Digital Transformation in the Spotlight: Transformative Leadership in the Age of Digital Disruption

Singapore, July 19, 2017

Spontaneity can easily go wrong. But this was not the case at the second BT – NCS roundtable discussion. Immediately after host Mr Lai Weng Yew, vice president, Business Application Services at NCS, welcomed the panellists, the exchange of views at this discussion was successfully free-flowing and easygoing. The topic of the discussion was on point about what companies are facing today. It was “Transformative Leadership in the Age of Digital Disruption”. This roundtable was moderated by Poon King Wang, director, Lee Kuan Yew Centre for Innovative Cities at the Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD). 

During the discussion, the term “digital transformation” came up frequently, but Mr Poon defined that digital transformation is the response to digital disruption. 

While the participants at the discussion may have been technology leaders from the public and private sectors, their focus was resolutely centred on people – their employees and customers. Some of their concerns were guiding their teams through the ongoing digital transformation and how to avoid isolating their customers along the way. 

The speakers agreed that digital transformation was not easy to implement to bring about the desired results.

People Matter
Leaders have to cultivate support for transformation at various levels of an organisation. Bernard Leong, head, post office network and digital services, Singapore Post (SingPost) said, “People love to talk about transformation, but they don’t love to change.” Prashant Agarwal, director, AIA Edge (Group Innovation) also said, “We’re looking for excuses to hang on to what we know.” Ms Greulich-Smith of Smart Health Leadership Centre noted that in the approach taken with the Smart Nation initiative, the government sees its role as an enabler while people will drive the changes. She said that’s why “people are freaked out” by the smart nation idea because they have been put into the driver’s seat but have not been given instructions.

Leaders have to be customer-centric too. Ms Neo Chia Yann, director, Consulting Practice, Business Application Services at NCS gave an example of how her team is working with their customers in their digital transformation. That is, using digital solutions to solve their customers’ problems. This involves “design thinking” and “looking from the user’s perspective”, she added. 

Chia Hock Lai, president, Singapore FinTech Association said: “Customer expectations are driving the digital transformation.” He shared his observation that the customer’s last favourable experience is what they expect on their next visit. He also noted that user reactions to technology changes varied across age groups. His point was supported by Tamsin Greulich-Smith, chief, Smart Health Leadership Centre who said “in any kind of transformation, it’s about offering choice”.

Focusing on people also humanises technology and infrastructure. Present at the roundtable was Philip Heah, senior director (next generation infrastructure & SMEs), development group, IMDA. He had created the term “smart nation” back in 2013. He explained that this term evolved from the idea of a “smart city”. He said that a smart city evoked cold images of concrete, whereas a smart nation comprises smart people and smart buildings.

Yeo Choon Chong, deputy CEO, urban development, Surbana Jurong Consultants, concurred.  A smart city is often defined as one that has smart infrastructure. He considered the smart nation an idea with a higher purpose. 

Mr Lai of NCS also spoke up for “humanising technology” to encourage broader adoption of digital technologies. 

Speed and Survival
Leaders must not conflate implementing digital technology with taking on digital transformation. Lai Weng Yew said that for digital transformation, the criticality of it does not lie only in operating more efficiently. It is about addressing “an existential risk”. That is, if a company does not “reboot” its business quickly, it may go out of business very quickly. The added challenge today is: a company’s competition may not necessarily come from its own industry. 

Noting that the ongoing digital transformation takes place under the pressure of speed, Mr Agarwal of AIA Edge shared, “People have to realise that you will make the best decision based on what you knew then. And not all of them will play out. And in today’s world, the price of inaction is way higher than the price of a mistake. You can recover from a mistake, you can’t recover from inaction.” 

Ms Neo of NCS said that sometimes the inaction is caused by spending too much time in search of a perfect solution, .  Instead a quick and acceptable one that is refined over time may yield better results in the fast-paced environment.

Dr Leong of SingPost added that digital transformation could be tailored in “a problem-centric manner that is very focused on business outcomes”. 

That said, the same digital technologies that disrupt can also be used to speed up transformation. Here, it might be appropriate to bring in an example that was related by Tan Yoong Heng, Singapore office leader, ARUP. Mr Tan said that in ARUP, the design stage of a project can take place simultaneously across three or four offices around the world at the same time. This is enabled by digital design and virtual collaboration. 

In ARUP’s case, this was driven by the need to optimise their resources; in particular the company’s deeply-skilled professionals. Virtual collaboration enabled an ARUP professional to work on several projects within tight timelines, without incurring hefty travel expenses. 

Digital transformation is hence a complex endeavour. In view of the complexity required, the moderator Mr Poon of SUTD, brought back an earlier insight by Chang Sau Sheong, managing director, digital technology, SP Group, who pointed out that digital innovation had been par for the course for decades for many high tech sectors.

Mr Poon asked if “digital transformation” was an accurate or even sufficient description of the changes that businesses have to make in response to digital disruption. 

