Traditionally, Malaysian enterprises tend to see and use technology in a supporting role within the business, divorcing it from larger business strategy. Research has shown that most companies focus on the ‘digitisation’ aspect of digitalisation, which involves converting traditional or manual processes into more efficient digitally-enabled methods.
As of early 2021, the study found that most Malaysian enterprises remained at the basic digitalisation stage – only an estimated four out of every 10 had a clear, integrated digital strategy as part of their business plan.
However, with the COVID-19 pandemic irrevocably accelerating global digital transformation by years, it is clear that Malaysian businesses can no longer afford to exclude the tech agenda from business strategy if they want to stay competitive. Digitalisation for process and operation enhancements is a good first step, but the true disruptive potential for technology can only be unlocked if leaders incorporate it as part of business strategy from day one.
Keeping pace with thriving digital-first industries
From the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic to the subsequent Movement Control Order (MCO) lockdown in Malaysia, businesses that did not inculcate themselves with tech-driven business strategies from day one fared the worst – where 84 per cent of small to medium enterprises (SMEs) suffered difficulties with online connectivity and communications with their stakeholders as a result of tech ineptitudes. Many had to pivot quickly to digital-first strategies to survive but brands that had already formed digital strategies in their core business were more resilient in the face of sudden disruptions.
As such, Malaysia’s digital economy has seen marked growth in the recent year amidst nationwide lockdowns, attributing to its rapidly growing e-commerce market and digital boosts by government initiatives such as the National eCommerce Strategic Roadmap (NeSR) and digitalisation grants issued by the Malaysia Digital Economy Corporation (MDEC).
With an increasingly elevated tech environment in the country, several tech leaders in Malaysia have recognised the importance of technology in both enterprise formation and resurgence from pandemic lows and how the global necessity of digital-first behaviour is likely to be sustained in the future. Thus, Malaysian businesses must reconfigure their mindsets from thinking that technology is a “supporting tool” to operations to embracing technology as the backbone of all business strategies.
Walking the tech talk
Making the shift from a tech-supported business strategy to a tech-led one is easier said than done. For one, it requires a significant mindset shift at all levels of the organisation, but most importantly, among leadership. Technical decision-making has traditionally fallen on the CTOs, who typically create structured frameworks that specify how technology can support an already-decided business strategy. However, with the vast jump of Malaysian retailers going digital with e-commerce, there is a stronger emphasis on merging technology with corporate strategy to keep pace with the times.
Hence, it is time for technology decision-makers to have a seat in business strategy discussions so that technology can be incorporated from day one. Business leaders need to be able to envision the success they want to achieve, and then consider the tech infrastructure that must be implemented to allow the execution of these scalable strategies. This can only be accomplished through open and consistent dialogue with the organisation’s tech leaders, which ensures that the technology is capable of enabling – or even improving – the company’s desired growth plan.
By having the CTOs and other tech leaders in the discussion room, business leaders can overcome knowledge gaps around technology and resolve concerns over cost-efficiency. Technology leaders will be able to ask the right questions and answer difficult questions such as the type of tech required to achieve certain business goals or enable certain transformations, as well as how they can cater for different business needs. This will help business leaders focus on the right challenges and allocate the right budgets to ensure that the company has a sustainable, long-term digital transformation plan that can foster lasting success.
Tech-centric instead of tech-driven
Many examples of Malaysian businesses embracing technology are often on a piecemeal basis to meet immediate needs. For example, many businesses are doubling down on their digital marketing efforts to attract more Malaysian consumers, who are spending more time than ever online. Some are implementing better online payment channels such as e-wallets and adopting artificial intelligence in chatbots and recommendations for a better customer experience.
While these are good first steps towards incorporating tech into business strategy, they may cause integration problems if not properly considered. Additionally, businesses often rush to adopt new technologies such as cloud, ERP and CMS systems, but then find difficulty using and operating these systems and processes because employees are not familiar with them – which can then lead to issues around data privacy and cybersecurity.
For that reason, a truly tech-centric business strategy requires a holistic consideration of how technology can empower the business and what is needed to achieve it; they cannot digitalise just for the sake of bandwagoning. Besides the necessary systems and hardware, other factors such as employee digital literacy, system migration, systems synergy/integrations, data storage, hardware maintenance and upgrades must be taken into account. Overall, businesses have to critically analyse their internal tech capabilities and interoperability of existing digital systems to decipher the optimal tech-centred strategy.
Leveraging technology to survive during a digitally thriving future
Overall, technology leaders must emerge from their silos and evolve alongside fellow brand leaders as they play an increasingly vital role in corporate operations. This evolution involves deeper and more frequent interactions with all major departments regarding treating technology as a holistic part of business strategy.
With this integrated teamwork, as well as transformative initiatives like Malaysia's National Fiberisation and Connectivity Plan, local brand leaders have much to gain from accelerated digital connectivity nationwide presenting new opportunities for digital transformation. Choosing to leverage these technologies will prevent brands from becoming obsolete and will ensure that they stay ahead of the curve, no matter the adversity.
Vishal Desai is Country Head, Anchanto Malaysia.