'Adapt to digital revolution or risk being left behind'

Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan and Mr Oliver Tonby, managing partner for South-east Asia at McKinsey & Company, launching the McKinsey Digital Campus at the 9th McKinsey Innovation Forum yesterday.
Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan and Mr Oliver Tonby, managing partner for South-east Asia at McKinsey & Company, launching the McKinsey Digital Campus at the 9th McKinsey Innovation Forum yesterday.PHOTO: MCKINSEY & COMPANY

No barriers between online and offline; firms must make transition despite pain: Vivian

Companies must adapt to the digital revolution, no matter how painful it is, or risk being left behind, said Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan yesterday.

Dr Balakrishnan, who is also the minister in charge of the Smart Nation initiative, said: "The barriers have come down. You can't hide behind the so-called difference between online and offline, and the sooner everyone realises that, the better."

Dr Balakrishnan, addressing a fellow panellist, Singtel group digital life chief Samba Natarajan, said the telco should feel "uncomfortable" about the rapid growth and popularity of messenger service WhatsApp.

Customers have increasingly migrated from SMS to third-party chat apps over the last few years.

WhatsApp, which crossed more than 900 million monthly active users last month, employed just 55 people and served more than 450 million users when it was acquired by Facebook last year, said Dr Balakrishnan. "That's less than 40 engineers. That's scale. You've got to be uncomfortable," he added.

Dr Balakrishnan was speaking to an audience of about 200 business leaders at the McKinsey Innovation Forum as part of a panel that also included Microsoft Singapore managing director and East Coast GRC MP Jessica Tan, among others.

The panel discussion also tackled some of the challenges facing larger companies as they try to transform themselves, including in critical areas like how staff are organised.

Mr Natarajan said: "It is about organisation but it is also about finding the right pieces, and figuring out how to make it part of one direction, one inspiration, across many different geographies, different cultures. To get that right, beyond the PowerPoint slide, is not easy, and making that happen is where all the value is."

Another panellist, Singapore Post group chief executive Wolfgang Baier, said leaders may find it harder to make forward-looking decisions in a digital age defined by change, but making a decision quickly and learning from it can be more important than making the right decision from the outset.

"You have to act, as a start, and constantly adapt. It's more important to make a decision than to overanalyse it... I think constant intervention is more important for the future," said Dr Baier, who is a former McKinsey partner.

Bosses could try to predict the future but they will most likely be wrong, so it is more important that they have resilience, he added.

During the discussion, held at the Ritz-Carlton Millenia hotel, Dr Balakrishnan reiterated his commitment to open-source software and open-data sharing.

"I make no apologies for saying I'm a believer in an open-data and open-source society," he said.

"It will be more challenging (for governance). But because in Singapore we're not corrupt, and we don't have dirty little secrets to hide, a fully transparent society is fine with us. It's certainly fine with the PAP candidates - it's in our genes anyway," he said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 23, 2015, with the headline ''Adapt to digital revolution or risk being left behind''. Print Edition | Subscribe