by James Henderson

Inside the digital strategy of NTUC Enterprise

Apr 29, 2020
IT LeadershipIT Strategy

As group chief digital and technology officer at NTUC Enterprise in Singapore, Johnny Wong outlines the data strategy required to manage the relentless flow of information.

johnny wong ntuc
Credit: NTUC Enterprise

NTUC Enterprise spans a Singapore network of FairPrice supermarkets, First Campus pre-schools and LearningHub training platforms, in addition to Foodfare retail outlets, Link loyalty programs, and other social enterprises. Holding both commercial and social aspirations, the national trade union serves more than 2 million customers with the aim of creating a social force for good across the city-state.

In housing such an expansive user base, and diverse network of enterprises, data is relentlessly flowing into NTUC, prompting the creation of an infrastructure strategy to avoid information overflow. “One priority is certainly in the area of data,” said Johnny Wong, group chief digital and technology officer at NTUC Enterprise. “This includes the setting up of a proper data infrastructure that allows the efficient storage and analysis of data as well as maintaining this data store in an updated fashion. It’s something that can be useful to the businesses and the functions that depend on it, and it will require significant investment. There’s tonnes of data, tonnes of things that need to be put in place, a group of people that need to be hired.”

Aligned to the creation of an organisation-wide data strategy is plans to modernise technology infrastructure, added Wong. “The focus is on putting things onto the cloud, how to make better and more efficient use of compute and storage resources and the securing of those resources,” he outlined. “All these take additional investments that we ourselves are heavily looking at.”

In assessing the business case of such change, Wong cited the ideal scenario of having existing infrastructure replaced once fully depreciated, in effect allowing the technology to run its course. “However, if we see a particular new technology or platform is going to allow us to in the short-term create a more efficient and a more productive organisation, then sometimes we just write off that old technology in favour of the new technology,” he explained.

“It is really on a case-by-case basis. But of course, we are not reckless, and we do want to ensure that our investments that are previously made are maximised, however at the same time it is also not a rule that we cannot replace them. We’ve done that and we continue to do that as we see the value of new technology.”

Within this context, Wong — who joined NTUC in April 2018 — said the business must also remain operationally accountable in terms of metrics and cost.

Five agenda items drive IT at NTUC

To achieve this, the enterprise division recently unveiled a goal-setting process for measuring objectives and key results (OKR), aligned to five agenda items. “Our first focus is on becoming more effective to communicate and align on our strategy and goals, along with ensuring organisational accountability,” said Wong, recently recognised in the inaugural CIO50 ASEAN awards.

“Second, we are focused on operational excellence such as how we execute, how we manage risk and how we manage cost. For example, this means to establish KPIs, assess risks, and know our bottom-line impact position for each team.”

Next on the technology to-do list is ensuring experiences, products and services are capable of positively impacting the consumer. This starts with the basics of measuring uptime and speed, in addition to the quality of user experience and engagement levels.

“Fourth is about building up specific strategic capabilities,” Wong added. “For example, this year we are very much focused on data. It’s really about how to set up a proper data infrastructure and access strategy and how to make it not just available but actually useful for that derivation of insights and hopefully the translation into high revenues or a better user experience.

“Fifth is about culture. We want to distinguish ourselves versus the other big technology companies – from the way that we hire, engage our people and train them to even the brand identity that we have. How do we make progress?”

Improving demand and forecasting at FairPrice’s digital business

Alongside shaping the technology strategy for NTUC social enterprises, Wong also operates as CEO of FairPrice’s Digital Business, with a specific focus on online groceries. “Our business is very diverse,” he acknowledged. “We run supermarkets, online e-commerce, food businesses, loyalty programs and many things. Each one of those businesses has their own set of priorities and my product development organisation is focused on ensuring that each one of those priorities is well executed and delivers value.”

At FairPrice, key priorities centre around improving demand and end-to-end forecasting. “The other one that is very important is about how to enable our ground staff to be more efficient by automating the tasks that they today do manually to enable speed and saving of effort so that they can spend their time in other areas of growth for that particular business,” Wong added.

As an iconic grocery retailer in Singapore, FairPrice is pushing a ‘fulfilment-from-store’ model which allows the supermarket to provide same-day, sometimes within two hours, delivery of grocery goods to customers living within a five-kilometre radius of the store.

“We can offer the very same assortment that is available in those stores which includes fresh products,” Wong explained. “It ties up a number of areas, not only on the platform front-end itself and the ability to have fresh products that you buy by weight, but also on the back-end in terms of the logistics that are required to support that to make it efficient and get us closer to profitability.”

Another example of innovation at play is the development of higher synergies between social enterprises clustered within key themes, allowing Wong and his team to deploy omni-channel and even omni-vertical channel strategies. “We just launched a new version of our online groceries app to assist people while they are physically in the store, to scan products, pay with their phones and just go,” he added. “Very few companies can even do this because they just don’t have the number of industries that we cover.

“We also have many different other innovations from the way that we secure software release pipelines through moving into the concept of finops, which now also takes into account the financial spend on our tech infrastructure to make sure that we don’t run amok.”

Currently, Wong’s team members release two new features on average every working day; “we are just getting started. “Our customers will start to see us differently and start to trust that we will do the right thing with the best of the available technology,” he added.

Despite aligning to an expanding list of transformative initiatives, Wong was quick to caution against innovation for the sake of innovation, recognising the importance of ensuring that IT is not representing additional costs within the business. “There’s a matter of cost transformation and direct savings,” he acknowledged. “With product development the idea is to be able to attract more customers, to become much more useful to them so that they can vote with their wallets and spend more with us and do it more frequently. This will therefore also improve our financial position and allow the group of social enterprises to do much more on the social front.”

Under Wong’s leadership, NTUC is also committing to citizen development through facilitating the education of non-technical employees within the organisation. “This is a little bit about culture change and allows our staff to upscale capabilities and learn things such as robotics process automation,” he said. “They can also design workflows to solve very specific problems that their businesses or teams are having with very basic training of tools. Citizen development means that you don’t have to be an IT specialist or software programmer to be able to do this kind of apps or services.”