SIA CEO on business transformation: 'No one has monopoly over wisdom'

One of the biggest hurdles to business transformation is painful reality of change the staff members often feel. But this resistance to change, is sometimes just a cocoon holding back the embarrassment of staff who may have ideas, but not the capabilities to bring those ideas to life.

Realising this to be a hurdle in its journey of innovation and transformation, national carrier Singapore Airlines (SIA) created a dedicated unit to helping staff who are not tech competent or digitally trained, but nonetheless have ideas around business pain points they want to solve. At the recent Forbes Global CEO conference, Goh Choon Phong, CEO, of Singapore Airlines explained that the unit was created to help staff members with ideas be more involved in the company's transformation and shift the overall business culture. Goh said changing its culture was crucial to transformation of the brand and that “no one has monopoly over wisdom”.

To steer itself in the right direction digitally, SIA trained its staff to grow their capabilities and added digital tools to empower its people. It also “drastically lifted its digital capabilities in the company” and “quality of digital talent”. Moreover, it radically revamped its older infrastructure to support new tech. Goh added that today, the airline was proud to have "one of the best data analytics team in the industry" and was agile given the numerous capabilities it had in house.

“We are very much into AI implementation and learning implementation. In fact we implement our own chat bots and mobile apps which allowed us to be more agile,” he said. Another key pillar to transformation, said Goh also around collaboration with external parties. The brand has established partnerships and opened up collaborative partnerships with startups and universities and research institutions to leverage their skillset and co create solutions.

“Some of these solutions solve our pain points and others [can potentially] be new business ideas for us,” he explained. What has been most encouraging for the company is the numerous invites it has gotten to share and cross-learn how far SIA has come in its journey. This in turn helps position the company as a  forward looking one to attract the future generations of talent.

Future proofing leadership and talent

Adding on to the conversation was CEO Jane Sun who said today, you will see more CTOs in the running for the CEO role as technology becomes the central figure to our lives. In a bid to foster this culture of innovation in her company, Sun and her team created an internal innovation programme called the “Baby Tiger Programme”.

One of the projects under the programme saw a team of six engineers asking the executive board to fund a project work RMB2 million. The team promised the board that within six months, they would get at least 10,000 transactions if the project was piloted. Surprising everyone with the funding, within a month, the team of six surpassed their goal and is now one of the most lucrative units for the business. As such, today, the company is adamant to encourage its younger employees with engineering backgrounds to bring business plans to executives and boardrooms to get funding and exposure.

Noting on the rising demands for individuals with talent cutting across both technology and business was Madhav Rajan, dean and George Pratt Shultz Professor of Accounting, The University of Chicago Booth School of Business. Rajan explained that one concentration that is growing rapidly in tertiary education institutions is business analytics - which is an MBA programme that covers topics such as machine learning, AI and app development. Turn back the clock by 15 years, this programme probably would not draw in that much interest.

Rajan added that more and more, he too is seeing the teachings of marketing change from intuition based to one which is data driven.

“A field like marketing has now completely transformed from 10-15 years ago. Now marketing is as quantitative as any other field and it is about understanding massive data sources to know the ad campaign and ROI. The type of research for marketing today is completely different from before,” he added. He added that the demand for students to learn these new skills in data and analytics is far more than it used to be, and largely driven by organisations.