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Five Essential Things That "The Work AHEAD" Teaches Us About Digital In The Middle East

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Five Essential Things That "The Work AHEAD" Teaches Us About Digital In The Middle East

Earlier this month, Cognizant hosted “The Work AHEAD” CXO roundtable in Dubai. The venue was Burj Al Arab; with its...

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Earlier this month, Cognizant hosted “The Work AHEAD” CXO roundtable in Dubai. The venue was Burj Al Arab; with its groundbreaking architecture and breathtaking view from the 27th floor, there could be no better place than to discuss the future of work. Around 25 C-level executives attended the event. I kicked off the session by sharing key insights from our “The Work AHEAD” paper and our latest book What to Do When Machines Do Everything. While every company will follow a different path to its future, a few nuts-and-bolts lessons can be learned from those who have perfected digitalization. We had some eye-opening conversations, and below I would like to share the key takeaways from our talks:

The Future is Hardly in the Future, It’s Already Here. Artificial Intelligence (AI) is the great story of our time. AI, which was confined to the laboratory for decades, is now set to make an appearance on the main stage. Dubai is already on the way to becoming an AI-driven nation. Smart Dubai Government Establishment, the technology arm of Smart Dubai Office, recently outlined a development roadmap for AI in Dubai. As part of this plan, it has set up an AI lab to provide training and go-to-market support for new services, and to offer workshops for experimenting and building prototypes. Meanwhile, the first robot cop is all set to join Dubai’s police force in May ’17. The Dubai Police envisions that these new recruits will make up about 25% of its workforce by 2030. Altogether, it feels like science fiction is already a reality in the city.

In short, the future of work is the mirror image of the future of AI. Our research shows that of the Middle East executives we surveyed, 98% said the rise of AI would have a moderate or strong impact on their work by 2020. If you’re not making AI your business today, it may well put you out of business tomorrow.

Hybrid is the New Normal. While all our participants agreed that digital is the future of their business, they also felt that they were not destined to become pure digital-native companies. Instead, it is all about striking the right balance between the physical and virtual worlds. However, there is a catch. Right now, Middle East companies are generating 2.5% of their revenue from various digital channels, a figure that is expected to increase to 6% by the end of 2018. Compare this with the global average of 11.4% and you will see why our participants feel that they are not getting as much as they should be out of digital. However, they will need to get prepared for the rapid changes to come and move away from the more sedate pace of business that was the norm in the past. Shifts in the market that used to take place over decades now occur in a matter of weeks and months.

How Much Digital is Too Much Digital for a Customer? One of the CXOs shared a very interesting perspective. His company had invested in building a digital offering, assuming that it would make their customers’ lives easier and help them improve customer acquisition and retention. It turned out that their clientele were not ready for such a novelty and the initiative failed to take off. What can be taken from this story is the need for organizations to adopt an “outside-in” rather than an “inside-out” approach. Instead of making your own assumptions, ask the customers what changes they would want to see in your firm. It’s all about mapping the customer’s journey, rather than adopting a piecemeal approach to understanding their experience. You must learn about digital by observing your customers, instead of relying on what you already know about them. This means recognizing that every digital moment is a moment of truth. It means building digital experiences that are engaging, long-term, frictionless, invisible, and, with luck, noteworthy, all executed on a massive scale.

From Analog to Digital Leadership – A Changing Paradigm for Changing Times. The most significant issue here is organizational complacency and resistance to change; firms have to recognize that they must adapt or die. Senior leadership must stop asking their teams to just “fix the problem” and instead ask them to “fix their digital quotient.” Digital transformation requires board-level support and effective communication, and that is where the problem lies. One of the CIOs of a large insurance company mentioned that persuading the board to invest in digital is one of the key challenges he is facing. Forrester’s CEO, George Colony, once rightly said: “If the board has a low digital IQ, the company will have a low digital IQ.”

This is where we hope our “The Work AHEAD” findings can be most useful. As a leader, you need to make the argument better, more complete, and more convincing for the board. A great way to start is knowing how your organization is performing against others in your industry. Get a rough idea of whether you are paying the Laggard Penalty (the difference between cost and revenue performance due to technology) to help you establish the much-needed financial justification for taking the first bold steps toward becoming digital.

The Battle for Next-Generation Talent is Heating Up. My colleague, Euan Davis, also presented at the event, speaking about the digital workforce of the future. A fusion of new algorithms, automation, machine learning, and digital platforms is radically changing what human talent looks like, where to find it, and how it is put to work. Many companies are starting to jettison old and rigid organizational models and building smaller, nimbler clusters of talent that serve a particular market or niche. He talked about how talent clusters are emerging everywhere and why it is important for Middle East companies to take full advantage of this.

It’s interesting to see how firms are starting to build proprietary platforms and driving third parties to engage in co-innovation initiatives around R&D or customer engagement. Clearly, executives need to unlock experimental business processes and harness the opportunities these emerging clusters and platforms provide.

Surprisingly, we did not sense a great deal of concern among the attendees over the job automation that is coming with the emergence of new machines. In fact, they displayed confidence that AI, algorithms, and big data would enhance their current workforce.

We live in exciting times, as digital is moving from toys to tools and becoming the work that matters. You and your teams need to ask, “Do we have the right business model and the right technology model to compete in our industry going forward?” Don’t get overwhelmed by your current set of challenges. Be optimistic; pessimism has never been a great business model. Of course, setbacks will always occur, but shrinking from the future — just as it’s about to get really interesting — will place serious restrictions on your career.


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