimize delivery – simultaneously raising and serving customer expectations that would otherwise not be possible.
- Optimizing customer experience with speed and agility
That’s why another key trend is an even greater focus on customer experience optimization, responding with speed and agility to a new world of remote working and increased online interactions. It’s about the convergence of technology and experience – and how it can re-imagine and transform what we do for customers. For instance, AirBnB, which has patented a system to help it better screen potential guests and hosts, to improve overall rental experience and safety. Or e-tailers, by incorporating innovative technology into a physical store experience, giving individual customers real-time advice on products to purchase.
It’s also about the convergence of other critical trends. For instance, Gartner predicts AI will be a mainstream customer experience investment in the next several years, with 15 percent of global customer service interactions to be handled completely by AI by 2021, up 400 percent from 2017.
Not surprising then that Forrester cites this year as the time when companies will not just accelerate AI adoption, but become sharply focused on AI value.
So being agile enough to change course when needed, and resilient enough to weather the storm, are key factors for future success.
- Smart tech will accelerate cross-border B2B commerce
So too is the ability to leverage smart technology, which will continue to accelerate one of the biggest trends we see right now – the massive growth of B2B cross-border commerce.
The global B2B eCommerce market was valued at US$12.2 trillion in 2019, more than 6 times the B2C market, with Asia Pacific way out in front with almost 80 percent of the B2B market.
Asia Pacific will continue to power one of the biggest trends in B2B – the rise of vertical marketplaces – with greater value-added services, including personalized customer experience.
This new frontier of cross-border e-commerce is marked by an amazing array of technology, of what’s being traded, and the participation of more players, all thanks to digitization.
For instance, McKinsey says new technology in the logistics industry could cut shipping and customs processing times by as much as 28 percent.
What’s more, by removing some of the friction that slows the movement of goods today, these technologies together could potentially boost overall trade by 6 to 11 percent by 2030.
Agility and flexibility are crucial in the 2020’s
That power of technology, invisible though it might be, is an important tool for 2020 and beyond, especially given the widespread economic slowdown being faced. That’s why digital transformation has a new urgency. By constantly adjusting, adapting and flexing to drive competitive advantage, the winners will be those who can adapt their thinking, change their corporate game plan if necessary, and yet still be agile and ready for anything