Covering Disruptive Technology Powering Business in The Digital Age

Home > Archives > News > DTA Hosts Qubole Executive Roundtable Discussion on The Digital Age Impact From Management To Technology
DTA Hosts Qubole Executive Roundtable Discussion on The Digital Age Impact From Management To Technology
February 15, 2019 News teamed up with Qubole to run an executive roundtable that took place at the Bukit Kiara Equestrian Club on 31st January 2019.

The roundtable session was to discuss the impact of digital transformation and how organisations are dealing with them. The discussion was widely covered with a variety of views being expressed from handling top management to picking the right technology.

We managed to assemble a group of executives that represented a range of industries, from startups through to established MNCs, with a government representative also in attendance. The variety of participant experience made way for fascinating discussion and invaluable knowledge-sharing.

The participants included:

  • Leon Jackson, CTO Strateq Group
  • Freddy Loo, Senior GM Group Analytics, Star Media Group
  • Siti Nur Fatimah Noodin, Senior Executive Ecosystem Development, Futurise
  • Peter Leong, CTO Aranium Global Holding
  • Amir Mohamed Afzal, Full-stack Developer, SOCAR
  • Devabalan Theyventheran, Head Innovation Lab, CIMB Fintech
  • Jimmy Wong, Executive Director ITS, KPMG
  • Swan Beh, CIO Magnum Group
  • Karl Ng, Director, Data Economy Division at MDEC
  • Ashish Dubey – VP International Solutions Architects, Qubole


After a presentation by Ashish Dubey – VP International Solutions Architects for Qubole on their offerings, the event started.

Session moderator, Andrew Martin, started the discussion by asking the participants on whether their organisations are seeing improvements and value after investing in big data analytics.

Freddy Loo said that that’s the interesting thing about data, it’s a multi-owner situation. Everyone has something to say, but no one wants to take accountability when it comes to data. He thinks that is a fundamental problem. How is value defined in this, to which Andrew asked him what Star Media Group is doing to create value.

Freddy replied that it’s not a tech problem. For him, it’s value; if data doesn’t drive change and behaviour, it is pretty much useless. “Essentially, it’s how do I drive change in an organisation rather than how do I ensure big data is successful.  And this is something I constantly have to do and try and convince my stakeholders,” he said.

Dr. Karl replied to Freddy’s comments saying change in management is essential. It requires top-level management to understand the importance of this. Freddy adds by saying he reminds management and editorial that they need to use big data for their reports.

Andrew asked the panel, “how is data analytics transforming your business?”

Ashish said, speaking of a friend from Petronas, for their transformation, the technology has to be large scale, and it is dependent on the people who feel their jobs may be affected.  They did small transformations and had a huge marketing campaign. The first 18 months involved no tech change decisions, but a study on how it helps the company.

Freddy said it’s hard to change when times are good. How do you drive change in such an environment?  Why change when nothing is broken?

Dr. Karl echoed Freddy by saying that is a dangerous thought indeed. Change is not possible if management feels there is no reason needed for a change.

While the established companies are discussing convincing the top management to embrace change, startups, on the other hand, are much different. SOCAR, for example, is a company that is built purely digital and uses a lot of data.

Amir from SOCAR said that startups rely heavily on data that have decision-making power. However, before they process the data, they need to look at what data they have. At SOCAR, decisions are based on data. They analyse which cars people prefer to use at what time, where they go, what they do and stuff. They also look at zones of usage. If a car is used for shopping, they know what types of cars to make available. Companies need to be more data-driven. In SOCAR, they use streamlined geolocation data for analytics.

While SOCAR is data-based, as they rely purely on it, Andrew moves the focus to CIMB. How do financial instructions like CIMB deal with data?

Devabalan Theyventheran of CIMB said that they started doing simple data analysis like data mining with the traditional data they had. As a bank, they have to comply with a lot of issues. So firstly, CIMB needed to know and work with what they had. Today, CIMB has invested in a big data platform. They realised the amount of savings that can be made from all this. Deva added that to this extent, they only want to hire staff in data analytics and digital, as this is where the funding is going. It shows.

Peter Leong concurs with Deva. Businesses need to realise the real value of the data they have. Data is important for insights into business decisions and revenue generation. It is part of a small automation, but the revenue benefits from this exercise are much greater.

Deva added that the market is already there. It’s what they do with data that matters.

Moving along, Andrew asked the panellists if they should look into evolving their infrastructure or build something from scratch. With technology changing so fast, how do you decide which is the right one and not end up with something obsolete?

Swan Beh of Magnum Group said that their industry is different as they don’t know their customers and are tightly regulated. Having said that, she added that while they have plenty of data, the challenge is that their users are so sophisticated. Their IT personnel are trying to make sense of data having been in the industry for a long time. They want to offer users something they will like and buy.

Adding on, she said choosing the technology is a challenge. They have piloted with a couple of technology providers, but one of the main issues is they don’t know the problems yet. They are doing visualisations and charts to study all this. They may be at an infancy stage, but they are learning along the way. It’s hard to explain the business especially when they bring in young staff. They want to get experienced staff to learn new technology. To this, Ashish said it’s indeed a common problem everywhere. For example, businesses want AI but how many know what they are looking for? They have to grasp and see what is really needed before deciding on the tech. Services nowadays are giving unified views so businesses can connect the dots and find out what is useful and what is not.

