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How SingEx is bracing itself for disruption

Singapore’s SingEx started its digital transformation journey a few years ago and has already pivoted its approach to cope with new challenges brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic

As a key player in the events industry in Singapore and Southeast Asia, SingEx operates the Singapore Expo convention centre where it hosts some 600 events and receives six million visitors each year.

But like many of its peers, its business is being disrupted by the Covid-19 pandemic, which has led governments to limit physical events until the situation improves. Even as it moves into the so-called “new normal”, SingEx is not expecting as many visitors at physical events in future, according to its chief digital officer Rizwan Hazarika.

In an interview with Computer Weekly, Hazarika shares more about SingEx’s digital transformation journey that started a few years ago, the approach it took to change management and the future of the events industry.

Can you share more about SingEx’s digital transformation journey and how it has been so far?

Hazarika: We started our digital transformation a couple of years ago. I was hired about two-and-a-half years ago and I set up a team from scratch with experience in areas like customer experience and data analytics. One of the first things we did was to improve our customer journeys for different personas, including sponsors, exhibitors, event organisers, attendees and so on.

For each persona, we have implemented technologies to make it easier and seamless for them to engage with us. So, the whole model has been around customer centricity as we build new customer channels through event apps and business-matching services. We bought new marketing automation tools from Salesforce and implemented a CRM [customer relationship management] system that serves as the single source of truth and our primary data repository. We’re beginning to see ourselves as a platform business with physical and online platforms that complement each other.

The second part of our digital journey involves deploying internal enterprise systems to increase employee productivity and promote a data-driven culture so people can make decisions using relevant data. We are collecting data from different touchpoints to make customer engagements more personal and valuable, as well as to potentially spin off new business models.

The third part is automating our business because as we grow our footprint beyond Singapore, we’re looking to scale up and do more with less using technology. That includes using data to drive more meaningful business intelligence and internal reporting to manage the business better.

That said, technology in itself is not the solution. The real challenge in digital transformation is managing the process of change and aligning our stakeholders as we go through this journey. It’s not easy, so part of my mandate is to drive that change.

We’ve been embedding digital teams into the lines of business in very loose project structures. The early signs are good – collaboration is increasing, though the key to digital transformation is to humanise the whole effort. That’s easier said than done, but as long as we’re agile, learn and unlearn continuously, and keep the customer at the centre of everything we do, the transformation will become more valuable and meaningful.

Could you elaborate more about the change management process and what it entails?

Hazarika: As we go through this process of change, I think the first one is about having the right level of stakeholder involvement. There has to be commitment from the leadership in driving change. We are fortunate that we have a CEO and a board which are very supportive. It has not been easy and keeping open communication channels and reiterating the message is important.

The second part is that we’ve reorganised ourselves to adopt agile ways of working. In the past few months, we have literally flattened our organisational structure and cut across hierarchies. We have moved from running departments to running projects. And it’s a significant change, where people of all levels work together in a team and think of deliverables in terms of projects.

“We’ve reorganised ourselves to adopt agile ways of working. We have flattened our organisational structure and cut across hierarchies. We have moved from running departments to running projects. And it’s a significant change, where people of all levels work together in a team and think of deliverables in terms of projects”
Rizwan Hazarika, SingEx

It’s also important that we break our initiatives into bite-sized projects. When we first started, we took a big bang approach. In the first six months after I joined the company, we laid out a very comprehensive digital strategy. But then we realised that it is one thing to talk about strategy and it’s another to execute it. So, we changed direction and made things bite-sized.

As an example, when we built our marketing automation capability, we broke the project into smaller, digestible blocks, so the first goal was to just review our customer engagement channels. We were not trying to boil the ocean – we focused on one customer type and fine-tuned the model by looking at the results and getting feedback from customers. Taking a bite-sized approach is less disruptive. It’s more contained and when we see results, it’s easier for other colleagues to see that there’s some change in a small part of the organisation.

And as we drive change, there’s always this question in the minds of the employees about the distinction between their business-as-usual job and the new job. Where do I focus my attention and time? We’ve realised that sometimes, it is important to ring-fence and create a small group to run a new project. If it makes sense, then we deploy it to other parts of the organisation. But if we try to bring both together and create a bit of tension in a good way around expectations, then it becomes difficult for most people to digest.

The third part is training. Many times, we assume that if we deploy a new technology, people will easily adopt it. Everyone talks about training, but often doesn’t put in enough effort. So, we are putting in a lot of effort to train people to use the tools, and hand-holding them through train-the-trainer models where someone does it and shows another person how to do it.

That’s how we’ve gone about this change management process. It’s challenging, but we’ve been open that things don’t always work, and we’d have to go back to the drawing board. We retry, test and fail fast. But if it works, then we feed it with more investment and grow a particular project or initiative.

What about in terms of business processes as you put in new systems? Did you take the opportunity to re-look at existing processes, or did any of the teams have to change the way they work to suit the way those new systems work?

Hazarika: That’s a really good question. I didn’t explicitly talk about it, but as we go through this change, we’ve faced two situations.

In instances when we brought in best-in-class products with industry-defined processes and standards, we’ve had our employees learn and align to new processes.

There have also been instances when we’ve had to adapt systems to existing processes which are tried-and-tested in the events industry. In those cases, we spend time with our systems integrators and consultants to help them understand our processes, so we haven’t done this alone. There’s expertise out there that we’ve tapped on to model our processes and apply them to our systems in an agile way.

