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Deal with disruption or go the way of the dodo

Singapore

UNLESS Singapore companies want to go the way of Kodak, they must recognise that they are vulnerable, and make a committed effort to deal with "disruption", startup speak for innovative solutions that can transform an entrenched industry in ways overlooked by incumbents.

These innovations will come from literally anywhere, said a group of panellists - entrepreneurs and business leaders - at The Business Times Leaders Forum 2016 on Tuesday.

Ramesh Narayanaswamy, group chief information officer at Singapore Post (SingPost), said: "Competition for SingPost (for example) does not just come from the logistics sector, but from completely different sectors including technology and payments." The postal services group's approach, he said, is to keep an eye on industries broadly, and "be relevant".

Hugh Mason, co-founder and chief executive of startup accelerator JFDI.Asia, shared that in the past, corporate innovation was something that was driven by the "vision" of the company. Now, it is "process". He said: "The new approach is to experiment and scale, and continue to experiment through scaling."

Mr Mason added that CEOs of large companies today face an uphill task of having to cope with disruption on top of appeasing shareholders. "CEOs need to have split brains. They need to focus on the core business, while at the same time, learn how to stop minimising risks and look at maximising new opportunities and partnerships."

Warren Tseng, general manager of Uber Singapore, who acknowledged that the San Francisco-based ridebooking app "often gets a bad rep" for being a disruptor, noted that companies should not disrupt for the sake of disrupting. "Find a real problem and focus on the solution, (one) that is valuable to and will serve society."

Uber, he said, is in fact a complementary stakeholder in Singapore's public transport ecosystem and not a disruptor, in that it provides last mile transportation solutions - about a third of Uber trips start and end at MRT stops - and caters to the underserved, such as the elderly and disabled through UberASSIST.

That said, if companies do not innovate by cannibalizing themselves, someone else just might, said Mr Tseng. Uber Singapore introduced uberX, the low-cost option of uberEXEC (which matches riders to drivers of private luxury cars such as the Mercedes-Benz E-Class), because if it did not, "someone else will own that market", he said.

Kodak, which incidentally created one of the world's first digital cameras, was slow to commercialise it (partly out of fear of cannibalizing its core film business) and to reinvent its business model, and was quickly made irrelevant. In 2012, Kodak filed for bankruptcy protection and while it has emerged from bankruptcy, it had sold most of its units, including film.

Today, the smartphone has disrupted digital cameras, said SingPost's Mr Narayanaswamy. Companies should realise that disruption is a long undertaking, and not a one-off process, he added. Asked if there was any way to "categorise" disruption so as to help companies better manage it, JFDI's Mr Mason said analysis can sometimes lead to paralysis.The "cheapest" way, he suggested, is for companies to start experimenting, find out what works and then scale it. In short, "just do it", said Mr Mason, who wittily referenced his company's name JFDI, the polite full name of which is "just focus and do it", he quipped.

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