Key takeaways

  • Automation of organisational functions is a priority for all APEC CEOs when it comes to strategies to adapt to the digital age.
  • Investing in employees’ continuous learning and identifying workers who are skilled at using new automation tools are key focuses for many of the APEC countries.
  • Thriving in the era of automation will require engaging employees and tapping into the potential such changes will present.

The Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) CEO Summit takes place in Vietnam this week, and to coincide PwC has released its 2017 APEC CEO Survey: A world in transition with findings from 1412 CEOs and industry leaders from the 21 APEC economies.

As the title suggests, the survey’s focus this year is on how the region is adapting to a changing world. Key themes include the best operating models for fluid trade policy, business growth in the Asia Pacific region in 2018 and, relevant to those embarking or continuing on digital journeys, the effect of technology on the workforce of the future.

While most countries have a similar vision of the workforce of the future, few have a clear strategy beyond ‘weathering the storm’ brought by emerging technology and the rise of automation.

As these companies plan for this change to a digital future, however, It is important that they don’t lose sight of planning for the benefits that they will reap in the years to come.

the future

When it comes managing the digital transformation of the workforce, APEC CEOs are employing a range of different blue prints to adapt to and profit from an increasingly digital age.

The number one strategy across all territories is the automation of organisational functions. Indeed, 58% of APEC CEOs rate this as a current focus. Among Australian CEOs, the number is similar, at 54%.

Additionally, there is greater interest in the use of technology for remote operations, with 47% of the region’s leaders employing it to adapt. Having said this, in Australia, while it is also important, along with investing in machine learning and emerging technologies, the percentage actively pursuing it is only 38%, indicating a much stronger commitment to automation as the key response.

Robotic process automation, which replaces labour-intensive tasks with robotic software that can replicate processes and decisions, offers great efficiency to companies in providing products and services. The natural assumption is that this means less staff will be needed in the future, and that operation costs will subsequently fall, leading to more intense market competition.

Preparing for
short-term change

This model seems to correlate with the survey’s findings regarding how these companies are preparing in the short term. In the next three years automation of organisational functions remains the utmost priority for APEC and Australian CEOs.

Both are focusing on wholesale training of their workforces in ways to use data, and in identifying workers who are skilled at capitalising on the benefits of automation tools.

To help employees adjust to an era of greater automation and the rebalancing of existing jobs (or identify those employees who will be most valuable in the new landscape) the majority of CEOs believe that increasing business investment in employees’ continuous learning will be the most effective strategy to utilise.

Interestingly, in Malaysia and Indonesia, adding incentives for individuals to upgrade their skills is also seen as a priority, but isn’t listed by the majority, perhaps indicating a perceived or potential reluctance on the part of individuals to reskill.

What about
the long-term?

As companies invest in automation, find the best staff adept at working with the technology and begin the re-education of staff to work in a digital workplace, it is striking that the focus seems to be on preparing for day one of a new future.

This begs the question: what happens on day two?

Digital transformation, although challenging, should not only be about wholesale adaption to new ways of working. While automation may very well change the nature of what staff are doing, and could change how many staff are needed, there is also a greater opportunity that businesses could be planning for.

With staff and resources freed up from low-value or repetitive tasks, a company can redeploy employees, not just to automation maintenance, but to value-adding work related to core business propositions. This breathing space afforded by digitisation will allow companies to better adapt to industry changes and to focus on innovation, quality and customer experience.

After all, when all businesses are on equal digitised footing, it will be these aspects that allow them to stand above the competition.

A company could spend the next 36 months preparing for automation, and come month 37, will it find itself with 100 less workers and the same value proposition it started with. Alternatively, it could focus on realigning its value chain with better products and service or expand into new avenues of profit and find, in month 37, that it has 100 of its workers providing additional value to 3 years prior.

Which business has the advantage?

Moreover, in the second scenario, employees have been engaged in the process (rather than worried they will lose their jobs), ready for the future and in little danger of the abortive mindsets that lead to a business unable to transform due to a frozen middle.


Businesses that focus solely on surviving transformation by educating and upskilling ‘keeper’ staff, run the risk of missing out on the benefits of digital disruption.

While there is no question that a focus on technology and education is necessary, it does not address the full picture that companies will need to be across to excel.

By asking what value could be added by freeing up staff with automation, and where those employees could be engaged, thus bringing them along on the journey, more of the bases needed for future success will be covered.

Preparing for the benefits, as well as the changes, will put a business ahead of one planning merely to survive. In the new digital economy, those who start day two with the question ‘now what?’ will have already fallen behind.

Examine more of the insights from the PwC 2017 APEC CEO Survey, or its Australian findings, to find out how companies around you are adapting to digital transformation.



John Riccio

John is a former partner at PwC Australia and the founder of Digital Pulse.

More About John Riccio