Aurora Magazine

Promoting excellence in advertising

Published in Sep-Oct 2021

Keeping up With Digital Transformation

Zeenat Chaudhary examines what companies must address to develop a future-ready workforce

Gabe: How many windows are there in New York City?
Andy: What?
Gabe: Critical thinking. Common, on-the-spot question asked in an interview.
Andy: Okay. Let me think… Are you counting car windows?
Gabe: No… How far away is the sun?
Andy: Uh, 93 million miles… And the diameter of the sun is 870,000 miles, which makes it 109 times wider than the earth, and… [Gabe looks visibly annoyed] 333,000 times heavier than the earth…
Gabe: Shut up about the sun! SHUT UP about the SUN!

Whether or not you have seen The Office (US) (and know that Gabe is annoyed that Andy’s answers are correct because he dislikes him), you probably know that critical thinking questions are used to evaluate a candidate’s thinking process. In fact, the World Economic Forum’s (WEF) The Future of Jobs Report 2020 states that critical thinking is among the top skills employers see as rising in prominence in the lead-up to 2025, along with analysis, problem-solving and self-management skills.

Although all these skills were required decades ago as well, they are more important now because organisations worldwide are facing a “reskilling emergency” – as technology increasingly automates more tasks, organisations need to redefine the roles of their employees as they are likely to require a different sets of skills and capabilities. While hard, technical skills (programming languages, knowledge of common operating systems, AI, etc.) are in demand, it is those ‘enduring capabilities’ which will help employees adapt their hard skills to the changing environment and acquire new skills.

Muhammad Umer, Head of HR, Standard Chartered Bank Pakistan (SCB), says that in the banking industry alone, 7,000 new jobs will be created in the next five years and the dimensions of 17,000 jobs will change. “There is a dearth in the market for new positions because the demand is more than the supply. In order to overcome this, we reskill our employees to enable them to take on the new roles that come. The key element in our strategy is building a future-ready workforce.” Areej Khan, VP Digital, Telenor Pakistan, agrees: “At Telenor Pakistan, we are investing in upskilling our workforce because the way of work, customer demands and market dynamics are evolving.”

Given that banks, telecoms and e-commerce companies are at the forefront of digitisation in Pakistan, Aurora spoke to some of the top players in these sectors to find out where the lacunae are in the talent pool they hire and what they are doing to upskill their employees.

What Employees Need

When companies hire, some look for strong academic credentials or what you have accomplished, and others look for how passionate a candidate is about the potential job. Of the stakeholders Aurora spoke to, only one recruited their digital talent exclusively from LUMS and IBA, the others – Asiatic Public Relations (APR), Daraz, Foodpanda, SCB and Telenor Pakistan – do not necessarily look at education as a filter and although some prefer candidates with basic digital/technical skills, it is the enduring capabilities that are more important to them. As Imran Saleem, Group Vice President – Commercial, Daraz, puts it, “technical/functional skills are not that important for us as they can be learnt today or tomorrow – unlike soft skills.”

Critical Thinking

Of the top enduring capabilities companies believe are necessary, the most important was critical thinking/creative problem-solving. According to Imtiaz Noor, CEO, OrangeFox, you can tell someone has good critical thinking skills if they are good at math (math teaches logic and analysis). “If I ask, ‘How many ping pong balls can you fit in a shipping container?’ a candidate’s thinking process should demonstrate logical reasoning to answer such an abstract question.” However, asking abstract questions during an interview might not always be the best way to gauge critical thinking skills. Amin Rammal, Director, APR, suggests that some people may not even realise that they have the ability to think critically: “People deal and solve a whole host of personal problems every day, so they may well have those skills. It is the fault of the interview process, which is so formal and companies may be better off having a ‘get to know you’ chat rather than asking typical questions.”

A general weakness in critical thinking skills seems to be a fairly common complaint among many companies and a reason why this may be is because our schooling system is based on “just listening/learning” rather than asking questions and holding meaningful discussions. It is a well-established fact that if students are encouraged to use logic and reasoning to question the information given to them, they are more likely to develop critical thinking skills. According to Syed Yawar Iqbal, ECD, JWT|GREY Pakistan, another factor that enters the equation is simply laziness:

“If people in Pakistan can learn to be on Tinder with multiple profiles or understand how to torrent movies and TV shows, I am sure they are capable to smartly problem solve as well.”

