Article: Technology is the agent of change: Mercer's CEO

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Technology is the agent of change: Mercer's CEO

In an exclusive interview with People Matters, Peta Latimer, CEO of Mercer, Singapore, shares her insights and perspective on the evolving SEA talent landscape, growth markets, future of work, leadership and navigating structural shifts, regulatory policies, and volatility in the changing marketplace.
Technology is the agent of change: Mercer's CEO

Peta Latimer is the CEO at Mercer, Singapore. She is a global business leader with extensive experience across a range of industries and high profile projects. With many years spent advising multinationals on change and workforce transformation, and having run successful consulting teams, Peta is passionate about making a difference in the way work works and is always looking to drive high performance through people in an authentic and sustainable way. 

Peta joined Mercer from KPMG Singapore, where she was leading the People & Change Advisory Practice for the past two and a half years. With a focus on market impact, Peta represented the Firm through professional memberships, IBM & Workday Alliance Partner, and participated as a Keynote and Panel Speaker for events across the region. Prior to KPMG, Peta held several leadership positions, including the Head of Smarter Workforce for IBM ASEAN and Global Head of Diversity and Inclusion for Kenexa Ltd which was acquired by IBM in 2010.  Working across Europe & Asia Pacific for IBM Kenexa, Peta was instrumental in building stronger brand recognition for the company. 

Peta has a Masters in Organizational Psychology from Birkbeck University of London, United Kingdom and a Bachelor of Commerce from The University of Sydney, Australia. 

You have a distinguished track record and extensive experience across a range of sectors. What has this journey been like and what have been the key learnings for you?

I often describe my career journey as one of ‘fits and starts’, having personally experienced disruption whether self-initiated or driven by the dynamic nature of the industries and markets I have worked in. My 5-year plans have never really gone according to plan, but I genuinely believe that it was this agility & new learning opportunities that have helped to accelerate my career. At an early age, I was very fortunate to manage a team of 8 people all of whom were more experienced and older. I have also had the opportunity to manage a large geographic territory and interact with people from different cultural and socio-economic backgrounds – both of which were milestones in my leadership journey teaching me how to motivate different types of people in the workplace. I like to challenge and push myself to do, see and learn as much as possible.    

With regards to lessons learned; the first is to be curious and say ‘yes’ to new opportunities. Advocating this kind of thinking and having the willingness to ‘take the plunge’ helps unlock potential you never knew you had.  The second lesson is to surround yourself with smart, challenging diverse people from within and outside your immediate network. Being exposed to people from different backgrounds has helped challenge some preconceived notions and pushed me to expand my thinking.   In both instances, it’s ultimately about having a growth mindset.

We are at fault when we blame technology for being a disruptor — it’s not, it is an agent of change

Where do you think the future of work going? What do you think will be the true impact of tech disruption on the workforce? 

It’s an interesting question but not a new one. The future of work is something organizations have been discussing for the last decade, even longer if you consider the continuous improvement movement of the 70s-80s. I remember in one of my first roles after relocating to the UK in 2006, we released a paper entitled ‘Change is the New Normal’!  What we are seeing now is in response to the speed of change: organizations cannot afford to discuss the need for a new strategy, invest in months of current state reviews and market scans, debate transition roadmaps, and interim states, and await the next budget cycle to begin the necessary investments.  By that stage, a new entrant would have captured a material portion of the market share and you would have to be forced into a reactive position.  

Personally, I’m pleased to see the more proactive conversations about the impact of technology on today’s workforce. It indicates that technology is being viewed as an agent of change, and we’re seeing more organizations disrupt from the inside out. For me, the impact on the Future of Work relates to the integration of technology and human capital skill – changing the way work works, not simply automating or adding machine learning to improve process and speed of insight. Critically, we need to stop the scaremongering about the displacement of jobs and consider the changing nature of specific tasks within jobs that necessitate the need to learn new skills.   

