Transforming for the future

Industry experts share what it means for businesses to transform themselves and why it matters


  • Kee Ai Nah, Executive Director, Lifestyle and Consumer Cluster, Enterprise Singapore
  • Ho Meng Kit, CEO, Singapore Business Federation (SBF)
  • Patrick Tay, NTUC Assistant Secretary-General and Director of Future Jobs, Skills and Training


Vivien Shiao, Editor, The SME Magazine, The Business Times

Q: In your own words, what is enterprise transformation about, and why does it matter?

Mrs Kee: To me, enterprise transformation is about a fundamental change to the organisation - in the way it thinks and functions. This is usually triggered by internal or external forces and motivated by a long-term vision. A successful enterprise transformation can only be achieved when sponsored and fully supported by top management.

In today's fast-moving business environment, coupled with a generation of time-starved customers, a company that does not transform may find itself fading into oblivion, being overtaken by a new wave of technology-fuelled businesses.

Mr Ho: For the wide spectrum of over 200,000 enterprises in Singapore - big or small, traditional or new industries - transformation takes on a unique meaning for each of them. Micro businesses may see the switch from manual ledgers to the use of simple excel sheets as transformation. Large companies with more resources may adopt leading-edge technologies across their business units and processes.

Big or small, it is important to recognise each effort. What's more critical is that they need to realise that the transformation journey needs to start now and quickly.

Mr Tay: Enterprises need to transform to stay relevant. Global forces will put pressure on companies to transform their business models and processes to stay competitive. Technology and their workforce's skill sets are enablers of success and employers need to take charge and adjust their organisation's skill sets to enable enterprise transformation.

Q: Many companies may not know how to go about transforming their business. Which area do you think they should explore as a start?

Mrs Kee: Transformation should really start at the very top with the "big boss" convinced of what the organisation should be in the long term. The most common first step is to improve operational efficiency by maximising output with a given input, or to increase productivity. There are many ways to do this, but it mostly involves process re-design.

Going through transformation, an organisation should try to achieve more than incremental improvements, but challenge the employees to innovate, encourage out-of-the-box ideas and reward staff for effective solutions. Many of these results come about only after divisional silos are broken down and employees connect with one another seamlessly.

Mr Ho: While transformation is unique to each business, there are commonalities across similar companies within their respective sectors. For a start, companies can reference the Industry Transformation Map (ITM) developed for their specific industry. They will find initiatives, programmes, schemes and grants that are available for them to tap on. They can also seek out the agencies or trade associations who can help them.

Companies should start small, changing at a pace that matches their resources, staff capabilities, existing processes and systems. To use an analogy of a man and shoes, the man without any shoes today should start putting on footwear. They can then progress to better footwear, different types of footwear, and then add on the bells and whistles.

Q: How can businesses prepare their employees, and work closely with them in the transformation journey?

Mrs Kee: Engaging and respecting your people is critical. Involve them from the get-go and communicate the common vision towards what needs to change or improve. When your employees understand the why and how their contribution really matters, you are on your way to a good start to your business transformation journey.

By being inclusive and transparent, you build trust and encourage mind-set change. Along the way, equip them with the right resources to adapt and build competencies. This is so that they can bring about new opportunities and ideas your business need to make that leap.

Mr Ho: The global workforce is facing unprecedented transition. The kinds of skills that companies require will shift, with profound implications for the career paths individuals will need to pursue.

While it's not unlike the large-scale shift from agricultural work to manufacturing we witnessed in the early 20th century, the speed of change is much faster. The need to upskill and retain employees is more pressing than ever.

This requires a collaborative effort across all levels of employees and management. Communication is key. Businesses must allay the fears of employees that technology or process improvement may displace them. More often than not, if the business has adequately trained their employees, the transition towards a different job scope is more manageable. If displacement cannot be avoided, the training would have provided new skills to help them settle in a new vocation.

At the same time, businesses must help their workers to embrace change, especially if it involves new technology. Help employees understand how technology can save time, increase profitability, and as a result, help improve their career prospects without necessarily making their skills obsolete.

Q: What are usually some of the common obstacles companies face when they try to transform? How can they overcome them?

Mrs Kee: Enterprises are sometimes "terrified" of the volume of interventions at all levels, as well as by the seemingly costly technology to invest in.

It is important, therefore, to be assured by a cost-benefit analysis and to break everything down into phased implementation plans.

A bigger obstacle is mind set, or resistance to change. Employees could feel threatened by new systems, processes and co-workers, leading to negative attitudes. For this, communication is key. With the help of change ambassadors across the organisation, the top management must be deliberate and regular in cascading to all staff the plans, updates, successes and benefits.

Mr Ho: The most fundamental and biggest obstacle to transformation is that many businesses still do not see the urgency to change.

A quick poll at the recent Future Economy Conference and Exhibition organised by SBF and NTUC showed close to 70 per cent of businesses believe that their industry will not be severely disrupted in the next 12 months, with a similar percentage expressing an intention to operate on a business-as-usual mode. This view must be corrected.

