Dean Tong, Managing Director, Head of Group Human Resources, UOB is driving the people transformation agenda at UOB. He has done a lot of work in the space of talent and leadership across Asia, Europe and Americas. Having worked across multiple industries including financial services, industry goods, consumer goods and telecommunication, Dean is known for bringing lateral thinking and out-of-the-box solutions to project teams. Dean has been credited for playing instrumental roles in the creation of an award winning low cost bank in Malaysia, and a number of multi-finance businesses in Indonesia.
In this exclusive interaction, Dean talks about the people transformation agenda in the banking industry as it faces immense disruption, how banks are tackling the fear of job losses to automation, how critical it is for organizations to future-proof their employees, and why the human touch in jobs will never be replaced.
You have an extensive experience of working with various industries. Can you tell us more about your illustrious journey so far?
UOB is just my second job actually. In my first job itself, I had the opportunity to work in many different industries and different countries. I was with the Boston Consulting Group for over 20 years. I had joined straight out of school, and I stayed for more than 20 years though I believed I would be at the job for only two years. This was pure fate. I was doing a lot of work in different industries on different topics which is when I realized that it all came down to people and organizations. For the most part of my life, I had worked in strategy. It was through that realization that I started to spend time on the people and organization side but overlaying it with the perspectives that I had seen from the different areas I had worked on. Before I joined UOB, I took a break for a month and volunteered at a hospital for a month because I wanted to make a difference in the lives of people. When this opportunity came my way at UOB, I took it up immediately because it would also enable me to make a difference in people’s lives.
The key is adaptability because the challenge that many organizations, including UOB, have is that while we know that disruption is happening, what we are not certain of is in what shape and when exactly will it happen
At UOB, you are responsible for the organization’s people transformation agenda, making UOB the destination for the industry’s top talent. How are you planning on achieving this goal and how far do you think you have reached?
I joined UOB because I believe in the Bank’s long-term commitment to future-proofing UOB and its employees. As an organization, we are aware that we are going through disruption and we want to make sure that the organization has the ability to stay relevant throughout this period. At the same time for the employees as well, it is important that we help them stay relevant. One of the things we wanted to ensure was that we don’t leave anyone behind in this journey. In this transformation program, I looked at building a ‘people platform’, which basically is built on how we plan, recruit, manage performances, develop our people, retain them, etc. The people platform is only as strong as its weakest link. What this means is that, for example, even though as an employer, I have a very attractive pay structure, if I do not fix the way I actually manage performance, how I reward employees and develop them, very soon I will lose the employee or have a less productive one. In addressing this people platform, I needed to look at it from an end to end perspective. Hence, I actually developed a transformation plan at UOB at a very early stage of my career here. After one and a half years, I’m glad to share that we have put in place a more robust performance management platform, an inclusive talent management program that we call the Escalator, and the Better U program for up-skilling our workforce. A lot still needs to be done because this is a journey that will take some years, but I believe we have built up the initial momentum that will allow us to push this forward.
Some 60,000 jobs have been estimated to be shed in banks around the world this year as banks face intense competition among themselves and with fintech startups in a low interest rate environment. How can professionals in this industry stay relevant in such a scenario?
Most banks, including UOB, are continuing to grow in this part of the world. However, there is no denying that the industry is being disrupted. With the recent announcement of the government to offer digital banking licenses, some of the technologies that we are now adopting in the banking space will sooner or later affect the jobs in this industry. The key here is adaptability because the challenge that many organizations, including UOB, have is that while we know that disruption is happening, what we are not certain of is in what shape and when exactly will it happen. So, there are some jobs that you can prepare the organization for, but for most other jobs, it is difficult to ascertain how and when will the jobs transform. This is one of the biggest challenges that companies are facing in terms of how we start the journey.
From the statistics that we have seen in the past in different industrial revolutions, the number of jobs in every disruption have actually not gone down, but increased in a different form. Hence, jobs haven’t actually been lost, but have been morphed into a new form
Would there be jobs lost to automation?