In your transformation journey, how do you make the call between “build versus buy” with regards to software applications? Are there cases when you develop your own software for a competitive edge?

Hazarika: For anything that involves delivering a differentiated value to our customers, we will build our own software. Right now, we are building out our own digital events platform as we pivot from the physical to digital world. It’s fundamentally a customer-facing application that will deliver a new engagement model which is core to what we do. We’re enhancing it now and we will test it in phases at different events.

When it comes to working with data, making sense of data, and gathering insights to create different kinds of business models, we have built something from the ground up with some customisation. But for anything that does not directly touch our customers, we have acquired expertise via systems like Salesforce CRM which is used by internal teams to manage the sales pipeline and manage customer data, including the whole concept of having a single source of truth. In those cases, we chose to use software that already has best practices built in.

We also made the decision a few years ago that we will operate primarily on the cloud and that has worked to our advantage. Our entire business outside of the systems that I mentioned pretty much resides on Amazon Web Services, and possibly some other clouds that we would use at different points in time.

Being in the cloud makes sense for us, because we don’t see ourselves ever becoming a software vendor. What sometimes happens is you get very distracted when a lot of attention and time is spent on building software and running a complicated technology organisation as opposed to focusing the attention on the customer and the external ecosystem. And because we’re an events company, we’re very clear that our top priority is always external touch points and the whole ecosystem right around them.

Could you share more about how you’re using Salesforce Service Cloud to manage the use of Singapore Expo as a facility to house Covid-19 patients with mild or no symptoms?

Hazarika: With Singapore Expo being used as a community care facility amid the pandemic, we started looking at different types of technologies that can help us to enhance our operations and manage the infrastructure so as to make it easier for frontline workers to care for the residents.

We chose the Salesforce Service Cloud because we were already a Salesforce customer, which made it easier for our staff to adopt. The software enables us to run our integrated command centre that manages day-to-day incidents, such as problems with hot showers or the Wi-Fi network. These incidents are surfaced to us through different partners and the Service Cloud acts as the case management system. We get a single view of all incidents, and it helps us to prioritise them. We note the incident, we track it and then we close it.

More importantly, it has helped us to promote a culture of service responsiveness and speed up resolution times, enabling us to focus our attention on the right things. It’s also driving a service level agreement [SLA] way of working, which was always there, but is now being reinforced with the use of the software.

Running the Singapore Expo as a community care facility is a temporary arrangement. When we come out of this, we can apply these learnings to our daily operations. The longer-term plan is to move from a reactive to a predictive model, where we leverage more data to keep the facility running efficiently by managing issues before they crop up.

At the start of our conversation, you talked about enabling new business models through digitisation. Could you elaborate in detail about what those models could be?

Hazarika: I can give you some broad strokes, if you don’t mind, because some of them are still in the early stages and could be potential differentiators for us.

Broadly speaking, we are looking at models that can create new ways of engaging with customers using digital platforms. As an example, models that allow event attendees to learn and network with each other in a very personalised way. As we collect more insights and data, there are opportunities to package some of that for our partners.

Of course, there’s the big question around the use of personally identifiable information. With sensitivity around how much information you can collect, we are looking at ways to anonymise and aggregate insights using clustering and segmenting techniques. This could potentially be monetised because we have captive audiences, and sponsors and advertisers are interested in targeting them with services.

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We are also looking at models that will make the Singapore Expo more digitised through the internet of things [IoT] and other applications that collect data. Again, we can package that to provide services to our merchants and partners who can benefit from the data.

Finally, people go to events because they want to network with peers and learn from them. We also see the opportunity of creating content, because at the end of the day our core strength as an events company is content.

We understand the programming and content model very well, so it’s about repackaging some of that content and creating learning channels. For example, after an event, we can create bite-sized versions of content sessions, curate them and sell them as membership packages in a freemium model.

Amid the pandemic, more companies are organising virtual events to reach new customers. How much emphasis is SingEx placing on the digital events platform, given that there’s still a role for physical events simply because you can’t replicate face-to-face engagements on a virtual platform? How do you balance the short-term need to capture the market for virtual events versus building the digital infrastructure to support whatever the events industry will become in future?

Hazarika: The jury is still out, and everyone is trying to make sense of what the events industry will be like in a post-Covid-19 world. Depending on who you speak with, the pandemic is an inflection point and we’ll be in a completely different world where digital will be the core of everything we do. Others are saying that the world will go back to what it was.

“We see Covid-19 as an opportunity to pivot, but we’re not going to move completely away from physical events. The intent is to fortify both the physical and digital worlds to create complementary models”
Rizwan Hazarika, SingEx

Our view is that we’re heading towards a hybrid model where our digital events platform will serve as a digital core that will cater to different types of event formats, whether they are pure digital events or physical events that incorporate digital studios so that those who are unable to attend an event because of restrictions can attend the same event and interact with others.

Our platform will also allow us to serve different parties that are organising or participating in large-scale events, whether they are sponsors or exhibitors. We are building it to serve different needs and because it’s a platform, you can choose which services you want. We see Covid-19 as an opportunity to pivot, but we’re not going to end up moving completely away from physical events. The intent is to fortify both the physical and digital worlds to create complementary models.

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