In a fast-changing and increasing volatile business environment, our businesses must first recognise the need to change or they will be left behind.

Mr Tay: The first is a lack of awareness. Employers, unions and workers should keep abreast of business developments and technological advancements so that change does not take them by surprise. Employer can then work with the unions and training providers to contextualise the impact of technology on the workers' tasks and jobs through experiential and bite-sized learning for workers to envision the future and see possibilities while taking into account employer's and workers' concerns.

The next issue is information asymmetry between employer and worker. The employer and the unions can identify tasks and jobs at risk of displacement due to implementation of technology and engage affected group of workers to share information on potential changes to their job roles and understand workers' concerns.

There is also fear of change. Employers and the unions can motivate workers to take up identified training programmes to prepare them for higher-value job roles and provide more support - for example, through peer support groups, learning ambassadors, and mentorships.

There is also a lack of holistic support. For that, the employer and the unions can identify work constraints which prevent workers from taking up training programmes and provide support to mitigate tensions - for example, rostering of workers and work duties

Finally, there is a lack of change agent mentality. Employers and the unions can encourage workers who have successfully completed the training and taken on higher-value job roles to share success stories to motivate others to do so.

Q: What can companies stand to gain ultimately if they invest in business transformation?

Mrs Kee: As the vision would have been set prior to embarking on the transformation journey, the entire organisation should be aligned in its drive, with short-term objectives and goals to guide. Along the way, the enterprise should be able to experience some positive results like more streamlined functions, better clarity, higher sales and happier employees.

Again, in today's context, enterprises must train themselves to be agile. Not everyone is able to lead in innovation or set trends, but it may be critical to act fast in the face of keen competition. The ultimate prize of transformation should be growth, with corresponding benefits to all stakeholders.

Mr Ho: The flip side to this question is equally significant. If our businesses do not invest in business transformation, we lose our competitiveness and will be overtaken by other countries. But if we acknowledge the urgency to change and embark on this journey now, we can continue to be ahead.

We will emerge as a whole with greater focus on high-value industries, employ relevant technology to be more productive, have a workforce who is more engaged, better skilled and more mobile across jobs and industries, and more so, establish a wider footprint in the region and beyond so we can tap on both the global market and talent pool.

Mr Tay: Investing in business transformation and workers' training and skills upgrading would mean companies can stay competitive and relevant. With digital disruptions taking place in many industries, only the companies that ensure their workforce is skilled in the best practices of the digital age will succeed.

Q: What are some of the key initiatives/schemes that your organisation has put in place to help companies transform their business?

Mrs Kee: In addition to the self-help SME Portal, Enterprise Singapore continues to build a strong network of partners and multipliers to support and help companies to upgrade and grow. Partners like the SME Centres offer one-to-one business diagnosis and advisory services by business advisers, and capability workshops. Our partners also include other government agencies, centres of innovation, trade associations and chambers.

For enterprises ready to take expand beyond Singapore shores, Enterprise Singapore has in-market connections with our 36 overseas centres in major cities and partners like Plug and Play Network and Global Innovation Alliance nodes, to advise enterprises and facilitate opportunities overseas.

There are also financial assistance programmes to support enterprises in capability building projects like the Enterprise Development Grant and Productivity Solutions Grant, which help to defray some of the upgrading costs and easily accessible online.

Mr Ho: On a broad basis, we organise the annual Future Economy Conference and Exhibition to support the Committee on the Future Economy recommendations, raise awareness of the ITMs and encourage businesses to transform for the future.

Through the Singapore Business Federation Institute, our training arm, we help local companies build capabilities and equip employees with the relevant skills.

To help our businesses tap the global market and talent pool, we lead regular missions to major markets across Asia, Middle East, Africa, Europe and the Americas. In the recent China International Import Expo, SBF led nearly 350 senior business representatives to the trade fair. This was good exposure for our local companies on a global platform. We also conduct seminars to help businesses interpret, understand, and tap on the more than 22 free trade agreements and partnerships negotiated by the Singapore government.

Mr Tay: NTUC's Future Jobs, Skills and Training capability (FJST) will continue to deepen its sector-specific analysis efforts through partnership initiatives with the different limbs in the labour movement, government agencies, private sector and Institutes of Higher Learning in six critical growth sectors - Financial Services, Infocomm and Technology, Healthcare, Manufacturing (Engineering), Wholesale Trade and Professional Services.

Together with labour movement partners, FJST will undertake a targeted approach to more keenly identify jobs at risk of displacement and identify measures to upskill and place affected workers in in-demand jobs. We will work with our unions and management partners to help workers and companies progress.

The labour movement has been working on sharing information on jobs and skills trends with workers, engaging workers to review their skills portfolios for relevancy, encouraging workers to upgrade themselves and to join learning networks such as NTUC's U Future Leaders Exchange and NTUC's e2i's U Leap, so that they are equipped with the necessary skill sets ahead of time to take on the jobs of tomorrow.

Going forward, the labour movement will continue to amplify mobilisation efforts to encourage workers to take up training and progression initiatives.