Deep capabilities will differentiate winners from losers in future economy

The impact of big long-term trends - such as the rise of China and India, a global slowdown in productivity growth and demographic shifts - on Singapore's small, open economy will be profound, Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat said in his address to the Economic Society of Singapore on Wednesday. He set out why firms and workers will need deep capabilities to thrive. Below is an edited excerpt of his speech.

We won't feel the full effects of these trends tomorrow, and no one can predict the future. But we can prepare. When the Committee on the Future Economy considered these trends and discussed possible responses, there were some who sought to bet on new growth industries, new technologies and new markets to go into. But in a fast-changing, unpredictable world, there are no shortcuts. What we need is a certain shift in orientation - a readiness for change, and a willingness to try, learn, and try again.

Last year, I met the CEO of a food company that was doing well, along with several of his competitors in the industry. He told me, "Years back, an official told us that we were in a sunset industry. We wanted to prove him wrong. We worked hard, we worked together. There's no sunset industry, only sunset thinking!" I applaud his fighting spirit. Whether a firm or an industry will succeed is not preordained - it depends on our mindset and how we build competitive advantage.

Our economy's competitiveness and ability to create good opportunities for our people rests on a set of inter-related factors. First, we need to maintain macroeconomic stability, and have a well-functioning financial system that channels savings to productive uses. We have done this well in recent years, keeping inflation at bay through effective monetary policy, while maintaining fiscal prudence. Our financial system has also continued to innovate to meet the evolving demands of the modern economy.

Second, we need strong microeconomic foundations, that allow resources to be allocated efficiently across firms and individuals, in an equitable and sustainable way. We have, and must, continue to make our regulations more pro-business, tweaking them to encourage innovation and risk-taking, while protecting the interests of our people.

And third, we must encourage our individuals, firms and industries to build deep capabilities, so that they can achieve sustainable competitive advantage to adapt and thrive in their fields. This third factor, capabilities, is what I will focus on today.

At their core, the recommendations of the Committee on the Future Economy (CFE) are about keeping our economy globally connected, and building deep capabilities - both horizontal capabilities across the economy, and vertical ones within each industry. By bringing all key stakeholders together to create Industry Transformation Maps and to build capabilities, we can better address the challenges and opportunities in each industry, and the entire economy. While we cannot predict the future, strong corporate and human capabilities give us the best chance of riding the waves of changes ahead.

FIRMS CREATING VALUE

Firms need two main types of capabilities to be competitive, particularly in a time of change. One: distinctive, firm-specific capabilities, to differentiate themselves from their competitors. Two: industry-wide capabilities that benefit all firms within a sector.


An automated breadmaker at BHF Pte Ltd. Automated processes have helped the firm to cut costs by about half. Innovation, including the use of technology, can help a competitive firm create unique value for its customers, in cost-effective ways, says Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat. ST FILE PHOTO

First, firm-specific capabilities. A competitive firm creates unique value for its customers, in cost- effective ways. There is no formula for this. Every company must develop its own. But there are some broad areas that we heard about during the CFE's industry consultations: Human capital; Innovation, including the use of technology; and Internationalisation.

A MATTER OF MINDSET

Last year, I met the CEO of a food company that was doing well, along with several of his competitors in the industry. He told me, "Years back, an official told us that we were in a sunset industry. We wanted to prove him wrong. We worked hard, we worked together. There's no sunset industry, only sunset thinking!" I applaud his fighting spirit. Whether a firm or an industry will succeed is not preordained - it depends on our mindset and how we build competitive advantage.

FINANCE MINISTER HENG SWEE KEAT, stressing the need to build competitive advantage, whatever the industry.

Let me first discuss innovation. The ability to innovate new products, services, processes or business models that create new value gives companies a competitive edge. In recent times, the rapid growth of some start-ups has captured the public imagination. Innovation is often associated with start-ups. But large companies need as much, if not more, innovative capacity. Beyond in-house development of new products and services, companies are also setting up corporate venture funds and incubators, so as to discover, work with, and invest in promising start-ups. We see this in the pharmaceutical industry, where large companies are licensing drugs developed by smaller start-ups. Also in Silicon Valley, where promising tech start-ups get acquired by larger players. The value chain for innovation is changing - some start-ups may choose to develop themselves fully, while others may partner established companies to commercialise their innovations. ST Engineering has launched a corporate venture capital unit, and started an open innovation lab called Innosparks in Launchpad @ one-north. In time, companies can make use of the Global Innovation Alliance (GIA) to extend their innovation networks overseas - in fact, as part of our GIA efforts, BLOCK71 Jakarta was officially opened just last week.