Mr Chang suggested: “Just take out the word ‘digital’ and just go with ‘transformation’.” Mr Heah of IMDA talked about an “engaged economy” while Ms Neo of NCS mentioned an “immersive economy”.
In general, the responses revealed the multi-faceted complexity that leaders have to grapple with. Just as crucial to solving transformation problems – be it with perfect or optimal solutions – is developing the skills to do so. To this end, Ms Greulich-Smith from Smart Health Leadership Centre suggested that “disruptive transformation” might be a more accurate description for digital transformation. She explained that disruptive transformation usually happens when incremental innovations have been done but more is needed to fix the problem. 

Dr Leong of SingPost offered an alternative view: “To be very stubborn on the vision, but very flexible on the implementation”. He also suggested this about pulling off digital transformation successfully: “Give the P&L statement (profit & loss statement) to the digital leader… because once you have the P&L, your first inclination is ‘what are the quick-wins of using technology to resolve (a) problem?”

Mr Lai of NCS listed some traits associated with companies which have been successful with digital transformation. He said: “When we think of digital transformation and disruption, who is the poster-child? We think of the Ubers, the Airbnbs and so on... And when you look across these poster-children, what’s common? What they have in common is speed. What they have in common is analytics to empower, to give mass personalisation…(and they) can do that at practically zero incremental cost…So these are some of the attributes that lie behind successful digital transformation.” 

And there you have it, choice pickings from a discussion that looks at how leaders and their organisations can thrive in this digital transformation. 


Five Lessons for Leaders for the Future

By Poon King Wang, Director of LKY Centre for Innovative Cities and moderator for this event

Is digital transformation something new or something old? After all, many high tech sectors have been innovating digitally for decades. Why all the fervour now? It is because these high tech sectors' innovations have now proliferated to all sectors of the economy and society. They are now grist for the mill for everyone. 

Thus, any company or city embarking on a transformation can borrow from the experiences of others.  Here are five lessons - drawn from the Roundtable conclusions - that corporate and government leaders can adopt and adapt: 

1. From "What Tools" to "So What? Who Cares?" Technology is no longer just a tool, department or support function. Smart companies and cities must now also ask what technology can do organisations, sector-, and city-wide, and who cares about what it can do.  For example, it is not what artificial intelligence or data are that matters. It is what they do - how we use them to create new value for how people live, love, learn and earn. 

2. From Concept to Context. Creating new value that people care about means designing solutions that are context-specific. We must add context to the concept. To understand the context and develop empathy, reports and surveys no longer suffice.  We can dig deeper e.g. through simulations, virtual reality, sensors, data analytics, and design thinking. We can also spend time on the frontline, and must translate for citizens/customers/employees, what transformation means for them.

3. From Secure+Stabilise to Explore+Experiment. Transformation creates a dilemma: how to keep key services and infrastructure secure and stable, but yet explore and exploit new opportunities? We can create two tiers of organisation structure and infrastructure. One tier takes charge of and anchors the business-as-usual; the second experiments -- and allows for experiments -- with new possibilities (e.g. a Digital Business Unit; an API layer for collaborators' access). 

4. From Experts to Expert Novices. We used to strive to be experts; we must now strive to be expert novices too. Transformation never ends as digital advances always accelerate. Experts easily become novices with the next technological wave. Experts constantly have to pick up new understanding, empathy, mindsets, and skills. Experts will have to learn to learn from anyone who knows the context best, regardless of age, hierarchy, and qualification.  

5. From Role of Technology to Role of Humans. Digital transformation discussions tend to focus on the role of technology. But for anyone involved in and affected by these transformations, the people matters quickly loom large. We should shift the discussions to centre on the role of humans. We must account for human capacities, experiences, aspirations and fears. We have to be clear on the human values that will guide us as we make choices that involve and affect people. Because ultimately, digital transformation is a very human endeavour.

What are the Do's and Dont's about Digital Transformation?
Read the full article here.


Panel members:

Prashant Agarwal, Director - Director, AIA Edge (Group Innovation)
Tan Yoong Heng, Singapore Office Leader, ARUP
Chia Hock Lai, President of Singapore FinTech Association

Philip Heah, Senior Director (Infrastructure & SMEs), Development Group, IMDA
Lai Weng Yew, Vice-President, Business Application Services, NCS
Neo Chia Yann, Director, Consulting Practice, Business Application Services, NCS
Tamsin Greulich-Smith, Chief, SmartHealth Leadership Centre
Bernard Leong, Head of Post Office Network and Digital Services, Singapore Post
Chang Sau Sheong, Managing Director, Digital Technology, SP Group
Yeo Choon Chong, Deputy CEO, Urban Development, Surbana
Poon King Wang, director, Lee Kuan Yew Centre for Innovative Cities, SUTD

Source: The Business Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reproduced with permission.