In a world “littered with expensive digital transformation failures” companies that want to succeed need to go beyond “innovation teams”, and tech professionals must go beyond acquiring technical skills, says Ivan Ng, Chief Technology Officer (CTO) of City Developments Limited (CDL).
Expressing his views in a personal capacity in a wide-ranging interview with PeopleSearch, Ng also discusses what’s required of tech leaders in an uncertain world, and some unexpected limitations digitalisation has imposed on leadership, mentorship and learning.
While his job title denotes a categorical focus on technology, Ivan Ng believes that tech leaders need to have multifarious knowledge and experiences in order to ensure that technological solutions have the desired impact on businesses, stakeholders and society at large.
As Chief Technology Officer (CTO), Ng currently steers group technology strategy and operations at real estate conglomerate, City Developments Limited (CDL).
His career prior to joining CDL in 2016 was non-linear. Over several decades, he garnered experience as a consultant, entrepreneur and technology leader, living and working in various countries including China, Japan, the US and Indonesia.
These experiences allowed him to hone skills to ensure that technology is brought into companies for the purpose of achieving specific business objectives, not just for the sake of it. He believes the role of CTO must extend beyond IT strategy and operations. It should include collaborating actively to better evaluate technology “through the lens of a business leader.” Tech leaders must also be able to empathise with other stakeholders and “bring people who are uncomfortable with technology on the journey as well.”
This has become even more crucial in the context of Covid-19 as businesses accelerate and intensify digital transformation.
In an e-mail interview with PeopleSearch, Ng discussed how organisations can sustain the accelerated pace of digital transformation. He also touched on what’s required of tech leaders in an uncertain world, and some unexpected limitations of digital transformation.
Q: Covid-19 has finally made businesses realise that digital transformation is imperative. Out of necessity, many businesses have had to transform fast, but how can they sustain it to achieve enduring success?
The Covid-19 pandemic has not only accelerated digital transformation, but has distinguished companies that were already investing in digital transformation from those who had not been doing so. It’s apparent that many digitalised businesses have been able to minimise the impact of Covid-19 on their operations. They are also more adaptable, and able to respond swiftly and refocus on business growth.
Indeed, during the crisis, many businesses have embarked on digital transformation at record speed, with some claiming that they are executing years of change within months.
Yet, the painful reality is that most digital transformation exercises fail or are unsustainable. The consequences can be dire including time, money, and reputational damage.
To help sustain change, we need to view this transformation holistically. We need to see it as the development of an enterprise-wide capability, instead of as an implementation of individual initiatives. For digital transformation to be effective, it should have three critical components.
The journey should start with a clear vision of the objectives. By starting with a view of the destination, leaders can better understand the “what” and “why”, allowing them to plan, communicate, and adapt when changes occur.
Secondly, developing enterprise-wide capabilities to execute this vision is critical. Companies need to go beyond “innovations teams” to embed this within the business core – redesign technology, workforce skills, and processes to support the journey.
Lastly, true change only occurs when people are aligned so leaders will need to actively foster a culture of change. This means promoting a willingness to experiment, celebrating successes, and developing a blame-free culture.
The returns can be immense when done well.
I sometimes use the analogy of changing from “a dinosaur to a chameleon” to describe digital transformation. When a business becomes digitally capable, they can avoid being a “once-upon-a-time dinosaur” to being able to adapt quickly to a rapidly changing landscape like a “chameleon.”
Q: Describe CDL’s accelerated transformation journey during this time. What went well and why? What were the challenges? What can be improved?
The pandemic has created a unique situation. For the first time, most customers and employees are “locked down” at home, creating a world of remote touchpoints.
Like many businesses, we needed to continue building trust and engagement with our customers and to ensure staff can work from home effectively. These challenges are non-trivial, necessitating a review of current ways of working, adopting emerging technologies, or even regulatory considerations.
Leveraging our prior investments in technology has certainly helped us address these challenges, providing us more agility, optionality in engagement channels, and resilience in supply chains. As we become more digital, we are also able to harness the Flywheel Effect and to add more capabilities with greater ease and efficacy.
Our initiatives to enhance our proprietary digital platforms such as City Nexus and MyCDLHome are good examples. They allow us to more proactively engage and enable our customers. Using these platforms, we were able to provide remote services and real-time information, and gain feedback from customers on their changing needs.