Saleem opines that to encourage critical thinking, organisations should define simple and common goals for their employees. “A campaign manager has designed a great campaign… but what is the end goal? There must be a simple objective everybody is working towards. For Daraz, it is about acquiring 100 million customers by 2030. We define pathways for people to follow, but everyone must understand the goal. Giving them this information and then letting them get on with it allows them to be more critical in their thinking.” Rehan Akhtar, CDO, Karandaaz, says the issue is a lack of analytical skills: “We have developers, coders, project managers. The question is: Can they use their technical skills to solve a business problem? People who are good at developing technology are not so good when it comes to using that technology on a business problem (such as increasing sales or reducing costs). “For instance, even in this day and age, you find digital products with clunky interfaces. Engineers who develop these interfaces need to understand the emotional, psychological and rational needs of the product’s users and translate them into the interface’s design. We are getting better at this, but compared to the rest of the world we are far behind.” Careem also opines that analytical skills, along with AI, visualising, finance modeling and a sound knowledge of how tech works overall are important.

Ability to Unlearn

To gain new skills, employees often need to unlearn what they have learnt at college or at previous organisations. Mental agility and adaptability are what enables employees to let go of preconceived notions and adapt to new roles. According to Saleem, the ability to learn and unlearn and thrive in uncomfortable situations is very important. “Technical and functional skills can be learned on the job, even if you are a medical student who comes here, but you must be prepared to move out of your comfort zone. Most Daraz employees have taken courses to learn a programming language called SQL, which we use to input information to get various data from business data warehouses. Whether it is a salesperson that goes into the city every day or a digital strategist, the ability to retrieve the right data and identify trends and patterns is important.” Umer adds that unlearning is more of a challenge for older employees. “People who have been working in a certain way for 25 years and now have to adapt to new ways of working – that is where unlearning comes in. The problem is that we don’t unlearn how we used to work, we try to manipulate new ways of working with old ways of working.”

Finding Passion

“What I look for when I am hiring is how passionate a person is... there are many positions in my department that require digital as a core skill set – digital project managers, data scientists and UX/UI developers – but at Telenor Pakistan we are not necessarily looking for people with these skills only; skills can be taught but the right attitude makes all the difference,” says Khan. “It is about how invested you are in your own learning and how passionate you are about the job. When you work at a telco, 95% of the burden is making believers out of non-believers; one needs to be able to tell a story and be invested in the delivery of that transformation.” Noman Azhar, CDO, JS Bank, says companies should be placing people in jobs they are happy doing. “If a candidate for an administrative role shows more interest and capabilities for an HR role, hire him for HR instead. If someone has a degree in finance but is interested in technology, put them in a relevant role.”

Being Empathetic

Given that the end goal of most companies is to serve their customers, empathy helps employees not only to understand what they want, it makes them more patient and understanding during teamwork. Saleem stresses that the most important skill for him is empathy because one should be able to put oneself in another person’s shoes and think from that perspective. “We might think that displaying the latest Samsung phone as the first search result for ‘Samsung phone’ on Daraz is a good idea because customer ko to ye chahiyay hoga. However, the reality is that most customers are looking for a phone that is below Rs 15,000 with WhatsApp capabilities. To be effective, employees must be able to rewire their own preferences and empathise with a larger audience.”

Self-Improvement

Self-improvement has always been an important aspect of career progression. However, in this age of disruption and change, it has become critical for professionals across all levels to constantly be on the alert about new trends and methodologies. When people start a new job or switch roles, on the job learning is provided by most organisations; however, the bottom line is how quickly an employee can pivot and adapt. For sure, in most cases, an employee at a new job or function will be taken through the processes required to deliver on the tasks, but eventually, the employee will have to resort to other means (online and offline) to perfect themselves.

What Should Companies Do?

Invest in Employees

Not everyone has the motivation, time or money to take a course in SEO or improving their leadership skills. Moreover, companies generally do not have a training budget and even if they do, trainings do not happen frequently enough, or are not customised to suit everyone’s needs. Essentially, companies need to invest in their employees and there are three ways they can do this.

