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KPMG’s Irving Low believes now is the time to reimagine the future of work

Organisations must sharply focus on corporate culture, leadership, and people development strategies.

Irving Low is a partner in KPMG in Singapore whose career with the company spans over 28 years, also having worked in its London office. As the Co-Head of Advisory in KPMG Singapore and Indonesia, he is responsible for the Advisory businesses and practices across Management Consulting and Risk Consulting. 

As part of the firm’s Senior Executive Committee, Low oversees the firm’s strategic and operational excellence, focusing on corporate governance. In this role, he undertakes corporate governance reviews for public and private organisations, and is frequently invited to attend and speak at board meetings and public forums.

Low sits on the Board of the Singapore Tyler Institute and the Advisory Board for the School of Accountancy for the Singapore Management University where he helps shape the future of the accounting profession. He is also the chairperson of CPA Australia Sub-committee for the Public Sector and was a member of the Governance Committee of the Institute of Singapore Chartered Accountants.

Being one of this year’s judges for the Singapore Business Review Management Excellence Awards, Low shared his insights on how public and private leaders can create long-term value for all stakeholders, the importance of corporate purpose, and best governance practices for small and medium enterprises.

As a subject matter expert in corporate governance both public and private organisations, what can both these sectors learn from each other?

The year 2021 is an opportunity to fine tune strategy and corporate governance with private companies forging their own paths as there is no one-size-fits-all structure or set of good governance policies that works best.

A well thought governance system ensures that directors’ voices will be heard, and that the checks and balances are more resilient in a COVID world of uncertainty. On the flip side, unlike private companies, public companies tend to be more focused on short-term results, and on how to manage stakeholders’ expectations. It's imperative that CEOs take action to position their companies for long-term value creation; how to blend long-term value creation with a shorter-term result focus.

As a community leader and frequent guest speaker at board meetings and at public forums, what values or best practices on corporate governance do you advocate in your presentations to ensure that the CPA profession maintains its integrity and credibility in the future?

Being independent and consistent are key traits of our profession and for the CPA profession. These are really the hallmark, whether in good times or bad times. Perhaps, what has changed in today’s context is the importance of corporate purpose.

In the latest KPMG CEO 2021 survey, 64% said that their organisation’s defining objective is to embed purpose into everything they do—creating long-term value for all stakeholders (up from 54% in January/February 2020).

CEOs and boards need to balance ESG concerns whilst managing the evolving expectations of all stakeholders.This is the credibility issue being addressed, the corporate purpose must be credible in the eyes of the public.

Many small and medium-sized businesses are struggling in these times. What good corporate governance best practices can these SMEs apply in these challenging times?

SMEs can focus on these five critical areas to strengthen their businesses during this period of accelerated change, whilst also preparing the path forward

  • Rigorous risk assessment and enhanced risk management practices
  • Financial assessment and meticulous financial risks management
  • Customer attentiveness
  • Culture + Talent management
  • Operating efficiency

More critically, COVID-19 has created a need for SMEs to fundamentally change business models for a sustainable future.

They have been hit hard and will need to invest to digitalise, as dealing with their customers in person may no longer be the only channel, in a living-with-COVID-19 new normal.

Their business operations, supply chains etc will need to be restructured to cater for a more digital world.

How can leaders and management continue to constructively challenge and uplift employees in these challenging times?

For all businesses, meeting the challenges and opportunities of work flexibility will require a sharp focus on the company’s culture, leadership, and people development strategies in that context. Work flexibility as well as employees' mental health and wellbeing are to be looked at strategically.

  • How does leadership sustain a firm’s culture in a more virtual environment?
  • How will management build and maintain a robust talent pipeline in this largely virtual, flexible workplace?
  • How do businesses keep their workforce engaged and be mentally battle ready each day, and every day?

Businesses have a window of opportunity to reimagine a future of work that boosts productivity, better engages their people, nurtures workforce well-being, and drives sustainable growth for the long term.

In recent decades, technology has become intertwined with business strategy. How can organisations apply technology to improve corporate governance?

COVID-19 has a huge impact on firms' existing governance arrangements and controls. For example, there have been significant changes to systems and internal controls due to remote work arrangements. Without the ability to perform physical oversight, risk management, compliance, and internal audit functions may find it challenging to recalibrate risk and to redesign the associated controls.

Thus, firms have identified benefits of adopting a more technology-based focus to their governance arrangements.

For example, boards and management teams can make use of business intelligence platforms and visualisation software to streamline the way they gather, engage, report, and disclose data.

Beyond that, businesses have started to think more strategically about technology and digital capabilities, and are looking to invest so as to uplift their operating models

In KPMG's latest CEO Survey for 2021, 78% of them said that “we need to be quicker to shift investment to digital opportunities and divest businesses that face digital obsolescence”.

It should be emphasised that as organisations ramp up their technology investment, cyber risk will also increase proportionately, if not significantly more. Hence, whilst technology will aid the business in the changing world of online business, it can also aid businesses to prevent, and mitigate risks. 70% of CEOs said that new partnerships will be critical to continuing the pace of digital transformation, but they are also mindful of building cyber resilience into their approach.

 Data is often collected with not much purpose but with the risk lens on, the right data can highlight risk areas or red flags early. 

As part of the Advisory Board for the School of Accountancy for the Singapore Management University, what changes or innovations do you see in the future of this profession and how will these changes impact the industry?

COVID-19 has significantly accelerated the evolution toward a "virtual" everything. Digital transformation has revamped almost everything we do and in the auditing process, into something entirely new—a reimagined audit experience.

With workplace closures and the need for physical distancing, auditors are leveraging existing and new technology to conduct audits remotely, from remote data extraction and analysis, to inventory counts using drone technologies.

But the future of audit is not just about remote audits; it is about using technology to transform the traditional audit process, to achieve three objectives: a higher quality audit, a more efficient audit, and better business insights for clients.

Auditors should be prepared for an era of machine learning and artificial intelligence. Some skills include applying cognitive analytics, leveraging data to unlock hidden insights, identify patterns and predict outcomes.

High standards of corporate governance are practiced in Singapore. Are there still aspects of corporate governance where local organisations can improve? Please cite examples.

More can be done to improve board effectiveness and diversity and to avoid group think.

As a result of COVID-19, CEOs have had to re-evaluate their organisations’ purpose and their roles. In KPMG’s latest CEO Survey for 2021, 71% said that CEOs will be increasingly held personally responsible for driving progress in addressing social issues. And 56% believe that with expectations of diversity, equity and inclusion rising so fast, they may struggle to meet expectations.

Ultimately, we need to have a strong corporate culture: A firm's culture can help plug the gaps and ensure that all governance and risk control arrangements follow the spirit of the intentions rather than worrying about ill-fitting prescriptive policy or process.

[i] https://home.kpmg/xx/en/home/insights/2021/08/kpmg-2021-ceo-outlook.html

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