The Future of Work relates to the integration of technology and human capital skill – changing the way work works, not simply automating or adding machine learning to improve process and speed of insight 

As organizations in Singapore prepare for the future of work, we’re seeing an increasing effort to look at what work is actually taking place and better realigning value chains and structures to improve levels of customer anticipation and responsiveness.  The ability to change and change quickly is emerging as a differentiating competency.  This means business-as-usual cannot be allowed to take priority.  How can you expect leaders and employees to embrace new ways of working if they are still being measured against traditional KPIs and performance expectations?  This ability to lead change is one I feel is lacking across some of the top echelons of organizations.  Too often as leaders, we ‘direct change initiatives’ rather than personally leading by example.  With a future dependency on soft skills like empathy, flexible thinking, creativity, resiliency, I think we need to have a true leadership revolution.  One client I recently met calls it the time to ‘unboss’.  

Technology disruption is here to stay.  We need to embrace it, learn how to test and fail fast, build flexibility into financial expectations, and truly foster a culture of life-long learning which to me means, challenging the status quo at every step.    

Singapore is economically transforming, becoming competitive in the global market, and the pressures on the workforce to glocalise have intensified. What approaches do you see organizations in Singapore applying for talent management for their own survival at this point in time?

Singapore ranks the highest in Asia in attracting and developing talent, reflecting not only its world-class education system but how it’s adapting skills in the digital era.  With a strong and historical emphasis on financial and technical skills, the government and local organizations continue to invest heavily in areas such as cybersecurity, data science, data governance, and engineering.   We’re finding that rather than just seeking industry-specific skills, organizations are shifting toward ‘technology application skills within the industry’. Separately, with the speed of change and level of disruption, there is a growing impetus on core work-related soft skills such as complex problem solving, active learning and cognitive flexibility1. These skills are even more critical in emerging markets where the focus has traditionally been on technical or hard skills.  I see this view reinforced in our work with government agencies across Asia and in particularly here in Singapore.  Large Singapore organizations are becoming very strategic in their manpower sourcing and development plans. We have seen many examples of companies sending their top talent overseas to receive specialized education and gain exposure in different working environments before returning to work in Singapore.  This, of course, assumes that organizations are good at identifying their workforce needs, are able to effectively manage supply and demand and can clearly articulate the future necessary skills.  

McKinsey says that by 2030, some 6-8% of the total non-farm labor force in ASEAN alone or if you say 12-17 million workers could be displaced with technology. In terms of access to support in training or skills required in the digital economy, how do you think organizations are facilitating this? 

It is important to develop a clear understanding of whether a job in its entirety will be replaced, or whether individual tasks that make up that job will be replaced, aggregated or restructured.  Whenever I advise my clients on this, I always look to undertake a full workload analysis so that we can identify activities at a task level, not just a job level.  From there you can have more informed conversations about how to redesign the way people are currently working today.  Then comes the challenge of understanding the areas we struggle to fulfill with the appropriate level of skill today, let alone the skills we think we need for the future.  With the talent scarcity across the emerging markets, ‘buying’ or ‘borrowing’ skills are not easy and so we are often forced to consider the implications of the longer term ‘build’ scenarios. When talking about life-long learning and exponential learning cultures, it’s important to encourage employees to take ownership of their career development and to find ways to operate outside their comfort zone.  Some of our consulting teams recently completed a Python Programming Course simply as a way to experience what computer programming and language is all about in an effort to understand the skill required.  This is an area where I’m proud to join the Mercer family who truly differentiates by our ability to analyze and advise on job redesign requirements and internal labor market movements.    

The gig economy has been on a rise in Singapore. What aspects of the gig economy matter to the businesses, and what strategic shifts are companies making in this regard?

Helped by its land-size, it’s been incredible to watch the gig economy grow across Singapore, particularly in the food delivery and transport sectors.  We have also seen a rise in gig workers across the growing start-up community here in Singapore. The picture, however, differs when I have conversations with HR in some of the local and MNC organizations who often admit that they are not really looking at this as a serious means of dealing with the talent scarcity. To put it in perspective, according to Mercer’s 2018 Global Talent Trends Study, 82% of executives in Singapore say flexible working is core to their employee value proposition but only 3% HR leaders say that flexible working is visibly present in their organization. As many as 48% of employees say they are concerned that flexible working impacts their future promotion opportunities. 