Yes, for sure, but I think rather than ‘job loss’, a better way to look at it would be by calling it ‘job morphing’. From the statistics that we have seen in the past in different industrial revolutions, the number of jobs in every disruption have actually not gone down, but increased in a different form. Newer jobs have evolved and replaced the traditional ones. Not only are there newer jobs, but the salaries for these jobs are also higher. Therefore, employees who are able to keep pace and morph together with the way the industry is morphing, will can actually benefit from this trend.
UOB recently launched a learning program to prepare its 26,000 staff for a digital future amid rapid change in the financial services sector. Could you tell us more about this initiative?
Jobs are now being redefined and morphed in the industry. So, we actually needed to bring our people along in our transformation journey. The nature of the change is uncertain, and from an employee’s perspective, there are several challenges that come up when it comes to re-skilling. These can be from a time perspective or from a priority perspective. This does not only mean prioritizing their professional commitments, but also their obligations towards their family. This is why many times, employees de-prioritize their need for re-skilling. The third challenge is around technology adoption. This is not as easy as it seems at times.
Keeping in mind the obstacles that may come our way, we have created a program called ‘Better U’ that tackles this head-on. It is a 12-week foundation course with modules targeted at honing these competencies – encouraging a growth mindset, developing complex problem-solving skills, as well as acquiring skills in the fields of digital innovation, human-centered design and data. It starts with a one-day in-classroom training. After the first module, our people complete the other four modules, which revolve around complex problem solving, data storytelling, human-centered design and digital awareness. The program was structured specifically to encourage mindset shifts and skillsets development. The first module focuses on broadening the mindset of our people. Once that is achieved, we introduce digital awareness to them. After this, we develop their complex problem solving skills. And then comes human-centered design, where we learn to think from a consumer perspective. If we think like a machine, we will soon be replaced by a machine. This is actually to build on the fact that we humans actually think very differently, especially from the experience perspective. The last module of this program is on storytelling. It trains people to use their thoughts and ideas in such a way that they can bring these ideas to life for their audience. These five modules focus more on the softer skills side because we believe that this will build the foundation for them to build technical skills.
What makes you so passionate about people transformation?
I have worked with many organizations through their different transformations. From my experience, I have seen that change only happens when you touch upon both the people and the organization and by extension when it improves the lives of the customers that they touch. I was actually looking for a platform to make a larger change. Hence, for me, people transformation is where my two passions converge.
What will the workplace of the future look like? What will be the key talent challenges, especially in the banking industry?
The workplace of the future will be very different, but how exactly, no one can tell for sure. In a few areas, like the frontline, we already know how technology is reshaping the we work. Reliance on manual labor is reducing and we are using technology to help us better serve customers. In the space of operations, technologies like RPA and robotics will actually replace some of the more mundane things we do at work, especially in the banking industry. In the areas where decision making can be replaced by algorithms, we will see that happening more as well. In banking, a lot of jobs like trading, asset management and stockbroking are already seeing a very evident trend of being taken over by machines and algorithms, and that will continue in the future. The entire dynamic of the industry is changing as well, since the margins have been driven down so low. We have no choice but to move on to a more automated mechanism. More importantly, there will be skills required that are unknown today. The key would be how we make the organization as well as the employees more adaptable. Organizations can be adaptable if they are agile enough to reshape and restructure themselves according to what situations demand. The last and in fact the most important will be about making the world more human. That is the irony about the future. The fact that technology can do a lot of things that are mundane in nature, what will be left for humans to do are the things which humans do best. Hence, the future will majorly revolve around ‘being human’.
The fact that technology can do a lot of things that are mundane in nature, what will be left for humans to do in the future are the things which humans do best. Hence, the future will still revolve around ‘being human’
According to you, what would be some key trends impacting the world of work in 2020?
Within the banking industry, technology trends will continue to shape our workforce. Most of us are watching new regulations and the opening up of the banking environment to new entrants very closely. Another area is the economic situation, where most analysts will tell you that there is a bit of a headwind given all the macro trends that we are observing. If that is the case, the question then would be, how do we sustain some of the things that we are actually doing now like the whole re-skilling effort and the push on digitization.
In 2020, at UOB, we will continue to work on the three areas of what we call #Better, which will be Better Workforce, Better Workplace and Better Work Life.