Another way to innovate is to use technology. Firms can adopt existing technology to improve productivity, or adapt technology to change their business models and disrupt industries. Others may invent technology and create intellectual property (IP). We should encourage a variety of approaches to innovation, including the use of technology, and create some flexibility in our regulatory frameworks, like regulatory sandboxes, to allow new things to be tried.

Another important corporate capability is the ability to internationalise. Technological advancements and trade liberalisation have reduced distances and extended companies' reach to resources and customers. Companies need local market insights and outreach capabilities to tap the larger potential markets that emerge as a result. Technology allows big and small firms alike to expand into the region and the world. From start-ups like Carousell to large enterprises like CapitaLand, Singapore firms are already doing so. There is government support for firms to internationalise.

Beyond firm-specific capabilities, industry-wide capabilities also matter. Companies can cooperate to help build these. A few years back, I visited a company in Switzerland that was training about 100 students to operate complex machinery. But the company needed only 60 new recruits. The remaining 40 would go to their competitors. Now, why would a company train for its competitors? The CEO explained that there would be an industry-wide shortage of talent otherwise - a shortage would affect them all. It was a lesson in competing and cooperating at the same time.

In Singapore, too, industry leaders have taken encouraging steps. You may be familiar with the TechSkills Accelerator (TeSA), which trains ICT professionals. About two years back, members of the Singapore Infocomm Technology Federation and the Singapore Computer Society told me they were facing a shortage of strong ICT talent. I asked them, "Would you be willing to work together? Government can help provide resources, but, as industry, you know best what skills are relevant." They said yes, and competitors worked actively together with our agencies to form and run TeSA. I was impressed by this. Over 10,000 professionals have benefited from TeSA's programmes. And companies can hire from a deeper pool of talent with relevant skills. I look forward to seeing TeSA achieve even more.

Our Trade Associations and Chambers (TACs) are also important in building industry- wide capabilities. So I am glad that they, too, are actively collaborating. For example, more than 20 TACs will share facilities and resources at the Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce and Industry's Trade Association Hub, which will officially open soon.

Some industry leaders have asked me if our economics agencies can also improve our coordination, to provide more integrated support, in areas such as helping companies to build capabilities and to internationalise. We are studying these.

Indeed, collaboration is the spirit of the Industry Transformation Maps (ITMs). Each ITM gathers the stakeholders - companies, TACs, unions, research institutes, training providers and government agencies - to formulate and implement strategies to develop the industry and its capabilities.

The different capabilities cannot be considered in isolation. Each industry will need a different configuration of capabilities. By bringing all stakeholders together, we can implement changes more effectively. Beyond each single industry, we should also explore developing capabilities across different industries. This is why we formed six clusters of related ITMs.

Ultimately, firms and industries must take the lead to create value for their customers, by building strong capabilities.

PEOPLE: STAYING RELEVANT THROUGH LIFELONG LEARNING

Factors like the reconfiguration of global supply chains, shifts in consumption patterns and technological advances are changing the nature of jobs and the skills we need for work, along with how businesses operate. So corporate and human capabilities must go hand-in-hand, growing in tandem to drive our industry transformation. This is why Jobs and Skills form an important pillar of every ITM.

These changes will affect what we learn, how we learn and when we learn. First, what we learn should help us realise our potential, and build foundations for further learning. Part of this involves learning skills that are relevant to society and the economy. Along with domain-specific skills, some general ones, like the ability to work with digital tools and data, will increase in economic significance. Others, like social skills and emotional intelligence, will remain important in making us effective members of society. We should harness technology to create more value. If we can use artificial intelligence (AI) to automate more routine cognitive tasks, for instance, we can then focus on developing the uniquely human skills, like creativity or open-ended problem-solving, that will enable us to do higher-value work.

Next, to keep up with fast-changing skills requirements, how we learn should expand to include learning from all sources and in different settings. Learning does not have to happen in a classroom - it can also happen via new technologies, like online platforms, or new modalities, like on-the-job training or overseas attachments, which can help to integrate theoretical understanding with practical application.

