ECONOMY | Contributed Content, Singapore
Chris Reed

Singapore's digital problems can't be solved with $ alone


The Singapore Budget unveiled a raft of new measures aimed at getting Singapore's reluctant SMEs/SMBs (small media enterprises/businesses) to go digital and use technology in their businesses. It basically amounted to throwing money at the problem. This seems to not only miss the point but not having learnt from previous times when this was tried.

To increase productivity amongst this same target audience, Singapore created the PIC scheme which basically gave out money for doing things that you were going to do anyway like buy a laptop or go on some training. It failed. Productivity actually declined after it was launched and for every year since. It has since been massively scaled back. I wrote an SBR blog about that in 2015.

Singapore is offering $2b over four years to persuade SMEs to go digital. Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat said in his Budget speech, "Technology is reshaping businesses, jobs, and lifestyles across the world. We must spot the opportunities in the digital economy, and make the most of our strengths as a nimble, well-educated, tech-savvy society." All very admirable.

However I think it misses the mark. First, there needs to be a cultural and mindset change. Singaporean-run businesses like the traditional way of doing things and don't like to confront technology even when their customers are doing so.

Uber vs local taxi cabs, for example (I wrote an SBR blog on that subject too), ComfortDelgro, (Singapore's largest taxi operator) tried to get the authorities to create protectionist laws that benefitted them and not consumers rather than embrace technology, then blamed Uber when in fact the customers had already deserted them precisely because they were not and still are not embracing technology.

I run a social media technology business and meet entrepreneurs across the world to discuss how to use social media to enhance personal brands, employer branding, create a content marketing strategy, and generate leads/new business. I am always stunned that the typical reaction amongst Singaporean-run businesses (as opposed to expat-run ones) is that they don't need it. They have their contacts, they meet them for a coffee or beer, and they don't need technology to do this, they get referrals and that's how they do it.

These business leaders will be the first ones to complain when their referrals dry up and their contacts no longer use them. They have based their entire new business strategy on being reactive and lazy as opposed to proactively going after business by using technology and social media. Being able to find people exactly using social media/content marketing and creating a rapport with them online and then meeting them for the first time as a result of this technology just doesn't appeal to them. Way out of their comfort zones.

Does it also point to a mindset of a lack of ambition? Quite happy with the status quo, no need to change anything, hope everything works out. Meanwhile, the world is moving on without them, leaving them behind. The established taxi company vs Uber all over again, played out in every industry and effecting every SME business. Totally preventable but not by throwing money at it.

Singapore is a small market but it's ideally placed for attacking other Asia Pac countries. If you want to. With the best airport in the world and the fastest internet speeds, there really is no excuse for not exploring opportunities to grow unless of course you just want a lifestyle business and one that has reached its peak.

I'll give you a great practical example. I created a "Rock Star Profile Global Tour 2017" concept putting on Exclusive LinkedIn Workshops For Entrepreneurs in places I had never been for my current business, including Melbourne, Perth, and New York. I also did them in places where we already had clients, Sydney, Hong Kong, and Singapore.

Using the data on LinkedIn's Sales Navigator, I was able to identify entrepreneurs in each location that had many connections in common with me and were active on LinkedIn and was able to send them a short message saying that I was visiting their location and would love to meet up and they were welcome to attend my workshop.

This has resulted in sold out workshops so far in Sydney, Singapore, and Melbourne and second dates being added to Sydney, Singapore, and Hong Kong. I also have over 25 meetings in Melbourne, for example, that have all been found on LinkedIn and qualified. This is a city, don't forget, that my business has no presence in and has never targetted before. They wouldn't know who I was from Adam.

All I did was use technology to find them and reach out and suggest a more traditional approach of a meeting to discuss their needs further and how using LinkedIn could benefit them too. Not rocket science but alien to many Singaporean-owned companies even in their own city of Singapore.

In that context, by using this technology these SME owners could increase productivity and sales by merely using something already there and relatively cost-effective ($100 a month for Sales Navigator). On that basis, do you really think offering these same business owners $ to better use digital in their workplaces is going to make any difference at all to their way of working? Won't it be like the PIC all over again and just be a way businesses can get $ from the government without actually changing anything at all?

The government clearly gets it and is aware of it and the opportunity, as Heng said, "Enterprises are the heart of vibrant economies [and] for our enterprises to stay competitive and grow, they will need to develop deep capabilities... There are three capabilities that many firms will need in common – being able to use digital technology, embrace innovation, and scale up." Spot on.

They want you to do it, they're even offering you free advice, help, and grants to do so, but the larger question is do you really want to do it and will you be bothered to put the free advice offered as part of this $2b package into actual operation in your company?

I do enough LinkedIn talks to know that 100% of people attending would certainly benefit from enacting just some of the tips as to how to improve their LinkedIn profile to achieve their goals. However I also know from experience of following up with these same people that 75% of them won't have done anything and won't change a thing but will be the first people to complain that they can't achieve their objectives because someone beat them to a new contract or took their client.

As the saying goes, you can bring the horse to water but you can't make it drink.

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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Chris Reed

Chris Reed

Chris Reed has 25 years of senior marketing experience on both the client and agency side in the UK and now in Asia Pacific. He is the CEO and founder of Black Marketing.

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