COVID-19 SPECIAL

Google-UOB programme to help SMEs in retail, tourism

Leadership seminars to shift online and focus on the two sectors bearing brunt of pandemic

Google Singapore's country head Ben King, seen here at its Singapore office and Asia-Pacific headquarters at Mapletree Business City, said the firm is providing tips and resources online to help people adjust to remote working amid the coronavirus pa
Google Singapore's country head Ben King, seen here at its Singapore office and Asia-Pacific headquarters at Mapletree Business City, said the firm is providing tips and resources online to help people adjust to remote working amid the coronavirus pandemic. ST PHOTO: KEVIN LIM

Small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) in tourism and retail could soon tap online seminars led by trainers from Google and United Overseas Bank (UOB).

The SME Leadership Academy, which was attended by around 340 business leaders selected by government agencies and UOB last year, will shift online this year.

Google Singapore country head Ben King told The Straits Times earlier this month that the programme is among the company's efforts to support small businesses here.

There are plans to scale up the programme, but there is a need to re-evaluate how it will be carried out amid the coronavirus pandemic, he said.

The courses will be conducted via hour-long webinars over several weeks, compared with last year's three half-day workshops.

"The original goals were built around in-person training, but we're going to have to bring all of this into the online space," said Mr King, who has been based in South-east Asia for close to a decade.

"Let's see how long this situation goes on for. I don't think anyone knows what that timeframe is going to be, but if it means we have to push this out on a prolonged basis through digital, we'll do that."

The courses will be tailored for SMEs in two sectors hit hardest by the pandemic: retail and tourism. Google and UOB are also working with industry associations to invite businesses to join the programme.

"I think there's a great opportunity to spend time retooling and reskilling, especially in some of these areas of the ecosystem which are experiencing significant downtime right now," Mr King said.

He added that while there are plans to roll out the webinars to other industries, they are focusing on these sectors, which have been identified as being in the most need of immediate help.

Sector-specific trends and people management knowledge will be covered in the course. There will also be content covering remote-working tools and international expansion efforts.

More programme details are expected to be released later.

Last month, Google chief executive Sundar Pichai announced that the company would commit around US$800 million (S$1.1 billion) to support small and medium-sized businesses, health organisations and governments on the front line of the pandemic.

This includes US$340 million in advertising credits to businesses with active accounts, which can be used across Google's advertising platforms until the end of the year.

"We feel that (this) will alleviate some of the concerns they have about staying in touch with their customers," Mr King said.

He was reluctant to discuss the effects the pandemic is having on Google's turnover.

"We're in a quiet period so I'm not necessarily going to talk about revenue right now. Speaking frankly, it goes without saying that as businesses start to come under pressure and they get (affected), their plans change," he said.

"That said, our focus right now is just to be helpful to our partners, our customers and clients."

Google has doubled its headcount here to 2,000 since moving to its current Singapore office and Asia-Pacific headquarters at Mapletree Business City in 2016, he added.

"We're going to continue to hire and continue to contribute to the ecosystem in that way, by providing good and relevant jobs that relate to the digital economy," he noted.

The company has seen more users in recent months, with the Covid-19 situation forcing more firms to turn to remote working.

For example, daily use of its video-conferencing tool Meet this month is 25 times that of January.

The company is also providing tips and resources online to help people adjust to remote working, Mr King said, adding that the firm is also adjusting to the new normal.

Besides boosting productivity, the firm is also focused on ensuring that accurate information is easily accessible to the public, he said.

For example, Google Maps is working with the Singapore Government to show locations of Public Health Preparedness Clinics in Singapore, and travel advisories put out by different countries were highlighted on travel search results.

Misinformation has been a growing challenge for the global community, one that requires a joint effort to combat, Mr King noted.

"For us, it's about a collaboration - between tech companies, journalists, civil society - and we are incredibly committed to making sure people have access to the right information."

Correction note: An earlier version of the article said that Google Maps is showing testing facilities for Covid-19 in Singapore. Google Singapore has clarified that it is not the case for Singapore for now, and is working to show locations of Public Health Preparedness Clinics instead.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 17, 2020, with the headline Google-UOB programme to help SMEs in retail, tourism. Subscribe