How Shared Services Can Prepare For The Changing Digital Landscape – And The Role Of Digital Talent

Can Malaysia retain its competitiveness in the digital economy ranking index?

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Barbara Hodge

digital shared services


One of the most significant developments in Shared Services over the past few years has been the introduction of automated activities [a.k.a. digital workforce] into the workplace. This has been important because it supports the original value proposition of the Shared Services model: to provide business services more effectively and efficiently. However, while continuous improvement has played its part in adjusting the Shared Services operating model, the new "wave" of automation is part of a much bigger shift towards embracing digitisation and represents a much steeper trajectory than any previous wave of progress (see chart below).

Source: SSON IA GLOBAL MARKET REPORT 2019 – From task automation to intelligent automation: Crossing the data chasm

A digital process requires no paper nor human touch. It’s lucrative to enterprises because it offers “frictionless” processing, which delivers a positive experience. While the Shared Services industry has been talking about "lights out" processing since its early days – now, for the first time, this objective is within reach. The solution is digital.

So, what is this mean? How can Shared Services prepare for the changing digital landscape? How should it develop the digital talent it needs?

These are questions that Shared Services leaders are currently trying to solve. They are questions that Sudhir Kumar, Head of HR Operations, East Asia at Nokia is asking himself, too. Sudhir has a long and successful career under his belt, having managed HR operations for Nokia in India, the Middle East and Africa, and Europe, and currently responsible for the East Asia region, including China, which presents a significant growth opportunity for Nokia. He is based in the Kuala Lumpur Shared Services Centre, from which he also managed the regional integration of Alcatel-Lucent’s HR operations, insourcing services that were previously outsourced, post Nokia’s acquisition of the company in 2015.

Preparing for the Changing Digital Landscape

“Digitisation” is both an opportunity and an imperative, says Sudhir. Within HR, his focus is on delivering digital value-add via analytics and automation. However, the approach needs to be well thought through, he advises, as many people just aren’t ready yet.

The imperative for companies like Nokia is to help employees prepare for their future through training and education so that they better understand the processes, recognise opportunities to modify them, and have the skills to do so. IT is a critical driver for this, says Sudhir, as many of the digital innovations are driven not by functional content, but technology platforms.

Developing Digital Talent

Preparing the workforce for the digitised enterprise of tomorrow is a significant undertaking that involves more than simple training. It's a task modern HR leaders are taking seriously, recognising the impact it will have on enterprise competitiveness. For Nokia, the journey has already started. Partnering with a leading AI consultant has ensured that digital has become part of the corporate language, Sudhir explains. That language is making itself heard on the HR side, too.

Nokia’s HR operations started by training a small team on level I automations, to ensure they understood the capability. Each of these individuals took on a specific project and effectively acted as torchbearers, Sudhir explains. This training is reinforced by Nokia’s learning Academy, through virtual programs in collaboration with external agencies.

"We have found that this approach is more effective, from a financial perspective, than trying to train too many people at the same time," explains Sudhir. "The cost reality of today means that we have to look for a smarter way to tap into, develop, and leverage digital capabilities."

Driving Digital Process Transformation

It's become clear that beyond simple efficiencies, process management can drive real and lasting value for an enterprise. Digitisation is delivering on this promise. Not only does it guarantee a robust, efficient, and reliable process – it also eliminates the traditional breaks that led to stop-starts in processes, slowing things down.

However, to understand the opportunity requires, first, acknowledging the fragmented reality of HR processing. Process transformation for value-add has generally been associated with finance processes, not HR. HR services have traditionally followed a more fragmented approach, with some activities sitting with line management, others with Centres of Expertise, and still others residing with HR business partners. End-to-end, globalised process “mobility” – as Sudhir defines it – has been rare, as a result. However, it takes a holistic management viewpoint to understand the entirety of the costs/benefits built into HR services’ life-cycle chain. Only if a manager is given full responsibility for the entire process, coordinating across regions, can the process be serviced end-to-end.

"To drive value through digitalised processes requires having ‘one pulse’," explains Sudhir. "A cohesive approach delivers far more value than fragmented processes ever could. And while breaking HR services into COEs and business partners makes sense from the perspective of allocating resources for specific requirements, we must take a different approach when the objective is to drive digitisation across a business. In this case, we require holistic ownership.”

“The global mobility of the process is the value creator,” he adds. “And one dedicated team can do more in this respect than multiple regional Shared Services.”

The challenge lies in aligning stakeholders to a common digital objective: Invariably, teams are hesitant to let go of their work and their perceived influence over a part of the process. Another difficulty is to find a single point of contact with the competency or geographic responsibility to drive the digital agenda across the enterprise. There is also the need to accommodate various cultural aspects when dealing with so many different regions.

"There isn't a single superhero that can fill all these shoes," explains Sudhir. "What you require is the ability to take a nuanced approach. That will support the objectives best."

HR Transformed

For HR specifically, digitisation offers practical and strategic advantages. The reality, explains Sudhir, is that we still get thousands of queries a month, and most of these may still be solved with fairly simple answers. “For example, a query on the benefits policy in a particular location is simple to solve. But accessing the data is still a challenge. That’s the kind of problem we need to solve – not through multiple regional Shared Services and regional agents, but through a digital platform and processes.”

The reality is that simple chatbots operating 24/7 could solve many such queries, Sudhir explains. And they would add significant value. “The answers are already available, out there, spread all over the place. Robotic automation can be deployed to most first level queries.”


The opportunity right now – the imperative, in fact – is to become digitally enabled. This strategy drives customer satisfaction, ensures KPIs are met, and supports SLAs. Payroll, for example, can easily be improved through RPA, enabling automated data inputs and generating automated outputs. Other areas in which digital can make an impact include processing exit interviews. Simple chatbots, Sudhir argues, can manage a large volume of exit checklists and "learn" to deliver valuable insights. Similar solutions can be deployed to benefits enrolments, which tend to still require a physical form to be filled out. Again, automation and chatbots can solve for this. Not just are processes executed more effectively, but the insights that a technical platform can deliver by cross-referencing all these data points provides a competitive advantage.

However, in order to optimise digital processing requires collaborating and integrating across activities. Deploying one digital platform across regions is the first step. IT is a critical partner and enabler to digitised processing, Sudhir points out.

“It’s technology content, not functional content, that defines a digital enterprise. Indeed, digitisation can only be driven from IT. For business services like HR or finance to benefit, we will need to build brand new relationships with IT.”

Meet Sudhir Kumar at SSO Week Malaysia, April 2020, KL – and join his session on Creating Value through Process Transformation – Redefining New Ways of Working with Expanded Job Scope through Standardised Business Processes