We also rolled out new capabilities to address the pandemic, including integration to the nation-wide SafeEntry system for contact tracing, regular reviews of the air quality in our building using Internet-of-Things (IoT) sensors, and various contactless ways to gain access to our properties. Homebuyers can also opt for virtual guided tours of show flats, virtual inspections of units and perform virtual handovers.
We also leveraged collaboration platforms to enable work processes for our employees and partners. By employing deeper automation and digital channels, we provided additional remote IT services and enabled work to be seamlessly orchestrated across our ecosystem of partners through the optimisation of logistics, payment processes, digital agreements and electronic signatures.
Q: Considering the oft-used phrase “Covid-19 has forced companies to digitalise” (the operative word being “forced”), what do you think is the likelihood of businesses reverting to pre-crisis inertia once the current crisis abates?
While the crisis has certainly catalysed digitalisation, my view is that it’s unlikely that businesses will revert to pre-crisis inertia.
Firstly, the war for customers’ wallets will not stop once the crisis abates. Every disruption will change the playing field, creating new winners and losers. Amidst large-scale supply chain disruptions, digitalised businesses like Walmart are recording large market share gains from their competition. A McKinsey study found that when customers could not find their preferred product or provider, more than 60 per cent who changed their purchase decisions did not plan to revert.
Secondly, while there are differing views on the impact of the crisis, one common view is that the world beyond the crisis will be more digitally connected. No business in the modern world works alone. Partners and suppliers will want to work efficiently in an ecosystem for successful service delivery. Being digitally able to operate nimbly across organisational boundaries will be critical to delivering well. The “good old ways” may not be appreciated by one’s ecosystem partners and may result in additional costs.
Q: Aside from recalibrating how they interact with customers and partners, businesses have to consider how they interact with employees. Employee engagement has become even more critical in highly digital remote work settings. What do you think businesses need to do in this context to effectively bring out the best in each employee?
There can be little doubt that technology has helped enable employee engagement, even as we all worked from home. To see the “magic” brought by technology, just imagine if this situation had occurred 10 years ago, before the advent of smartphones, video conferencing, and other collaboration platforms. Simply put, the world is much better connected now, and communications can be done on any device, anytime and anywhere.
Despite this, there are limitations to technology. In this new world, learning and growth may be challenged, especially for new employees, as knowledge workers still learn mostly through mentorship and observations.
While some companies are opting to continue working remotely, others such as JPMorgan want their staff to return to the office. A recent Forbes report explained, “Working and collaborating together builds a camaraderie and esprit de corps. Traders, bankers, brokers, compliance, human resources and other personnel share key information, engage in daily discussions and feed off one another. Young employees need mentors, guidance and direction. The synergy, according to JPMorgan, is diminished when its people are disconnected from one another.”
Goldman Sachs is adopting a similar approach.
As such, while there are debates on an ideal physical-remote work model, there may not be a simple answer to this and it really depends on the nature of the work.
I think remote work poses challenges in terms of exercising effective leadership. Empathy and effective listening have always been crucial to being an effective leader. It’s just much harder to do all of this via a video call.
We will most certainly be able to adapt over time, but leaders will need to learn how to leverage different channels based on context and content.
I personally use a mixture of texts, e-mails, voice calls and face-to-face meetings instead of just video calls.
In fact, research has shown that we tend to work harder to focus and process non-verbal cues and body language in virtual interactions as compared to face-to-face ones. This can be exhausting.
Q: What will it take to go beyond “digital lipstick” and keep the momentum going to ensure continued boldness, learning, and innovation?
The world is littered with expensive digital transformation failures. Many businesses assume being digital is just about having great-looking apps. “Digital lipstick” produces short-term results at best and rarely works. Worse, it often exposes the inherent inefficiencies of the company instead. Imagine looking at the Amazon app to realise that your purchase will be stuck in transit for many weeks!
Digital transformation must start with developing a strong digital core, with deep integration across the technology stack from the core to the front.
As an example, CDL embarked on its paperless journey three years ago. We digitised most of our business processes and implemented digital scanning for non-repudiation. This foundational work was hard but it enabled us to subsequently build apps that have allowed new and efficient workflows. These have facilitated easy retrieval and collaboration. The result is a more seamless digital experience for our teams and customers. Just bolting on a good-looking UI for the existing platform would not have achieved this.
