EXCLUSIVE – Helping local SMEs grow & leveraging on data analytics to drive business decisions
Share with us about your role as CIO/Director IT at SPRING Singapore.
Like all the other CIOs, I look at a broad range of issues: from envisioning how IT can be used to achieve the organisation’s mission, and then planning out to execute them, to building and running the organisation’s e-services. For example, the SME portal - positioned as the first stop for business information--as well as SPRING’s grant portal, an online platform for companies to apply for SPRING’s assistance programmes. In addition, I make sure that daily technological needs of our officers are met, so for example, providing officers with what they need to do their work and collaborate: notebooks, email, Internet connectivity, collaborative technologies, etc. All in all, my role really spans a wide range, all the way from IT strategy and planning to project execution and daily operations.
I am also an employee of the Government Technology Agency (GovTech).
How do you think your previous experiences in the private sector helped you in your current role?
My private sector experience comes from working as a developer in a technology startup and also as a product manager at Oracle. These experiences have certainly helped me in my current role. For instance - understanding how the private sector operates, how sales drive a lot of the conversations and how the international companies work with their headquarters - have been very useful to me in my current capacity.
I would say the private sector is one of the most important partners for our work. We partner them heavily to deliver services and systems because more often than not, we don’t and can’t do things by ourselves.
For example, our IT help desk service is outsourced to a vendor company. They’re the people who answer the calls from internal users at SPRING and come alongside users to troubleshoot problems, rather than the IT team because we simply do not have the manpower to do all these by ourselves.
What are some of the challenges you face in your current role?
I think this is not only myself, probably a lot of other colleagues also face these challenges. Let me share some of them.
-Firstly, the worsening cybersecurity climate. We see this a lot in the news of different organisations getting hacked, different types of scams happening and info leaks all around the world and how hackers are getting more sophisticated. This is worsened by the fact of our dependence on technologies is growing. It’s like a double whammy: on one hand, we’re being faced with increasing exposure in the digital landscape, on the other hand, the digital landscape is getting less and less safe.
-Secondly, the quick pace at which the business evolves. The IT systems supporting those business needs will have to keep in pace.
-Thirdly, some of the vendor relationships are challenging, and given that the private sector is one of our most important partners, this can give a lot of headaches.
Could you share with us some of the projects you are currently working on?
I will just name some of the projects we are currently working on: One of them is to improve collaboration within the organisation. At SPRING, we frequently engage and connect with SMEs, and inevitably due to the nature of our work, different parts of the organisation might be talking to the same company at different times. In addition, there are also new colleagues who join the organisation and there are others who move on to other careers. With that, there’s a strong organisational need to handover and ensure that the institutional knowledge is transferred easily so that the learning curve for new staff is smooth. That level of collaboration and the retention of knowledge within the organisation is something which we are looking to improve and build on existing tools that we have.
The other project is about safeguarding our commitment and managing risks. As SPRING supports companies with grant monies, we must also have the necessary processes to be good stewards of taxpayers’ money and be able to identify fraudulent grant applications. The question is how can we improve upon that so that we get better and better at identifying fraudulent grant applications.
With the grants that we give out, there are a lot of applications and claims as well as administrative overheads behind all these application processes, so we’re also looking to streamline this. I think the good thing is we are not starting from ground zero but some of the areas revolve around leveraging big data analytics and technological advances to do some of these tasks including fraud detection, better.
Having a vast experience in both data management and analytics as well as IT security, what are some tips you would give for government agencies or even SMEs who wish to better manage, integrate and utilise the data they have collected?
I think the key question is this, “How do you know where is the best place to invest your analytics resources?” Maybe I have a certain amount of money I want to spend on analytics, where is the best place for me to invest these resources? If I want to hire a team of 5 or 10 people, what problems should I ask them to work on? And then the next question is what will you focus on solving? That’s the tricky piece, because some problems can’t be solved with analytics. For example, at SPRING, we are looking to help local enterprises grow and we want to create good jobs for Singaporeans, we want to be able to help the local economy grow. So one of the things that analytics cannot solve is companies that are not motivated to grow their business. It’s the human motivation factor that’s at play here. What analytics can probably help is getting timely data about the business sentiments within the business community. There are three things I look at when prioritising analytics projects:
Understanding where the organisation’s priorities are, to know what are the key pain points the organisation faces, and what are the key objectives the organisation wants to achieve. This, in a way, is fairly obvious. You want to be doing analytics for things that are important to the organisation. If you hire an external consultant, they might or might not get this right because they might not have spent enough time with your organisation to understand the business or they might not be asking the right questions to understand what exactly your organisation’s priorities might be. Here, I do see that there is more of an advantage to having someone lead this within the organisation.
