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New Strategies to Thrive in A Disrupted World

In Singapore and the world over, the dawn of new technologies and their increasingly pervasive role in our lives have shaped developments over the past year and created a fresh set of opportunities.

From the rise of mobile payments like PayLah! and PayNow, the introduction of ride-hailing applications, the use of robots in the Singapore Police Force[1] and even our neighbourhood hawker centres, there is no denying that the Fourth Industrial Revolution is now a reality unfolding before our very eyes.

Yet in Singapore’s bid to become the global centre of innovation, there is the sense that the pace of technological development is far outstripping the abilities of professionals, businesses and educational institutes.

According to the Manpower Group’s 2018 Talent Shortage survey, 56% of employers in Singapore have difficulty filling jobs[2] – the highest since 2008. It is telling that employers are struggling to find candidates with the right blend of technical and soft skills.

The fact is, in this new era, long-held concepts, assumptions and practices no longer hold true. To thrive in the age of Industry 4.0, businesses and workers need a fundamental rethink of strategies, habits and mindsets.

Navigating a world of disruption with new thinking

Those who attended business schools in the past three decades would have been exposed to management concepts such as first mover advantage and value-chain. But the prevailing business paradigm today is one of disruption, and many of these concepts no longer apply to this new environment.

For example, Apple’s iPhone, which has been a leader in the smartphone market for a decade, appeared to be unlikely to relinquish its leadership position. Yet Chinese smartphone maker Huawei has been able to unseat the American company, as it learnt to adapt more quickly to what consumers wanted.

Apple’s first-mover or at least market-leader advantage was no match for Huawei’s agility, innovation and smarts in intellectual property management. It is also deeply reflective of the transformation happening in today’s global business environment.

The emergence of a fast-paced and dynamic economy, where goods and services are created and exchanged rapidly, also means that the traditional concept of value chains has given way to platform strategy.

In fact, platforms have become the preferred operating model for seven of the world’s 12 largest corporations[3]. This new business modus operandi demands that companies entrench a network of providers and consumers, as well as a well-coordinated ecosystem of suppliers, distributors, shareholders and regulators, to seize new opportunities.

Preparation for a skills-based economy is necessary

Technological disruption has also spawned demand for employees to develop a specified set of skills. In the past year alone, the demand for technology jobs rose by 20%. Specialisations in e-commerce, digital marketing and data science were found to be the highest in demand, but local talent is still lacking in these areas[4].

As a result, the government recently launched Tech@SG to ease the process of hiring foreign technology talent[5]. Besides technical skills, mastering the language of the growing digital economy and understanding the nuts and bolts of this new business landscape will prove invaluable.

Already, younger Singaporeans are being equipped en masse with the required skills in universities, polytechnics, and even in secondary schools.

Lifelong learning secures continued relevance

However, older Singaporeans in the workforce must take it upon themselves to cultivate the habit of lifelong learning in order to remain relevant and competent.

Three in four local respondents to a survey said that they would focus on a field of study within STEM[6] if they were 18 again[7], indicating some regret amongst current professionals that their skills are becoming outdated.

Indeed, the new era of hyper-change demands a constant mode of learning, unlearning and relearning. The good news is that there are many avenues in Singapore for workers to reskill themselves.

The SkillsFuture programme for example, aims to aid Singaporeans to upgrade themselves through subsidies for courses and programmes aligned to changing industry needs. The subsidy for some courses may be as generous as 90% for Singaporeans above 40.

Universities and polytechnics are also offering a plethora of courses and programmes to help the workforce remain relevant. For example, the Singapore University of Social Sciences (SUSS) offers SkillsFuture-subsidised courses and programmes in financial technology, digital marketing and intellectual property management sectors.

Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) such as Coursera, edX, and Udacity also offer online courses on the latest topics such as machine learning and big data — either for free or for a small fee. Many are conducted by faculty from world renowned universities like Harvard, Stanford and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Mindset change is key

As Minister for Trade and Industry Chan Chun Sing stated in response to a related parliamentary question, “We only have a small window to build a critical mass of high-end professionals, start-ups and companies.[8]” It is imperative for us to build up on relevant skills in our workforce quickly if we ever want to make Singapore truly a regional and international hub.

The democratisation of education and access to knowledge through programmes like SkillsFuture and the global growth in MOOCs are a step in the right direction.

Now we must act to ensure that Singaporeans embrace these opportunities and commit to lifelong learning, so that we can confidently build the national resilience needed to deal with changes in the global economy.

This article has been adapted from an earlier commentary, “Commentary: New habits, strategies and skills needed as global economy sands shift” by Professor Calvin Chan, Director of the Office of Graduate Studies, Singapore University of Social Sciences (SUSS).


[2] Manpower Group (2018): 2018 Talent Shortage Survey

[3] McKinsey Digital Quarterly (2018): Platform plays

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