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Company News | Whither innovation?

By Aloysius Choong, CNETAsia

If you are mulling over using IT innovation to enhance your business, you're probably on the wrong track.

Instead, think about how to use technology to drive business innovation. It's just a subtle rearrangement of words, but the difference in meaning is profound.

"IT is the enabler, IT cannot be the objective itself," said Eugene Rim, CEO of Accord Express Holdings, summing up the thoughts of panelists at the CNETAsia SMB roundtable in September.

Held at the Fullerton Hotel in Singapore, the event was attended by eight business owners from various industries, from retail to logistics, who gathered to talk about IT and its relationship to innovation.

Rim's comment was especially poignant, coming from a company so prominent in its use of IT. Using its in-house supply-chain management solution, Accord Integrated Logistics Information System (AILIS), the company has multiplied its revenues over the last five years. Employee name cards have the words "technology-driven logistics solutions" printed on them.

Edwin Yeo, managing director of headhunting firm Rubicon International Talent Exchange, echoed Rim's views.

"We will not adopt IT per se. I don't love IT. IT is a tool for me," he said. "My business is not to innovate IT. It's the reverse. I need to do innovation, and use IT to support my innovation."

They pointed out that business owners and employees should not forget the reasons for using technology, be it cutting costs, adding value for customers, or improving efficiency.

"We have to go back to basics. Why do we use IT?" asked Rim. He recalled an incident where he noticed one of his staff sending an e-mail to a colleague in the adjacent cubicle.

"So I told them: Don't send e-mail. You can talk faster," he recalled.

One classic example of overplaying technology and neglecting business concerns would be the dot-com companies, suggested Cyril Teo, general manager of Halley's Express, a delivery firm.

He revealed that he had been approached many times during the dot-com boom to partner in the delivery of goods. But in Singapore, where shops were sometimes just "two blocks away", he said, the conditions were just not right for the concept to take off.

Inventing ideas

Inventing innovation

For these companies, where then does business innovation come from?

Innovation--technology-related or otherwise--has to be deeply ingrained into the company's culture, said roundtable guest Dennis Mark, vice president and general manager for HP's SMB Business Segment, Customer Solutions Group (Asia Pacific & Japan). HP's tagline is, after all, "Invent".

"Being inventive is how the company started in the garage, when two engineers came together and invented some products," he said. "As the years progressed, this innovation spirit is very much in the DNA of the employee. HP's 'Invent' tagline constantly reminds our people--employees and all--to always look at new ways to address the problem."

This mindset has to be nurtured, said Ryan Chioh, executive director of Far East Flora Holdings.

"I think to try to get the whole company to come up with innovative ideas, the top management first has to share more information, share the vision of the company, share what you want to do, where you want to go," said Chioh. "Be very open to ideas, even the silliest ones. That's what we try to do. This culture needs to be built."

For fabless chip design house ComSOC, intellectual property is a key asset. Hence, the company holds a regular innovation discussion every month, said CEO James Jeong. It also encourages fresh ideas by co-registering patents in employees name.

When it comes to generation of new concepts, the complex relationship between technology and innovation surfaces again. Technology should not be overemphasized, yet a stronger grasp of technology allow business owners to better appreciate its possibilities.

"To me, there are two classifications of SMBs in the market today. One which understands IT, sees IT as an innovation tool to add value to products. Then there are a certain lot of SMBs who view IT as a computer tool, who see it as a cost and not a value to the companies," said Bernard Lim, general manager, Regional Business Development, Corporate Planning of Litho-Lav Products.

"Different degrees of exposure allows you to see things at different levels," said HP's Mark. "And you use IT to enable a transformation that brings more value to your customer and better business for you."

Hard habit to break

Attendees at the CNETAsia SMB roundtable were:

  • Ian Aniszewski
    Chief operating officer, IndoChine Bar & Restaurant

  • Ryan Chioh
    Executive director, Far East Flora Holdings

  • James Jeong
    CEO, ComSOC Technology

  • Bernard Lim
    General manager, Regional Business Development, Corporate Planning, Litho-Lav Products

  • Dennis Mark
    Vice president and general manager for HP's SMB Business Segment, Customer Solutions Group (Asia Pacific & Japan)

  • Eugene Rim
    CEO and managing director, Accord Express Holdings

  • Shahrin Surif
    Chief, PV & merchant operations, Foodbex Global

  • Cyril Teo
    General manager, Halley's Express

  • Edwin Yeo
    Managing director, Rubicon International Talent Exchange

While forward-looking business owners are constantly looking for ways to edge ahead of the competition, their employees may not be able to keep up with the pace of innovation.

The panelists agreed that new ideas sometimes have to be initiated top-down and driven through the ranks. Even so, the challenges, especially where technology is concerned, can be insurmountable for some employees.

"When we were trying to roll out PDAs for one of our outlets, it took almost a year to get the staff to use the technology. They kept finding backdoors," said Ian Aniszewski, chief operating officer, IndoChine Bar & Restaurant.

"If you give them a high-tech environment, some staff will thrive in that. You retain them," said Aniszewski. On the other hand, those who cannot adapt gradually leave as part of natural turnover.

However, he also observed that a pleasant by-product of this attrition: he was gradually getting better and better staff who were more open to technology.

"I have some very talented staff now," he said.

HP's Mark recounts a client whose employees were at first fearful of new-fangled handhelds, then proceeded to become experts at using them. "They also have pride in that now they are now higher-skilled workers than others," he said.

Explained Shahrin Surif: "For any form of change in the company, you need to get buy-in from the people doing the work. After they've gone through the pain of the first step and they realize, 'hey, this actually makes my life so much easier', then the scale and speed of implementation goes faster."

Despite the difficulties of pushing through new ideas, Accord's Rim noted that innovation should never take a backseat.

"Innovation is neverending. That's the business," he said.

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