A Coffee With… SALT: Filling the Digital Skills Gap in Indonesia

We spoke to Marco Widjojo, CEO of Jakarta-based digital consultancy, SALT, to discuss the skills gap, the leapfrog effect and more.

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In our "A Coffee with…" series, we’re chatting to our favorite partners about what’s keeping them up at night. This month, we spoke to Marco Widjojo, CEO of Jakarta-based digital consultancy, SALT, to discuss the skills gap, the leapfrog effect and adding a pinch of salt to digital transformations.

Tell us a bit about your career to date, Marco.
I was born in Indonesia, but studied my computing degrees at UTS and my MBA with AGSM, via the University of New South Wales. I started working for Alpha Salmon (now Edge Asia) but was always aware that Indonesia was lagging behind in digital and technology, particularly compared with Australia. The reason I moved back to Indonesia is to help my country to move faster in digital – I want us to up our game, particularly with marketing technologies, so we’re, at the very least, on par with other countries. That was the purpose of SALT – I launched the agency with a clear vision of wanting to educate and provide consulting to help Indonesian businesses to innovate and compete internationally. We purposely target market leaders, such as Telkomsel and Bank Mandiri, in order to make the biggest impact on customers and so that competitors will see the benchmarks changing and be compelled to keep up. We want to improve customers’ lives and make businesses more competitive through technology.

Do you feel that Indonesian and Australian customer expectations are the same? 

Yes, for large enterprises, the expectations are exactly the same. The internet is boundaryless, so customers expect the same online experience regardless of whether that website is owned by an American, Australian or Indonesian business. The difference is that Indonesia doesn’t have the same digital talent pool as the US and Australia. For example, when we talk about personalisation, many Indonesian businesses would know what that means, but very few would know how to deliver on it or understand the implications around segmentation and creating personas. 

Marco Widjojo

Why do you feel there is a lack of digital talent in Indonesia?

I think universities are focused on providing traditional computing courses and failing to offer a commercial perspective. Courses are heavily focused on theory, meaning students are graduating with no understanding at all about how to apply their skills in business and marketing. The result is a lot of positions being filled by highly qualified candidates with little understanding of how to apply their knowledge to create customer experiences. In recent years, we’ve seen that more courses are being offered around digital strategy, but the usual route seems to be that once a student has graduated from their degree, they’re so focused on getting that first job that the prospect of undertaking further study simply isn’t viable. That’s the gap SALT is trying to fill.
At SALT, we run internship programs in each department and ensure our interns aren’t just shadowing but are actively involved in projects, on the commercial side of things too. I, personally, work with a few universities and try to accept as many lecturing opportunities as I can to give students an insight into the business considerations of digital transformation. Finally, we also work closely with our solution partners, like Acquia, to run local events and seminars for businesses to help them to keep up to date on the latest innovation and best practices.

What are the biggest challenges for Indonesian businesses, when it comes to customer experience?

Lack of talent, as we’ve discussed, would be the number one challenge. There’s such a huge demand for digital talent that businesses have little option except to offer higher salaries to try to compete for talent, but it isn’t a sustainable solution.
The second challenge would be the digital maturity of the businesses themselves. We see a lot of situations where organisations are taking a reactive approach – seeing new technologies and implementing them without any thought as to how they will be supported or impact the overall business. Chatbots are very popular at the moment and we have clients often requesting them, thinking that they’ll fill a gap in the customer journey and make their lives easier; but technology isn’t magic! Technology requires process, the people to support it and time to stabilise and develop. We often educate new customers about how digital transformation projects work, as there is a common misconception that they’re hiring us to build something for them; then it’ll be finished and they won’t have to think about it again. We’re teaching them that they need to be as involved as we are and that it’s the beginning of an on-going process, not a one-off task to be ticked off.

How far behind is Indonesia lagging, when it comes to new technologies such as AI, for example?

Actually, not far at all. We see a leapfrog effect here, especially when it comes to digital technologies. For example, if we look at mobile penetration; in Australia, mobile adoption was a fairly gradual process, but in Indonesia we went from predominantly desktop to predominantly mobile within a few years (133% mobile penetration in Indonesia 2019). We’re not lagging so much with regards to the technology itself, but more the best practice and understanding of how to deliver it well. As I said, we have lots of clients who hear about AI and chatbots and want to be innovative, so implement these technologies with little understanding of how they can benefit customers, or the infrastructure required to support them. They’ll sacrifice the backend, just to be able to say that they’re ‘doing AI’.
Working closely with solution partners, like Acquia, is where we can provide real value to clients and educate them about the importance of choosing the right platform for their needs and getting the back-end infrastructure set up correctly. We’ve had some of Acquia’s top solution architects providing seminars to local clients about personalisation best practice – it’s a topic many marketers think that they already know, but they don’t know how to do it well and in a sophisticated way. We’re teaching clients to walk before they run!

Why are you guys called SALT?

There are three meanings behind the business name. The first one refers to salt as an ingredient; in the same way that salt can be that final ingredient that brings all the other flavours together, so we try to become the ingredient that makes business and technology work harmoniously. Secondly, salt can be a preservative; we aim to create sustainable, future-proof solutions for our clients, so that they can continuously build on the foundations we’re creating for them today. Finally, there’s a more spiritual meaning: salt as an offering and a blessing. I created this business with the intention of helping both our employees (to reach their career goals and feed their families) and our customers (to improve their service offerings and become more successful). We want SALT to be a business that does good and brings blessings to others.

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