To continue innovating beyond the crisis, businesses should embed themselves in their customers’ journeys to reimagine their service delivery processes from the outside-in. Like old maps to a new terrain, we need to be aware that customer habits are always changing. Past processes and playbooks may not work. Team members will need to develop a growth mindset to embrace these changes, and as leaders, we need to recognise outcomes and learning as being equally important.
Q: Technology is ultimately about people – the people needed to create, design, operate and use it. The skills gaps in this sector have been and are still a concerning issue. Beyond technical skills, what are the essential skills and attributes needed to be able to work in tech in the current context of prolonged uncertainty?
As businesses get disrupted, business leaders may be challenged to react to dynamic changes in expectations, not knowing what they need or understanding what is possible with technology.
IT professionals will need to be actively involved in the business to collaborate more proactively with business leaders, and this requires more than technical skills.
I would suggest two skills that may be critical.
One key skill is the ability to learn constantly and challenge our views. The reality is that the technology sector is itself a very demanding one where the landscape changes fast and hard-earned experience can be eroded quickly. Former Apple CEO Steve Jobs advised us to ”Stay hungry. Stay foolish,” to which I would add ”Stay curious.” We should remain curious about how new technologies are disrupting the industry and imagine how customers can or would use such technology. Being curious can also mean reflecting on “why” certain things are done and often “why not” as well. Many insights can come from these two very simple questions. These can often result in different ways of approaching a problem.
A second essential skill is effective communication. Technology is increasingly part of any business and to be successful in any digital transformation, we need to bring people who are uncomfortable with technology on the journey as well. This means being able to communicate beyond technical teams and across various business units. We will be expected to provide direct, clear and jargon-free explanations of the technology initiatives we are embarking on.
Q: Tell us about your own career journey and the skills you picked up along the way that have enabled you to excel as a CTO?
My career is certainly a non-linear one. I have been at various stages in my career, a consultant, entrepreneur, business executive, and technology leader, while residing and working for the majority of my time in China, Japan, the US, and Indonesia.
I began my career as a consultant in IBM, advising large regional banks on optimising their corporate and retail loan processes, before joining the global Olympics team to deliver highly scalable technology platforms for the 1998 Japan Winter Olympics. In my late twenties, I started my first company to specialise in corporate relationship management systems. Alongside subsequent business leadership roles managing the regional business units for HP and ServiceNow across the Asia Pacific, I returned to frontline technology to drive transformation initiatives for CDL as Chief Technology Officer in 2016.
While it has not been a typical journey, it has provided me with many learning opportunities and additional perspectives. It has also enabled me to better evaluate technological initiatives through the lens of a business leader and to better empathise and communicate how technology could impact other stakeholders. This is useful as a key role of a CTO is to enable our businesses to achieve better results using technology. Having an ability to relate to business leaders helps me identify opportunities for change and partnering to create and execute joint technology roadmaps with the business.
Q: How would education in your field need to change in order to produce individuals who can excel in a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world?
The value of technology is always in its practical application to business problems and this often means individuals are required to learn and collaborate rapidly to deliver what stakeholders want. To succeed, technologists need to be comfortable with dealing with ambiguity while rapidly understanding changing business conditions.
Yet, computing is studied as a STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) discipline through an intense, specialised curriculum. Rapid changes in an uncertain world highlight the inadequacy of such intense academic specialisation. In confronting real-world problems, apart from providing a technical solution, we will need a humanistic approach to consider the societal implications of technological solutions.
While there is no replacement for experience, schools can provide a stronger foundation.
As a member of the Industry Advisory Committee to the National University of Singapore, I have had robust discussions with other members on how technology graduates can benefit from acquiring a broader spectrum of skills. These are skills that can help them make connections across different disciplines, otherwise known as “T-Shaped” skills. This may mean a combination of analytical skills, business knowledge and technical grounding. Graduates will increasingly need the breadth and depth of knowledge, and the ability to integrate multiple disciplines to solve real-world problems.
Ivan Ng expressed his views in this article in a personal capacity. These views are not reflective of his employer’s opinions or positions on the various issues discussed herein.