Digitalisation for a hopeful new decade

Isabelle Micallef Bonello is Executive Consultant at Corporate ID Group

2020 proved to be a warm-up year for digitalisation across all spheres of society and economy.

From home schooling to teleworking to interacting with our older family members to purchasing our daily needs, technology has been the tool that enabled us to wither the discomforts of the pandemic and adopt to a new norm. 

Digital adoption went from mere online presence a few years ago to full technology intensity, that is the rate at which technology permeates the processes of a business covering all areas from procurement to the selling experience to aftersales.  Although Covid-19 put new investments on hold, evidence shows that expenditure on ICT last year has soared. There is now a sense of urgency to deploy technological tools to grow a market share in a challenging consumer environment.

Today’s use of technology is about solving complex problems, create new business models, and reaching untapped markets.  The increase in use of technology is confirmed by the sales of hardware and services, including software as a service (SAAS) applications such as cloud computing, AI and IoT applications. As Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella put it, two years of digital transformation has been achieved in two months. 

Considering that it takes sixty-six days to form new habits, it is unsurprising that business leaders feel that they are in a new normality after months with the Covid-19 situation.  The changes in consumer behaviour and the new ways of conducting business, learning, and working demand a change in enterprise practices too. For most companies responding to these shifts required an investment in digitalisation, even if investing is a hard decision in times of uncertainty.

Surveys pointed towards a general negative business sentiment last year, but the resilient entrepreneurial spirit of the Maltese business community persists.  The rate of borrowing by local businesses in the last few months illustrates the confidence of local businesses to invest in the future.  Over €340 million where guaranteed to local businesses by the Malta Development Bank, while the rate of unemployment in Malta remained relatively low throughout the year as businesses leveraged on the assistance provided by Government and sought to break even with limited redundancies.

The agility of the constituted bodies and the ongoing dialogue with government resulted in a support scheme which helped the local business community step up the digitalisation process.  The Business Re-engineering Scheme launched by Malta Chamber and Malta Enterprise offers up to €5,000 to cover consultancy services that improve operations through the application of technology for increased efficiency including the reduction of environmental impact. Digitalisation also came to the fore in the new EU budget which prioritises the adoption of green practices and the adoption of technology. 

The ubiquitous use of technology has increased the demand for digital and other skills.  Job descriptions are changing as employees and new recruits need to be equipped with the right skills to work alongside technology-enabled applications.  Although there is often the fear that the extended use of technology will result in redundancies, experience shows that digitalisation opens new revenue opportunities and a smarter way of doing business, leading to the need of reskilling – often upskilling – of the workforce.

The OECD estimates that one-third of the global workforce will need re-skilling in the next 10 years.  Most primary school children today will likely take up jobs that do not even exist yet.  The solution to keep up with this challenge lies in a nation’s education system.  The formal education system has the task of providing a constant supply of ICT graduates while continuously steering the awareness of the needs of tomorrow, including the perennial challenge of attracting students to STEM subjects which are calculated to be needed by one-fourth of the jobs in the near future.  This output must be complimented by the efforts of the ICT industry and its private certification providers who are key to the acquisition of on-the-job skills and re-skilling of our workforce.  While formal education provides the platform of tertiary education and vocational graduates, the private industry educational system is key to the continuous upskilling of employees. 

Learning on the job and adult education are key success factors not only for the employee’s career progression, but also for the country to remain attractive for investment in new high value-added sectors.  While soft-skills such as critical and creative thinking, socio-behavioural skills, decision-making, and leadership remain crucial the readiness to upskill and the agility to adopt to a new job description are increasingly important as the use of artificial intelligence and robotics gains momentum across all economic sectors.

The availability of the right skills and the readiness of the workforce to upskill is even more pertinent in an island economy highly reliant on foreign investment and the hospitality industry.  The agility of our workforce to adopt to seize new opportunities will be key in a new norm driven by smarter technology-enabled solutions.  

The new year offers an opportunity to use our energy and positive attitude to craft a future beyond the pandemic. Technology facilitated trade was often a lifeline to the business community during the crisis, and a robust digital transformation now promises to spearhead Malta into the new decade of better socio-economic wellbeing, higher sustainability standards in business operations; stronger communities including the vulnerable pockets of society; and a renewed sense of purpose for our corporate landscape.

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