ECONOMY | Contributed Content, Singapore
Marcus Loh

Trade Associations and Chambers must stay nimble and neutral to truly benefit members


More help for small and medium businesses (SMBs) – that was a ringing hymn from the chorus of trade associations and chambers (TACs), as each offered their own stanza of suggestions to steer Singapore through a more uncertain future, since the national Budget was unveiled in March.

With each cut and thrust into the same body of argument, chamber representatives seemed obsessed over more subsidies, grants, and loans for local entrepreneurs to lift Singapore’s "spirit of enterprise".

Weeks later, Singapore's ministry of trade and industry offered a robust response in Parliament.

Government to TACs: Complain less, do more

Government responded with a $30 million aid package for these associations, and along with aid, it also signaled a takeover, such as seconding up to 20 public service officers over the next five years to TACs. It was a shot across the bow that rang louder than the dirge of any chamber.

Response to this government intervention from the TACs could not have been more lukewarm. In fact, the silence was deafening. As if to rub salt to wound, the airwaves were blanketed in successive days by stories – on prime-time slots no less – of how advanced economies like Germany's have spearheaded successful industry transformations through the country's local TACs. 

The government had turned the tables on TACs: complain less, do more or we will do your job for you.

Much has already been shared about Germany's slew of effective policies to help Mittlestands – local, small-medium size manufacturers – become respected, productive players. That speaks volumes of the leadership role that Germany's industry bodies have in leading the charge not only for members, but for industry. 

Singapore Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam spoke about this very issue of productivity in Singapore, and shared at this year's Singapore Forum that technology can become an enabler for small businesses.

Aside from leadership, local TACs – with its wide reach and international networks – can also offer a window to the world of tech-driven productivity catalysts, that many of Singapore's inward-facing businesses have not yet embraced. 

Unlocking a $65 billion opportunity

Analyst group IDC expects that savvy Asia Pacific organisations that are able to analyse all relevant big data and deliver actionable insights will achieve an extra $65 billion in productivity benefits over their less data-guided peers by 2020. The key to unlocking these benefits is in empowering more business users across organisations to see and understand data for themselves.

This makes perfect sense. Business users – from human resource managers to marketing leaders – probably know more about their respective domains than the IT guy or data analysts. They would be able to also ask the right questions of the data they gather and help their respective departments benefit most from a speedier insight-to-action process.

As data is embraced organisation-wide, the whole enterprise unlocks gains in productivity previously unrealised. In short, businesses need to empower their employees to become smarter, so as to become smarter and more productive themselves.

In fact, the same analyst group worked with data analytics software firm Tableau to publish a study concerning organisations in Asia Pacific last year. It found that organisations, which encouraged a data culture across their enterprises, had outperformed their peers by a rate of two-to-one.

These results prove that having a data-informed culture can become a massive competitive advantage, and should come as a life buoy for Singapore's local SMBs who are still struggling to become more productive. 

Here is where the role of local TACs becomes pivotal in helping SMBs navigate the world of tech and analytics, because not all forms of data analytics are created equal. 

Self-serve to drive productivity

Gartner, a technology analyst group, found that after interviewing hundreds of analytics users, that traditional business intelligence software makers were no longer leading the market.

In the traditional method of performing data analytics, business users submit requests for business intelligence reports to a pool of high priests comprising data analysts, business intelligence managers, or even data scientists. They receive their report in a couple of days, only to have more questions of their data.

The process is tedious, clunky, and cumbersome. Amidst rising pressures to become nimble and more productive, business users have found that the old way of performing data analytics simply won't do. 

This has given rise to the concept of self-service analytics, a game-changing capability that is not only significantly easier to deploy, but also raises the productivity of their practitioners. This is in line with what the Singapore government has been extolling for the longest time.

For example, while marketers can become more data-guided and are able to better demonstrate returns on marketing investment with self-service analytics, IT professionals also become liberated from running a data report factory to undertake more strategic roles in data governance, policy and security safeguards for the enterprise.

Unfortunately, TACs will have a tough job of making recommendations to their members, amidst the fog of obscure concepts like cognition-driven analytics and artificial intelligence that are enthusiastically championed by traditional, brand name players in the analytics world.

TACs must put members first

Many of these innovations, however overhyped, have not offered very much recourse to the plight of our SMBs who need practical, and cost-efficient tools to unlock their productivity potential today.

Therefore, I applaud the government's robust response in Parliament, in helping TACs ramp up. TACs – particularly in the tech-sector – need to not only stay ahead of the curve, they also need to go out of their way in demonstrating their sense of neutrality, for the sake of their members.

For example, when representatives from the same traditional players helm industry chapters in TACs who cannot help but speak up for inefficient, traditional ways of doing things, it is most likely that the same TAC members whom they represent stand to lose.

How this love-hate relationship between government and TACs plays out remains to be seen. Government intervention could also spell more regulation and administrative work for TACs.

But one thing is clear – instead of serving as an echo chamber (pun intended) for its members, TACs need to become both better representatives and leaders of their respective interest groups, put the genuine interests of their members first, and help them to help themselves by acquiring the right capabilities to stay nimble, stay competitive, and unlock the much-needed productivity gains.

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 Director, Asia Pacific Communication for global visual analytics firm Tableau Software. He was named a Linkedin Power Profile and was listed in Singapore Business Review’s top 10 “Notable Chief Marketing Officers under 40”. Marcus holds an M.S from Michael Smurfit Graduate Business School and won a scholarship for his second master’s degree from the Singapore Management University and Università della Svizzera italiana. He serves on various advisory capacities for academia and industry including, the Institute of Public Relations of Singapore, CMO Council, UOB-SMU Asian Enterprise Institute, Asia Enterprise Brand Awards, to name a few.

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