I believe this comes down to implementation challenges, where hiring managers worry that flexible arrangements may erode trust and collaboration among employees and add complexity to performance management and rewards.  Another challenge is providing gig or flexible workers with sufficient career pathways or on-the-job learning.  Too often organizations leverage the ‘contractor’ model to bring in specific expertise to solve a short to medium term gap.  The person fulfilling this role is expected to have the skills and hit the ground running.  Whilst there will always be some tradeoffs, not seriously considering different means of employment may impact an organization’s ability to meet their longer-term talent aspirations. Locally, we have an opportunity to look at the culture of trust and educate managers on how to flex ‘loudly’.  

We need to stop scaremongering about displacement of jobs; it is the displacement of tasks and necessity to learn new skills

Do you think the challenges that Singapore faces is something that you also see in other SEA countries like Indonesia and Malaysia? 

Having worked in regional roles previously, I think the ability to change at speed and build agility and resilience in often ambiguous environments is similarly experienced across South East Asia. However, how each country is approaching this change differs. For Singapore, one of the biggest challenges will be their past success, where the ‘good is the enemy of great’ phenomenon can sometimes lead to a natural aversion to risk-taking.  According to a recent Mercer study, only 4% of executives in Singapore consider their organization to be agile. This will need to change as Singapore competes with other countries in the region who have less to lose and whose governments are advocating ‘leapfrog’ aspirations. I had the opportunity to spend some significant time in Jakarta recently, and there I noticed a bolder conversation amongst senior leaders on how to leverage technology, global best practices and invest in human capital planning.  

How is Mercer navigating structural shifts, regulatory policies, and volatility in the changing marketplace?

If I think about the 3 major themes that were discussed at the World Economic Forum on ASEAN: Aging Workforce & Income Disparity; Rising Cost & Accessibility of Healthcare; and Talent Scarcity, Mercer is uniquely and centrally positioned to respond to our clients’ local and global needs.  One of the things we are actively embracing ourselves is technology.  With the acquisition of Thomsons Online Benefits, we not only offer the world’s most proven Benefits technology platform to our clients but we have also completed our solution portfolio to better meet the needs of organizations who want to offer their employees' more personalized, flexible and meaningful total rewards. The technology is allowing us to build up our ‘Marketplace’ solution whereby we are easily able to connect a range of vendors to employees, who can then choose the most relevant services for them and their families.

As we celebrate our 40th anniversary in Singapore this year, we celebrate the fact that we have been in the business of creating more rewarding futures for our clients and their employees — whether we’re designing affordable health plans, helping individuals plan for a financial wellness, or applying digital innovations to match employers with the right talent.

In your opinion, how do you think the HR plays a part in meeting business goals? 

I have been extraordinarily vocal about the HR profession in my career, namely about the need to increase capability and business acumen in order to truly support workforce productivity and optimization. With the impact of megatrends and technology disruption, now is the time for HR to drive business performance in a way they have never been able to do before. Every workplace is undergoing some form of transformation so the pressure is for organizations to ensure they bring their people with them on this journey, and who better to ensure talent retention, skill build, performance management, and communications than HR?  With so much commentary on the integration of technology and human capital and the assumed reliance on soft-skills, HR may finally be in a position to be heard and prioritized.

At the same time, technology is and will have a significant impact on HR functions around the world.   In Singapore, the uptake of cloud HR platforms has been impressive, as well as the experimentation of data and analytics to make more objective people decisions.   It is definitely an exciting time to be working as an HR consultant!

You have an extensive leadership experience. Do you think there is a stark difference between what leadership is in the developed markets and what leadership is in growing markets? 

My leadership style has evolved as a result of my interactions with different cultures and experiences in different levels of market maturity. Having said that, I always enjoy getting into the trenches and working alongside my teams. I believe a leader’s job is to remove obstacles so that every day the team can move forward. When I made the decision to relocate to Asia, someone warned me about the shadow one casts as a leader in the region.  With more traditional hierarchies and positional power afforded to leaders, I did need to adjust somewhat and learn to ask more subtle questions and challenge in more humble ways. There is an expectation here that the leader knows all and a nervousness about challenging upwards. But that is not my style at all. I do not believe I always have the best answer, nor the best technical expertise. This was a real challenge for me for a long time working across different countries in South East Asia. Depending on the team, the business and the goal, I believe it is the leader’s responsibility to flex style as appropriate. 

 

Reference:

1. The World Economic Forum’s 2016 The Future of Jobs report

Topics: Leadership, Life @ Work, Technology, HR Technology

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