Firstly, by providing free learning modules and trainings. SCB and Telenor Pakistan have their own learning platforms (diSCover and Telenor Academy, respectively). According to Khurram Abid, Head Country Technology Management, SCBP, diSCover has topics ranging from data and analytics fundamentals to sustainable finance foundations, and the platform has a 90% digital adoption rate. Telenor Academy, meanwhile, contains “thousands of courses from Coursera, LinkedIn Learning, Telenor curated content, and links to external podcasts and articles.” Their employees use the platform daily and in 2021 alone they logged a total of 27,078 hours. There is, however, still an issue here that is a cause for concern for most employees: how do they find the time to learn? The solution is perhaps to give employees time to learn during working hours. Telenor Pakistan recently organised a three-day interactive learning camp where employees were encouraged to prioritise themselves in those three days and were allowed to delay business meetings to attend the camp. SCB is also working on changing their performance management system, whereby the differentiation between an excellent and good performer will be based on “intrinsic motivations for improvement”. According to Umer, “SCB will be the first organisation that will reward people for developing themselves. And in return, we will gain upskilled people ready to take on future roles.”

Secondly, mentor and guide. Saleem is a firm believer in this method. In his view, start-ups have an edge due to the open door policy they practise, so that their top management tends to be directly in touch with the majority of their employees. “Direct communication enables us to identify who requires what kind of training. For example, a software developer should know more than coding; he should also be connected to the business. We work towards giving them exposure to the business side so that when they go back to their own functions, they understand what the priorities are. Employees need to think not only in terms of their career paths but in terms of their learning path as well – and this can be very different for each individual, which is why an open-door culture is beneficial in achieving this.”

Thirdly, provide well-being opportunities. Hira Osman, Head of Talent Acquisition, Foodpanda, says that her organisation does this by offering yoga and zumba classes during work hours, free counselling services, sessions with nutritionists for a healthy diet and free health screenings.

Offer Cross-Industry Exposure

Companies across different industries can partner to give their employees exposure to skill sets and learnings that each player excels in and vice-versa. Telenor Pakistan recently initiated a six-month cross-industry programme with Unilever Pakistan, with the objective of helping companies “explore untapped areas where they can collectively move forward, leverage each other’s strengths and bring success.” Such programmes enable participants to upskill their capabilities with cross-industry experience and plug those learnings into their respective organisations. “Telenor Pakistan brings to the table digital product management, customer experience, governance, digital analytics, strategic and core partnerships, digital marketing, digital accelerator and API management; Unilever brings techniques such as brand management, consumer market insights and media. So, while Telenor Pakistan is capitalising on brand development areas and learning to understand Unilever’s digital transformation journey, Unilever is exploring achieving operational excellence and how this can improve customer experience through digital transformation.”

Upskill Higher Management

Team leaders and managers should not be exempt from upskilling and most of all they should acquire the updated basic skills that their subordinates have. When a chief digital officer does not have basic digital skills or a project manager has never used an app, the people under them are negatively affected. If the reporting authority is unable to fully grasp basic concepts related to the job being managed, it can hold employees back. Akhtar considers agility and focus as skills necessary for higher management. He cites the example of the fintech Oraan, where one of the co-founders has a background in design. Due to the co-founders’ focus on design, their app has a sleek and user-friendly design from day one. “Compare this to other fintech apps that are difficult to use; the founders/CEOs don’t even realise this.” Speaking specifically about design, he says that modern organisations have positions like Chief Experience Officers or Design Officers, whose main responsibility is to keep the lifecycle of a website/app design human-centric. “It was no fluke that Candy Crush or Angry Birds clicked with consumers – it was the design that did it.”

What Should Schools/Universities Do?

Even if companies play their part in providing advanced learning opportunities, people need to be encouraged from school onwards to ask questions. Azhar cites his own example of how during his college years, no one either at home or at college was able to help him understand what he should study and what he was really passionate about. “I love technology and did not realise this until I started working for a telco. I did my Matric in sciences because, during my college years, people would say ‘nalayak log computer parhtay hain’ and I pursued pre-engineering simply because a friend (who I followed into the field) thought engineers ‘baray parhay likhay hotay hain.’ We need mentors early in our lives who work on our individual skill sets.” Khan emphasises that the education system should focus on developing mindsets that encourage people to think about the big picture. “This means more project work and collaboration to build student capabilities using modern tools that compete with intelligent machines, along with training around digital skill sets (learning how digital products are made for example). It is only when you start honing into these aspects that you are able to equip people and compete in a fast-moving world.”

To conclude, to catch up with the changing world, there has to be a sea change in mindsets across the board. Educational institutions need to encourage curiosity and a critical approach from their students; organisations need to provide a higher degree of mentorship, be prepared to invest in training and encourage a more collaborative environment, and employees need to understand that to progress in their careers they need to embark on an ongoing process of critical self-assessment and self-learning.