As CIO of BH Global and founding CEO of Athena Dynamics, Ken Soh has a unique take on Singapore, and the wider Asian market.
The wearing of two hats – one a SGX-listed company and the other, a spin-off startup subsidiary – has created an executive possessing “dual personalities”.
“I am an end-user in the morning and a vendor in the afternoon,” joked Soh, when speaking to CIO ASEAN.
Soh joined BH Global as CIO in 2014, a solution provider serving marine, oil and gas, industrial, petrochemical and commercial industries. Founded in 1965, the business specialises in supply chain management, design and manufacturing, surveillance and cybersecurity and engineering segments.
During his five-year tenure, Soh spearheaded the introduction of a “digital culture” internally, triggered by the implementation of a B2B store and the streamlining of a group-wide enterprise resource planning (ERP) platform.
“We also revamped the enterprise network and our security capabilities and transformed into a subsidiary company named Athena Dynamics supplying critical info-infrastructure [CII] protection products and services to government and CII owners in Singapore and the region,” Soh said.
Created in 2014, Athena Dynamics specialises in the delivery of cybersecurity solutions, with a deep focus on CII and enterprise IT operation management products and services.
“We have travelled a unique, unexpected, challenging yet interesting digital transformation journey in the last couple of years,” Soh recalled. “Sometimes we joke that we have embarked on digital transformation, we have overdone it, and turned it into a business transformation pursuit.”
Through building out a digital culture, and implementing digital initiatives across the organisation, Soh said BH Global discovered a “radically unique” proposition in the cyber protection space. Hence Athena Dynamics, a startup now supplying CII protection innovations at a regional level.
“Going forward, we are introducing fundamentally unique technologies for SecOps, DevOps and ITOps,” he explained.
Soh said the business is building out detection-less cyber protection technologies, “since detection-centric paradigm is no long adequate”. Also, a binary code scanner is in the works – “since source code is not available in many situations” – and a low-cost, integrated IT service management platform, “since most of it today are either in silos or coming with exorbitant price tags”.
Spinning out to succeed
When asked to outline the most disruptive technology impacting organisations in ASEAN today, Soh acknowledged the temptation to cite “high sounding jargon” such as artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics.
Instead of selecting from an endless list of solutions, Soh prefers to adopt a “pragmatic point of view” when pursuing new and emerging technologies, focusing more on “the building blocks that are already affecting the ways we live and play”.
“This fundamental is none other than today’s global high-speed connectivity made available and widely accessible at affordable prices,” he explained. “The connectivity facilitates the development of the internet of things (IoT), and hence the emergence of killer applications which thrive on the de-centralisation of operations and the elimination of intermediaries in many vertical industries.
“This collectively leads to waves of digital and business transformations and the creation of new business models well exemplified by Uber, Airbnb and Alibaba.”
When pressed, Soh ranked cybersecurity as the “one single important priority in not just 2019, but many more years to come”. Specifically, security has become an integral part of IT operations and budget considerations, highlighting its rise in importance as digitalisation takes centre stage.
“This for the simple reasons that malicious codes and attack vectors could only become more sophisticated in depth, and more expanded in targets,” he said.
From a measurement perspective, Soh cautioned against “inventing and investing in solutions looking for problems”.
“Creating a technology rainbow is usually fun and glamourous,” he said. “However, many pursuits in life need to start with an end in mind. Glamourous pursuits may not be useful, and hence may not be sustainable.”
For Soh, success in technology application follows a natural chain of critical success factors: practicality, usability, accessibility and affordability. A leading example of this is the parking mobile application that replaces the paper parking coupons in Singapore.
“It is directly and practically useful by taking the pains out of paper coupons,” he outlined. “It is user-friendly, accessible and it comes without a usage fee. Most importantly, it brings about a new level of convenience and provides a highly flexible means for drivers to ‘pay-as-you-park’ without the need to guess the length of parking.”
Speaking as CIO of BH Global, Soh said the business is seeing “continual progressions” in electrification and digitalisation of both on-shore and off-shore facilities, evident through more straight-through-processing (STP) initiatives and applied mobile applications in the supply chain businesses and operations.
Meanwhile as CEO of Athena Dynamics, advancements are being made within IT and operational technology divisions, with a specific focus on cybersecurity. This is especially the case in the context of the International Maritime Organisation (IMO), and the agency’s deadline of 1 January 2021 for vessels to be cyber ready.
However, Soh acknowledged that keeping the balance between innovation and preservation of legacy technology and infrastructure investment is not always an easy task. Under optimal circumstances, he said, technology could be applied with backward compatibility thanks to past future-proving efforts.
Unfortunately, Soh accepted that such ideal conditions do not always exist.
“Then the question will simply be, how relevant is the new technology in helping the viability and sustainability of the business?” he asked. “If it is a critical factor, one has to plan forth, bite the bullet to do the re-structuring and revamp. This is certainly done so after in-depth cost-benefit analysis for the optimal choice or mix of choices going forward.”
In looking ahead, Soh said the leading opportunity for CIOs in ASEAN today centres around sieving out practical technologies to increase business agility. The simplest example, according to Soh, would be in the area of data visualisation.
“Many companies are still caged in the traditional way of report development,” he said. “Visualisation will not just help business reduce report development paradigmatically, but to have an agile approach to businesses when strategic information could be derived quickly via visualisation and analysis of operational data and transaction.
“This is a typically low hanging fruit since it is not just visible to senior management but a low risk pursuit. On top of that, the next low hanging opportunity could be the application or development of killer mobile applications in aid of business enhancement and transformation.”
Increased agility creates an increase in responsibilities for a modern-day CIO, a CIO now judged on the innovative capabilities of the wider company.
“This is especially so when business agility now is empowered by IT agility,” he said.
In applications, users are spoilt for choice from boundless offerings in the cloud. Meanwhile in development, the tradition snail speed waterfall software development life cycle model is now being replaced by the fast-agile CI-CD model.
In connectivity, the bandwidth growth is exponential, as 5G adoption matures with more generations of improved offerings to come.
“In a nutshell, it is now about the fast adoption of technology for business transformation not just from an innovative angle, but a survival angle,” Soh said. “Today, it is about innovate, or evaporate. With the above consideration in mind, CIOs must bridge technologies for business transformation because survival is becoming more important.
“The common challenge today is whether CIOs have the appetite and resources to look into such areas when they are usually already swamped with operations, and are caged in a reactive mode of working to handle bread and butter issues.”
But despite such barriers, Soh said the biggest challenge today remains the task of keeping digitalisation safe.
“Cyber attack technologies and vectors are evolving rapidly in sophistication beyond what most cyber security technologies could counter effectively,” he cautioned. “With more serious incidents happening despite substantial investment, CIOs and CISOs need to truly understand the fundamentals. Especially the common gaps in people, process and technology and to an apply all-round defence strategy with effective actionable insights.”