Third, when we learn need not be confined to the first two decades of our lives. As we all live and work longer, we cannot expect to cram all that we need to know for our entire lives within the first 20-odd years of our lives. Instead, we should learn throughout life, through on-the-job experience interspersed with bouts of more intense, modular full-time training.

If we are to change what, how and when we learn, individuals, institutes of learning and industry must change our habits and practices significantly. Individuals will have to shift from "learning, then doing" to "lifelong learning and doing". Instead of just learning before starting work, we should embrace a lifelong cycle of learning and doing. Throughout our careers, we learn the skills that we need for our jobs, hone them by using them at work, and then, as the economy evolves, learn a new set of skills and in turn put those to use. This is what the SkillsFuture movement is about. We should also take up opportunities to broaden our experience beyond our shores. Initiatives like the Global Innovation Alliance, for instance, can help us to understand overseas contexts better.

Institutes of learning also have a role. For instance, the Ministry of Education (MOE) has the 21st Century Competencies Framework, to help students in our schools develop competencies like responsible decision-making and critical and inventive thinking, encouraging them to become self-directed learners who can keep up learning throughout their lives. Our educational institutions are placing a greater emphasis on skills application and hands-on learning at all levels. Examples include the Applied Learning Programmes in our secondary schools, the SkillsFuture Earn and Learn Programmes in our polytechnics and ITE, and the various work-learn programmes in our autonomous universities. The Singapore Institute of Technology's Integrated Work-Study Programme gives students real-world experience through eight to 12 months of relevant on-the-job training with partner companies. The results are promising: 84 per cent of the first batch of accountancy students received priority job offers from the partner companies, and two were even able to start in a position above entry level! Employers also benefit. They get eight to 12 months to assess potential employees, and a head start in training them. We should continue to encourage such close collaboration between our educational institutions and industry partners, to tighten the link between learning and working.

Increasingly, our educational institutions also encourage students to gain overseas exposure, through programmes like the NUS Overseas Colleges, the polytechnics' Overseas Student Internship Programme, and ITE's Global Education Programme. Our universities, polytechnics and ITE have all embarked on making courses available online. NTU has announced that it would convert some 1,500 courses in five years, about 50 per cent of its PET courses. NUS has partnered Coursera to launch several Massive Open Online Courses. The rest are making progress to make available modules online, to support new modes of learning for full-time and part-time students. MOE's Student Learning Space will also use the latest digital tools and modalities of learning to improve educational outcomes.

What about industry players? It is encouraging to see that many companies are building up their human capital, as part of their overall business strategy, and reaping significant benefits from this investment. Firms are integrating the development of their people with the redesign of their company processes. For example, in upgrading its Singapore plant into a smart factory, Panasonic upgraded employees' skills to remain relevant in a smart factory. As a result, the median salary of its local staff has increased by 35 per cent.

Many companies operate as "in-house approved training organisations" which provide industry-validated training to their own staff. Examples include Wing Tai, SATS and McDonald's. Firms that are far-sighted in building corporate capabilities are those that anticipate future skills needs, and invest in developing their people. I am a firm supporter of such efforts. These firms can collaborate with our educational institutions through various work-study programmes, or work with government agencies. Industry-wide, there is collaboration on human capital development. Today, there are companies which deliver training programmes, not just for their own needs, but for the broader industry. Examples include Ascott and the PBA Group. The Supply Chain and Logistics Academy is an example of an industry-driven effort that trains supply chain professionals across different companies, through experiential workplace learning. I encourage further collaboration.

Allow me to conclude. The world is facing major structural changes. Singapore is well placed to manage these changes, and make the most of the opportunities they bring - we have strong tripartite relations, sound macroeconomic and microeconomic foundations, and strong physical and virtual connections to the world. If our companies and our people continue to build strong capabilities, we can make the most of these advantages, to create unique value for the world and our people.

There is no playbook to follow. What we need is the right mindset - to be proactive, dare to take risks, and learn from our failures, and recognise that this is a continuous journey of upgrading.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 04, 2017, with the headline 'Deep capabilities will differentiate winners from losers in future economy'. Print Edition | Subscribe