Disruption: How to deal with it and is it really that disruptive?

The dreaded D-word doesn't have to spell doom - unless one keeps dithering and denying that something needs to be done

The Business Times posed four questions on disruption - a phenomenon through which new technologies can create economic displacement or opportunities for new economic sectors to emerge - to five industry leaders:

  • Michael Leong, director, HOPE Technik
  • Titus Yong, vice-president, business sales, business group, Singtel,
  • Chee Teck Lee, chief executive officer, Moveon Technologies
  • Oliver Tan, chief executive officer, ViSenze
  • Gary Ong, corporate development director, Ascenz

Here are their answers:

1. What does disruption mean to you?

Michael Leong: For HOPE Technik, disruption involves redefining how tasks are done and engineering new technological creations that will add value to companies globally. It is a process of tackling the norm with a scalable and beneficial solution.

Oliver Tan: It means Visenze intends to create exciting customer experiences in retail and e-commerce that either transform the traditional ways of search and discovery or create new innovative ways of doing things never done before.

Titus Yong: Disruption is characteristic of the increasingly volatile, uncertain and complex world which we live in. It is driven by relentless technological breakthroughs and no country, industry or company - big or small - is immune to it. Being the incumbent telco in Singapore, we have been facing competition and disruptions since the 1990s when we were first corporatised and the local market subsequently opened up for greater competition.

Gary Ong: For us in the shipping industry, there is no true disruptive technology that hits everyone unprepared. Most of the ongoing changes have long been identified and seen in advance, hence giving many players the means to prepare for change. The key issue really is timing and investment.

Chee Teck Lee: Disruption can come by way of changing needs or advances in technologies that lead to either opportunities or threats.

2. How is your company responding or has responded to disruptive technologies?

Teck Lee: In short, stay informed, invested and relevant. Disruption can be hard to foretell - we don't have a crystal ball that we can conveniently take reference from. Through close engagement with our customers and suppliers, we are able to build a plethora of knowledge that will help us navigate the labyrinth of information and noise.

It helps that our customer base is a mixed of established MNCs as well as startups. The former keep us going and growing, while the latter offer us the opportunity to work on the needs of the future.

Gary: Ascenz has been one of the key players in providing data acquisition and analytical solutions to the shipping industry for the past eight years. Yet it is only recently that shipowners and operators recognise the need for such systems. Is our business revolutionary? Perhaps, but the adoption of new technologies takes time.

Titus: We are deepening our transformation from a traditional telco company (which provides voice services, bandwidth and high speed network) to a communications and infocommunications technology (ICT) enterprise with capabilities to create, use and protect data.

We have set up a digital arm to spearhead our initiatives into creating next-generation growth engines in data analytics, digital marketing, subscription video on demand and engagement with startups.

However, the increasing connectivity and growth of data also introduces an unwelcome development in the form of cyberthreats. To this end, we acquired Trustwave, the largest independent managed security services provider in the US, in 2015 to lay the groundwork for our plan to become one of the leading global managed security services providers.

Oliver: As a hard-core R&D startup in deep machine learning and computer vision, we relish market opportunities in creating either "positive" disruption or new innovations.

For instance, Visenze and intellectual property (IP) analytics startup Patsnap collaborated to create an innovative search feature for IP researchers using just images as queries. If one has a photo of a product design and wishes to find out who else has similar patent applications of the design, one could simply use that photo as a single query initiator instead of relying on arduous keyword searches.

Together, we were one of the first (if not the first) in the world to actually create that feature as a new use-case in IP search.

Michael: As an engineering firm that was founded in 2006, HOPE Technik has created various products and solutions to meet demands of the future economy. For example, one of our business arms, SESTO Robotics, has produced SESTO Automated Guided Vehicles to help organisations move towards intelligent automation.

3. What challenges does your company face in dealing with disruption?

Titus: Having a sound and forward-looking strategy to deal with disruption is one side of the coin; rapid and effective execution of that strategy is the other. We must ensure that both strategy and execution work seamlessly to achieve our desired outcomes. The key to successfully riding the disruption wave is having adequate talents who are equipped with the right skills.

Teck Lee: Talent! While investment and timing (knowing when to take the plunge) can be challenging; finding or developing the talents aligned to the evolving needs can be daunting. In Singapore, the optics industries is not exactly big and we do not have many industries with people of relevant experience. Finding talent can often be the challenge and roadblocks to our growth momentum.

Oliver: Challenges include mindset resistance, fear of experimentation and inertia. We like to talk to innovators who speak the same language as us and are motivated to stay in the forefront of change and experimentation to do better. If we fail to reach these people, we always like to show the risks of failing to innovate or disrupt the old ways of doing things.

Michael: The key challenge lies in adopting the right mindset towards the implementation of new technologies. Disruptive technology such as robotics does not necessarily translate to job losses but instead, the transformation of jobs especially in high-growth-stage countries that will allow workers to engage in more productive tasks.

4. Is disruption an over-hyped cliche? If so, how has it lost its meaning?

Oliver: Disruption is probably one of the most abused or misused terms in the startup world. I prefer to use the term "transform" or "innovate". This normally happens by finding the problems or frustrations or service delivery gaps that customers experience. The bigger the problem, the better the chances for making a positive impact when you create simple and cost-efficient solutions.

In Visenze's case, the biggest problem statement we solve is simplifying the way shoppers shop with images instead of keyword search. Walt Disney once said: "Pictures still speak the most universally understood language."

Gary: "Uberisation" is the sexiest catchphrase today, but the company that popularised the idea of transportation optimisation started in 2009, almost 10 years ago now.

Is their business model "disruptive" to conventional transportation business models? Yes. But did it shock everyone overnight? No, everyone could see it happening. It's just that companies are so steeped in their old ways of doing things that they are not nimble enough to adapt to change.

It is hard to imagine disruption occurring overnight. The question is whether organisations can adapt to change quickly enough.

Michael: The concept of disruption has in fact been prevalent throughout time. Innovations such as the electric light bulb and airplanes were once considered disruptive technological advancements but have since become today's norms.

However, there is greater emphasis placed on "disruption" today as technology has advanced to an unprecedented stage amid a global economy that is experiencing slower growth, creating a business environment where competition is stiffer than before.

Teck Lee: I do not think it is overhyped. On the contrary, it is very real and we should all be wary of the pitfalls if we do not pay heed to the destructive nature of disruption.

Think Uber and its impact on the taxi business. Think Google and the last time you saw the word "encyclopaedia". Think digital photos - when was the last time you developed film? Think mobile phones - have you seen a payphone lately? Think WhatsApp - when was the last time you sent an SMS?

Disruption can only get more acute over time and for this reason, Singapore companies need to be cautious and be prepared for the evolution out there in the wide range of industries and technologies that continues to converge. Through convergence, technologies get obsolete, industries gets wiped out, and businesses get disrupted.

Editor's note [September 27, 2017]: Titus Yong, one of the contributors to the above roundtable, is no longer with Singtel.