The Asia Digital Challenge

From Malaysia to South Korea, the region lags in Korn Ferry's digital sustainability index. Our white paper on what leaders need to do.

These days, it’s not hard to come up with a few Asia-based companies that are succeeding in the fast-changing, digital-first world. China’s Alibaba, Singapore’s Grab, and others have all created agile organizations and continue to grow rapidly. 

But while many other businesses in Asia recognize the need for change, they haven’t created organizations that can thrive in an environment where opportunities, and threats, can come from anywhere at any time. Indeed, only one nation in the Asia-Pacific region, Australia, ranked in the top five in Korn Ferry’s Digital Sustainability Index, and even there, experts say leaders struggle to get workers to be more entrepreneurial, a trait needed for lasting success. 

In the paper, "Digital Leadership in Asia Pacific", Korn Ferry experts Melissa Swift and David Lange argue that leaders across the region need to embrace ambiguity and cultivate new ways of thinking. “There’s no easy fix,” says Swift, Korn Ferry’s global leader for digital solutions. But she says the complex, “fit-for-purpose” organizations built in Asia over the last several decades will not hold up in a world full of disruptions.

The paper draws on Korn Ferry assessment data from than 500 leaders across Asia, looking at each person’s traits, skills, competencies and behaviors. Swift and Lange found some elements that may hamper efforts to achieve digital sustainability. For instance, leaders in China, Hong Kong, Singapore, and South Korea share a preference for a more process-oriented, structured environment which pulls against the need for greater flexibility and speed. Elsewhere, a deference to hierarchy in Malaysia and Japan has made it difficult for many leaders there to inspire others. 

According to the paper, corporate heads throughout the region need to place more emphasis on flexibility, which can empower employees to take more risks and develop innovative ideas. “Leaders need to constantly adjust and create trade-offs, oscillating quickly between discipline and broad thinking,” says Anita Wingrove, a Korn Ferry senior client partner based in Australia.

With that flexibility will come the need for leaders to get better at inspiring and motivating workers. 

In the future, the successful firms will have fewer rigid organizational structures and commands to rely on, says Henry Sheng, a Korn Ferry vice president in China. Leaders will have to embrace openness and connectivity. “This fundamentally changes what is needed from leaders and the first step in making that shift is for leaders to let go of their traditional thinking about power,” he says. Bosses will also have to encourage workers to focus more on innovation. 

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