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Pervasive innovation, not Singapore Budget 2018 goodies, can help firms thrive

Firms must embrace pervasive innovation to yield more output with less input.

Grab is just one of many firms that are reaping the dividends of deep capabilities such as self-service data analytics.

SINGAPORE'S largest supplier of ready-mixed concrete was propelled onto the national stage when Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat described how Pan United harnessed pervasive innovation to develop a breakthrough product that could cushion aircraft landings.

While it received a mere 28-second mention in Mr Heng's Budget speech last week, it was indeed a "concrete example of how innovation can help a firm cement its position as a market leader". Pan United's story shows that firms competing in traditional sectors need not conform to market rules that seem to be cast in stone.

A concrete maker that mixes in innovation and embeds deep capabilities into its foundations can too be moulded to thrive in the New Economy.

The emergence of new technologies such as artificial intelligence, machine learning, data analytics and other digital technologies can facilitate these shifts for traditional enterprises to become Industry 4.0-ready firms and effectively compete in new spaces such as e-commerce and the sharing economy. But to do so, firms - like the SkillsFuture mantra for individuals - need to learn, unlearn and relearn some deep capabilities throughout many life cycles of their business.

One capability to acquire is self-service data analytics, where an entire workforce - not just the ICT department - could become skilled at making productive decisions on behalf of the business using data.

Firms should be encouraged by stories of those who have been successful at instilling such a pervasive culture in data literacy. In that regard, one need not look further than to Grab, one of Singapore's most iconic disruptors and Southeast Asia's leading ride-hailing app.


Going up against a S$90 billion multinational behemoth like Uber, Grab recognised from the onset that it couldn't simply become another traditional transportation company to compete effectively, much less run its operations that way.

It needed to act and position itself as a disruptor whose lifeblood runs on data - the currency for the digital age - while catering to the ability of its entire workforce to see and understand data for themselves.

Grab tapped on cloud-based analytics platform Tableau Online, and in 2017 became Tableau's largest customer in the Asia-Pacific for self-service data analytics.

Over a thousand Grab employees across 40 cities in seven countries were granted access to Tableau to visualise and analyse millions of data streams related to transport and cashless payments, enabling over 60 per cent of its workforce to receive real-time visual analytics on the organisation's business performance on their mobile devices and web browsers.

GrabShare on Tableau for instance captures five real-time dashboards with insights on rides, passengers and drivers. With the use of Tableau Online to analyse and visualise these real-time data sources, Grab is able to make prompt strategic business decisions to optimise and refine its algorithms and promotions to attract more passengers to its GrabShare service. The use of Tableau Online enabled 2 million GrabShare rides and 20 million km to be completed within two months of the launch in Singapore alone. Passenger match rate improved by 15 per cent, with a 10 per cent increase in average driver incomes.

Further evidence of how Grab has deeply embedded its data analytics culture can be seen in the many customised workshops and training and technical support it provides for employees to acquire analytics skills. Grab also organises its own regular hackathons known as Grabathons, where employees use analytics to develop new products and solutions, such as enabling Android Pay for its GrabPay payments platform in Singapore.

Grab is just one of many firms that are reaping the dividends of these deep capabilities such as self-service data analytics. Others should also feel encouraged to step up, acquire these capabilities and seize on the Budget's bold measures such as the "capability transfer" and "tech innovator accelerator" programmes to transform and thrive in the digital economy.

In the same vein, education institutions from the private sector can also do more to help Singapore's workforce adopt a culture of lifelong learning.


Last year, PSB Academy, one of Singapore's largest private education institutions, inked exclusive partnerships with education technology (edtech) platforms like Pearson to enable over 12,000 students to access and enjoy learning from anywhere, at any time, on any device.

The Academy also invested in a S$15 million City Campus designed for new learning pedagogy such as "flipped classroom" formats and "go-to-lectures" facilities which enable working adults to attend classes virtually, and engage with their peers and lecturers via video conferencing.

By integrating learning windows for working adults across multiple platforms, PSB has combined the benefits of personalised learning journeys as well as guided learning formats to bring students the best of both digital and physical worlds.

Amid reports of dire employment rates of students from private schools in general, PSB's approach to teaching has yielded strong graduate outcomes. In 2017, close to nine in 10 graduates from PSB found employment, including part-time work, upon graduating, while six in 10 shared that they acquired skills from PSB that enabled them to perform better at their job.

In a sector that is reportedly shrinking by double-digit percentages, PSB registered double-digit percentage growth in student numbers for two consecutive years.

As with Grab's experience in disrupting Singapore's private transportation sector, PSB's adoption of edtech demonstrates how an organisation from a traditional sector can break out from the staid norms of its industry and disproportionately benefit its customers, by embracing pervasive innovation.


In closing, Budget 2018 sets out broad agendas of how the government aims to direct investments to spur on Singapore's hard-fought transformation into a New Economy. But Singaporeans should understand that it is the role of businesses - not government agencies - to create jobs and pay wages that the market will bear.

To that end, the Singapore workforce needs to appreciate that generous Budget "goodies" such as the S$1.8 billion Wage Credit Scheme is only a catalyst for productivity improvements by applying pressure on businesses and workers to transform and measure up in three years.

It would be disastrous if beneficiaries mistake this interim measure for permanent crutches because a rise in wages without a corresponding rise in productivity makes for a recipe for unintended inflationary pressures whose costs the end-consumer must eventually bear.

After all, businesses go to where maximum profitability can be gleaned. Maximum profitability in today's context means maximum productivity, and firms must embrace pervasive innovation to yield more output with less input.

  • The writer is vice-president of marketing and corporate communication at PSB Academy

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