When I talk about the operational context, I am referring to the people, processes and systems: this defines who makes up the organisation, how do they work and what are the existing systems they have in place. This is very important because it determines whether the analytics can be implemented within the operational context. For example, is there someone to champion a change? Is the champion influential enough to push through the needed change? Is there a way to fit it into the current way of working? Can the current IT systems be enhanced to incorporate analytics? The operational context is key because you need to identify where within the organisation that people are a little bit more open to change--be it in the areas the people, or the process or the system. And there are certain areas that people just don’t want to touch.
When I say intuition, it is an analytics intuition-- to have someone with a good nose that can ‘smell out’ good problems for analytics to solve. What are some problems that are easier to solve with analytics? And what are some of the problems you shouldn’t even try to go near? So for example, when we look at things like analysing sentiments from textual information, let’s say you look at social media, you try to do sentiment analysis, the accuracy level can vary depending on what kind of social media, and also because humans’ comments can be sarcastic; what sounds positive might actually be a very sarcastic remark.
And then there are some areas that are a little bit easier to solve with analytics and more mature, so you definitely want to start with the more mature areas. This comes with experience of implementing analytics as well as a good understanding of what are the pitfalls and benefits of analytics. So you need someone who can look at problem, look at what’s available and then tell you that, “I think this problem we can solve with analytics, this problem we cannot solve with analytics, or this problem is very high risk if we try to solve it”.
So when I prioritise analytics projects, I look at these 3 areas: priorities, the operational context and intuition to decide on where to invest our resources in. I think one of the pitfalls of technology sometimes is that we will chase after the “shiny black box”, what looks very ‘sexy’ in terms of technology, we will chase after those but it might not be the highest priority from the business angle. Sometimes business problems can be solved with very simple technology.
What are some initiatives/projects that SPRING Singapore is embarking on in helping Singapore’s journey towards becoming a Smart Nation?
SPRING Singapore is in the business of enabling enterprise development. We deal with many local enterprises, both small and large ones. As part of our work, I do see that SPRING can also play a big role as a ‘sensor’ for business sentiments. This means that we are constantly aware of the pulse on the business ground. For Smart Nation, we talk about IoT, sensors, we talk about being more keenly aware about what’s going on within the city through the use of sensors, analytics, AI, robots. At SPRING, the question is how can we be a good sensor for business sentiments?
In my opinion, the sensors can come in a few ways. One is really through our regular interactions with the local businesses. So for example, when our colleagues in SPRING have regular meetings with different businesses on a weekly basis, they will file an internal report summarising some of the key talking points, which includes the plans and challenges that the businesses might be having and some of the possible next steps. These reports are taken seriously and stored securely to maintain confidentiality of information. So we look at that and say, “Can I use this information? How do I bring together all these different reports to provide a view to the business sentiments of the local community?”. That can involve using text analytics to identify what are the key topics that are being discussed as well as looking at trends: is manpower the issue people are facing, or are we seeing a drop of manpower issues after certain events?
Sensors for business sentiments is definitely one of the areas SPRING will be able to play in. At the same time, on the receiving end, SPRING will benefit from the other sensors or the other data that is being collected as part of Smart Nation. For example other agencies’ touch points with companies will also help us in areas like fraud detection, as other agencies might have spoken to the same companies and have detected some irregularities that we should watch out for.
How do you think local SMEs/industries can better embrace the digital transformation process so it helps improve their businesses?
If I were to do a small business myself, I will leverage the cloud platform. This is one thing that, as a government organisation, we do have more stringent security considerations in comparison. If some of these hurdles can be further streamlined or even removed, the government can benefit further from cloud-based innovations.
Firstly, I think for the SMEs, (not that they have less concerns about security), but by looking for a cloud-based provider that meets their security requirements, the benefits to their business can be easily reaped. The pace of innovation in the cloud-based space is moving quite quickly and the related services can help to scale their business as they grow too.
Secondly, the other consideration that I think is important is data collection.
It’s crucial for any organisation to be very conscious of the data they are collecting, or how they can actually collect more data that is useful for their businesses, how can they collect data of the right granularity and format and how those data can be used to fuel business decisions. I think a lot of businesses don’t think along those lines in the past, but more of them are starting to think along these lines today.
The third piece that I will look out for is really the implications of digitalisation, how digital is changing business models. The one that we have seen so far before our eyes is how Amazon is pushing out Borders and other brick and mortar stores. In Singapore we are seeing it happening right now. It might not be really Amazon but definitely we saw Borders going out. And now, we see how UBER and Grab are impacting taxi companies.
The question is really, for each of the businesses to ask, what digital business might actually push me out? We’re seeing more food delivery services, how would they impact cafes and restaurants? Granted that food is not like books, we still want to see the food but what are the implications on brick and mortar stores? Is there going to be an impact? Is there not going to be an impact? I think those are the questions worth pondering about.