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Ditch 'Singapore' brand mindset to boost creativity

Firms urged to think of themselves as global companies

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Fredrik Haren, founder of Interesting.org. Local companies have long sought to capitalise on the "Singapore" brand when venturing overseas but business creativity expert Fredrik Haren thinks it could be time for that labelling to stop.

Singapore

LOCAL companies have long sought to capitalise on the "Singapore" brand when venturing overseas but business creativity expert Fredrik Haren thinks it could be time for that labelling to stop.

For firms to view themselves as Singapore companies that are typically focused on "doing everything right" could constrain them in terms of innovation, while also not protecting their businesses from disruption, he said at the Singapore Institute of Directors (SID) Conference 2015 on Wednesday at Marina Bay Sands.

Instead, their creativity could be boosted if firms switched to thinking of themselves as flexible, global companies with an international market - an attitude that starts from the boardroom, he added.

Mr Haren told The Business Times on the sidelines of the conference that the concrete steps boards can take to jumpstart a culture of innovation include seemingly small actions such as changing board meeting locations and inviting external parties to contribute to board discussions.

"These may look like a gimmick but will infuse new ideas that after some time will become part of the DNA," he said, adding that directors could also encourage their firms to do more international mergers and acquisitions.

Emeritus professor Jean-Philippe Deschamps of IMD business school in Switzerland noted at the conference that boards could do more to beef up their capability to make sense of new business trends, particularly those to do with technology. This can help them alert management to potential disruption early on, he said. To succeed in this, boards should aim to become more diverse - not just in terms of gender but also in terms of looking beyond the usual mix of "lawyers, accountants and financiers", he added.

Women made up a paltry 8.8 per cent of board directors in Singapore- listed firms in 2014 - less than the proportion in the UK, Australia, the US, New Zealand, China, Indonesia, Hong Kong, India and Malaysia, according to a Diversity Action Committee report released earlier this year.

Mr Haren and Prof Deschamps were not able to speak specifically about Singapore boards but SID chairman Willie Cheng acknowledged in his conference opening address that innovation "does not get very much airtime on board agendas".

"At best, it is part of a broader strategy discussion at the board, and more often than not, it ends up being about M&A and geographic expansion. That's not to say that companies do not pursue innovation as an agenda. It is just that the exercise is usually left to management," he said.

The guest-of-honour at the conference was Minister in the Prime Minister's Office S Iswaran, who is also Second Minister for Home Affairs and Trade & Industry. He said in a speech that the government had committed S$16.1 billion to support research, innovation and enterprise activities between 2011 and 2015 and wants to do more to help companies develop and adopt new technologies.

He also singled out companies such as Singtel and Sembcorp Industries as examples.