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Digital transformation in the spotlight

Issues facing firms of today were discussed at length by the technology leaders of public and private sectors.

From left: Yeo Choon Chong; Chang Sau Sheong; Bernard Leong; Philip Heah; Neo Chia Yann; Tamsin Greulich-Smith; Poon King Wang; Tan Yoong Heng; Prashant Agarwal; Chia Hock Lai; Lai Weng Yew.

Lai Weng Yew, vice-president, Business Application Services at NCS and co-host of the roundtable discussion

Panel members:

  • Prashant Agarwal, Director, AIA Edge (Group Innovation)
  • Tan Yoong Heng, Singapore Office Leader, ARUP
  • Chia Hock Lai, President of Singapore FinTech Association
  • Philip Heah, Senior Director (Next Generation 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, Smart Health 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

Moderator: Poon King Wang, Director, Lee Kuan Yew Centre for Innovative Cities, SUTD

SPONTANEITY can easily go wrong. But this was not the case at the second BT-NCS roundtable discussion. Immediately after host Lai Weng Yew, vice-president, Business Application Services at NCS, welcomed the panelists, the exchange of views at this discussion was free-flowing and easygoing.

The topic of the discussion was on point about what companies are facing today - Transformative Leadership in the Age of Digital Disruption. The 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 terms "digital transformation" and "digital disruption" came up frequently, but Mr Poon defined that digital transformation is generally 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.


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) added: "(It) is natural to look for excuses to hang on to what one knows."

Tamsin Greulich-Smith of NUS-ISS, Smart Health Leadership Centre, noted that in the approach taken with the Smart Nation initiative, the government has set out the vision and plays the role of enabler while encouraging people to drive the changes. She said it's an exciting approach to cascading sustainable change, but some people need time to adjust to it, perhaps feeling they have been put into the driver's seat without instructions.

Leaders have to be customer-centric too. 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 Ms Greulich-Smith who said that "in any kind of transformation, it's about offering choice".

Focusing on how people benefit from tech and infrastructure is key in a Smart Nation. Present at the roundtable was Philip Heah, senior director (next generation infrastructure & SMEs), development group, IMDA. He shared that the term "smart nation" evolved from the idea of a "smart city", where government was not only helping to pull technology and industry, but also national policy and the community into a cohesive whole, hence not just enabling "hardware" but also "heartware" with the community.

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.


Leaders must not conflate implementing digital technology with taking on digital transformation. Mr Lai 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. It's very difficult to 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 to take a problem-centric approach that focuses on the customer and the business outcomes to be achieved.

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. He said that in ARUP, the design stage of a project can take place 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 deep-skill 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 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: "We have to be very stubborn on the vision, but very flexible on the implementation." To pull off digital transformation, he suggested: "Give the P&L (profit & loss) responsibility to the digital leader. Once the digital leader owns the P&L, his first inclination will be 'what are the quick wins of using technology to resolve a problem?'.Once he has some quick wins established, he can build on them to achieve medium and long term wins."

Mr Lai of NCS listed some traits associated with companies that 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 age of digital transformation. For the lessons distilled from this conversation, the moderator Mr Poon of SUTD, has succinctly presented them in the adjacent story.

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