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INFORMATION TECHNOLOGY | Contributed Content, Singapore
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Marcus Loh

Agility is key in the Year of the Monkey

BY MARCUS LOH

Many Singapore-listed firms did not find the much needed festive cheer, as bourses reopened in the Year of the Fire Monkey. While many investors got burnt, panic was also seen on a broader scale, as billions of dollars (at least on paper) were wiped off the markets, from the SGX to NYSE. Experts say the increasing number of public companies scaling back their revenue growth forecasts, coupled with the downward pressure on valuations in the private market, points to graver concerns over the state of the global economy.

Some economists have attributed this downturn in market sentiments to China's growth slowdown and a crash in crude prices. Those that take a longer-term view are extolling businesses to stay the course, and gear up for further changes and disruption in the marketplace.

Agility as change catalyst

Tom Goodwin from Havas Media succinctly captured how disruption seems to be changing traditional sectors in big ways: "Uber, the world’s largest taxi company, owns no vehicles. Facebook, the world’s most popular media owner, creates no content. Alibaba, the most valuable retailer, has no inventory. And Airbnb, the world’s largest accommodation provider, owns no real estate. Something interesting is happening." And in a clear signal of more changes to come, even for Singapore’s highly regulated banking sector, DBS Bank’s Piyush Gupta warned that in the future, "people won’t need a bank, they’ll need banking.”

History is replete with stories of once-winning business giants that have failed to keep up with changes and – as a corollary to Jim Colin’s b-school treatise – many of them grew from "Good to Great to Gone". Comparing the Fortune 500 companies in 1955 to the list in 2014, the American Enterprise Institute reported that "88% of the companies from 1955 have either gone bankrupt, merged, or still exist but have fallen from the top Fortune 500 companies."

As the world enters the Fourth Industrial Revolution, one that is characterised by scope, velocity, and systems impact, data will continue to serve as both an enabler for businesses to change, and catalyst for marketplace disruption. In what is perhaps the world’s most open economy, data will have an increasingly pivotal role to play in the age of agility, today and beyond for businesses in Singapore.

Speed-to-insight: a driver of business agility

Technology analyst firm Gartner publishes a Magic Quadrant, an annual report on the state of play in the data analytics market. Data Analytics refers to the mining of stored data from stakeholder transactions, like customer purchases and website visitors, and applying analytical techniques to divine how best to preserve and grow one's business.

This year’s Magic Quadrant found that purchasing decisions are increasingly being made by line-of-business executives and users who want more flexibility, as opposed to IT departments. This reflects a marked shift in how business executives prefer to access and analyse data – no longer wanting to wait for IT to serve their analytics needs, executives instead seem to prefer a self-service approach. Gartner refers to this call for nimbleness, speed, and agility as "the modern analytics era", where centralised provisioning and tightly governed platforms are becoming a thing of the past, and are being counterbalanced and replaced by tools that promote analytical agility and business user autonomy.

As more businesses recognise the benefits that data can yield, speed-to-insight will be the name of the game for those who hope to stay ahead. According to JY Pook, Tableau's APAC Senior Vice President: "The question is, once you're able to access data, can you analyse it in a very fast way? We're not talking about months and quarters here. You should be able to analyse it very quickly and get insights almost immediately."

Enabling speed-to-insight with self-service analytics

Bucking the recent market rout is one of Singapore's marque department store chains, Metro. Its share price gained 6.3 percent since before the Valentine's Day week, against a marginal dip in the Straits Times Index, the health barometer of the Singapore market, by 3.2 percent. Similarly, Metro reported an increase in retail sales in its third quarter performance, just as Singapore saw falling retail numbers across the board.

Established in the 1950s as a textile store, Metro has grown over the years into a multi-national property and retail group. The company currently has two core business divisions – property development and investment, and retail. Its geographical focus is on China, Indonesia, Singapore, and the United Kingdom.

In spite of its roots in 'brick-and-mortar' – as opposed to being another tech unicorn – Metro's management was agile enough to realise that shoppers are now making more informed buying decisions, mainly due to the accessibility and convenience of e-commerce. To remain competitive, the team empowered its staff, beyond the IT department, to see and understand data for themselves.

In a case study, Metro shared how its team looked into data of popular shoe sizes and discovered that customers rarely purchased half sizes. As a result, Metro stocked more of the popular sizes and significantly reduced the problem of overstock of inventory. In turn, this has led to savings in markdowns, storage costs, and opportunity costs.

Stories like Metro’s, and others from government agencies and tech start-ups, point to the importance of organisational agility and the role that data can play in driving speed-to-insight which enables one to stay ahead of changes in the marketplace.

At an annual conference by the Institute of Policy Studies last month, Singapore's Acting Minister for Education Ong Ye Kung referred to the way in which movie giant Walt Disney has changed over the years, as he discussed lessons for Singapore growth path forward. In tandem with burgeoning demand for sci-fi adventures among younger audiences, Mr Ong shared how Disney shifted gear from Mickey Mouse to Marvel and Star Wars.

In February, Disney delivered the highest quarterly earnings in the company's history, marking double-digit EPS growth for ten consecutive quarters. Much of these gains were attributed to Disney's new Star Wars franchise, The Force Awakens. And if there are lessons to be learned from the successes of the likes of Disney, is that businesses that stay the course can turn the tide of disruption in the marketplace to their favor, by embracing agility as a mantra in the Year of the Monkey.

The views expressed in this column are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect this publication's view, and this article is not edited by Singapore Business Review. The author was not remunerated for this article.

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Marcus Loh

Marcus Loh

Marcus Loh is currently Vice President of Brand, Marketing, and Corporate Communication at one of Singapore's leading education institutions, PSB Academy. Marcus is an accredited practitioner with the Institute of Public Relations, Singapore and he has held a variety of appointments in public affairs, media relations, and brand strategy for the private and public sectors.

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