Firms, govts should keep eye on future while tackling present challenges: DPM Heng

SINGAPORE – Organisations need to be nimble and responsive to tackle challenges and adjust course when necessary, while also keeping an eye on longer-term shifts and preparing for them, Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat said on Thursday (June 2).

This ability to be “ambidextrous” is critical for companies and governments to ride through disruptions such as the global financial crisis of 2008 and the Covid-19 pandemic, he added.

Mr Heng also cited two other attributes needed to thrive in a changing world: commitment to innovation and striving to always create value.

“The reality is that no company or government can predict the future with certainty,” said the minister.

“This is the nature of change. While the broad contours can be gleaned, inevitably, there will be much that surprises us and every so often a major curve ball or crisis will hit us.”

Mr Heng was speaking at the opening of the IBM Think on Tour 2022 Singapore conference held at the Marina Bay Sands Convention Centre.

He said IBM is an instructive example of a company that successfully adapted to survive, noting that the firm started out as a hardware company and had its core business disrupted by the rise of the personal computer in the 1980s.

“IBM eventually turned the corner successfully and reinvented itself as a provider of software solutions and services,” Mr Heng said.

“Without the ambidextrous ability to not just focus on the present but also to transform for the future, IBM might not be here today.”

Singaporean traditional Chinese medicine company Eu Yan Sang is another example of an ambidextrous organisation.

Mr Heng noted how the 140-year-old firm embraced digitalisation and now has a strong online presence and a network of physicians who use online platforms to communicate with patients.

Mr Heng also said it is no secret that innovation is critical for new breakthroughs, but this is easier said than done.

Fiscal constraints have resulted in declining public investments in research and development (R&D) in some countries, while quarterly pressures may also make it difficult for companies to invest in R&D for the long term.

“Instead of being ambidextrous, many end up focusing narrowly on the present,” Mr Heng said.

“But successful companies understand that innovation is not optional. It is not just a buzzword for your investor prospectus, but a real source of enduring competitive advantage.”

This is why Singapore aims to be a node of technology, innovation and enterprise, and is investing heavily in R&D, Mr Heng said.

He cited the Government’s $25 billion investment in a five-year national R&D plan as well as initiatives such as SkillsFuture and the TechSkills Accelerator programme as examples of Singapore’s commitment to innovation.

Mr Heng added it was also important for organisations to always create value, which means focusing on doing things that contribute to advancing human progress and making the world a better place.

“Increasingly, creating value is not about a single company or research institute coming up with their own inventions and innovations.

“Value is best unlocked through partnerships and collaborations. As the world becomes more complex and interconnected and as knowledge explodes, no single party has all the expertise to make it happen.”

Mr Heng said he was glad to see IBM’s collaborations with the local tech and innovation ecosystem.

Examples include IBM’s partnership with the National University of Singapore on quantum technology and enabling researchers in Singapore’s Quantum Engineering Programme to access its IBM Q Network of organisations to explore practical uses of quantum computing.

AI and automation were among the major themes at the event, which included a series of panel discussions and demonstrations of new innovations.

IBM’s general manager for the Asia-Pacific region Paul Burton said harnessing insights from data analytics and adopting artificial intelligence were fundamental sources of competitive advantage for businesses.

“What we’re finding is that companies that are not deploying AI, and don’t have an active strategy for leveraging data and using AI, are falling off competitively vis-a-vis their peers,” he said, citing a recent research study by IBM on global AI adoption.

“Companies are, more than ever, focused on harnessing data for competitive advantage, delivering better customer experiences, reducing costs, automation, and a host of activities related to driving better business performance.”

DBS managing director and group head of strategy and planning Han Kwee Juan said the bank had placed a strong emphasis on AI literacy among its employees as it moves to accelerate the use of AI and machine learning (ML) in its business.

He noted how DBS collaborated with Amazon Web Services in 2020 to run an AI coding challenge for over 3,000 employees, including top management.

The employees received training in the basics of AI and ML before putting their newly acquired skills to the test by programming autonomous race cars which were pitted against each other in a virtual race.

Mr Han said: “That whole culture of learning is very important, and understanding how to deploy AI has really helped us to… be recognised as the world’s best digital bank.”


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