Echoing his colleague, Freddy said that companies want to use their current staff and train them to understand the technology. Hiring new staff takes time. But the question he posted to Swan was, how do they keep upper management patient in all this?

Swan said that fortunately, they don’t have that pressure. She added that until they feel their pilot projects are good, only then will they pass it to management to decide. There is so much data and they are trying to come up with questions where the data can show some results.

The focus then shifted to KPMG’s Leon Jackson as Andrew asked him if it is about finding the right technology or making decisions on the technology.

Leon said in the last three years, they worked with service providers with many customers. The trend that he sees is organisations today are considering and realising that their data is valuable. It’s not about getting value but gaining the assets itself and being responsible to it. Secondly, they see how they can exploit new markets and customers. They start layering project after project. Increasingly, they find new ways to capture data which they couldn’t do before, like facial recognition. The third phase is they use data for decision-making and projecting change. They get results and predictions on how things will be in the future. Companies are still making money from the traditional way but still get extra from data.

Andrew followed up by saying that in the past, technology was about assisting for jobs. But now tech is about actually being the business. How do companies deal with this?

KPMG’s Jimmy Wong said that they have two approaches to this. Firstly, they change the way they do the auditing business. KPMG has invested a lot and wanted to make the quality of the auditing better. This is because if they don’t do it, someone else will, and they will lose clients. They change because they have to. There is a pressing need for a change.

Secondly, they have analytics services. KPMG has digitised the entire auditing process and from there, pumps the digital data into the digital analytics system. They don’t charge for this, but they have to do it or risk losing their clients.  KPMG now has a new division that just provides data analytics templates for companies that don’t know what they want. They leverage on the template and use it for other organisations. Both Swan and Jimmy added that most companies have a lot of data. But they don’t know what do with it.

Andrew continued by asking Dr. Karl on training the workforce to work with data.

Dr.Karl said there are three different perspectives to this. The first one is reskilling the current workforce who are not tech staff. This would include training managers and such to understand analytics. The second one is to upskill the IT staff to understand skillsets for data analytics. Some people are good in business but have no knowledge in analytics.

MDEC’s role is to get the industry to offer solutions for businesses. But the challenge is how do you assure the quality of this training? Some companies offer five days of training to make you an expert. It does not work that way. Looking at the top-level management, they don’t have time for training. How to make them understand?

Dr. Karl also spoke about MDEC’s new CEO, Surina Shukri. He explained how the new CEO herself pushed her senior management for change in her previous organisation.

Following up on that, Andrew asked SOCAR and Futurise on how they are working on getting the right talents?

Amir said that they get people who don’t have data-related skills, or they can’t process data, but they have other talents. But ultimately, to hire and find the right people is a very difficult task. To hire and train them, it’s a hard process.

Siti of Futurise said companies that join them have expertise in their respective areas. When they deploy their technology to their clients, that’s when they train their staff. For example, they train drone pilots on how to collect data. Most companies have their expertise, but they need training when it comes to dealing with customers and new technology.

Dr. Karl added that universities are not offering more data science courses. They are demanding students to take up more data skill courses. But the question is about the current needs. Staff need to be upskilled. The good news is that there are online programs, but how to motivate staff?

Deva added that the tech guys say it’s very difficult to get the right people with the right skills. One way is to bring graduates in and train them. University curricular has not changed much especially on fintech courses, etc. Staff can always be outsourced but being a bank, with regulations and customer information, it can’t be done. Hence, banks are setting up offshore centres to get data people to work.

Andrews followed up with Deva in asking if the CIMB organised 3D Conquest was part of their strategy. Deva answered that there was indeed a motive of branding and positioning. But ultimately, it was to see where these students are in terms of skills and knowledge and understanding the future workforce generation out there.

With change comes risk. Andrews reflected on how things have changed over the years. Large companies such as banks used to be only using the big guys like Microsoft, IBM, HP, etc, but now, there are so many companies offering promising deals as well. Do businesses take these organisations seriously and risk working with them?

Deva from CIMB commented that there are lots of small startups. They study the fintechs. But most don’t have data knowledge but have use cases. CIMB works with them to see how it goes. They are not restricted to big brands. Cost is always an issue, so CIMB looks at the smaller guys.

Swan added that small ones are good when they start. But she also said they get bought up by big enterprises. This will be the trend in all industries. If it can’t be found with the big enterprises, it may be something worth investing. It is a risk that businesses have to go through. Unless the investment has a big difference, then it’s worth it.

Leon said that although he used to do a 5-year plan, today it is all about experimenting. These are all actually small experiments which organisations are doing to see if they can work or not.

Freddy echoed Leon saying that it also has to do with the mindset. Companies that have been around for some time don’t want to be locked in with a new technology for a period of time. Old-school businesses can’t afford to make the wrong decisions and take risks. But the cost of change and transformation is not very high.

Swan disagreed though, saying that the costs of change aren’t that cheap. It can be a nightmare for IT.

To this, Andrew responded by saying that moving legacy applications to cloud is not easy and cheap. But if you’re speeding up for a new infrastructure or starting an application from scratch, cloud is a good way.

Amir from SOCAR pointed out that although the discussion was mainly about buying vs building, companies should also consider open source as the third option. At SOCAR, they use different operators because they only need to know about the cars and needs. However, if a company is investing on a platform, they will rely on it for a long-term basis.

Ashish from Qubole said that cloud is expensive, but it can also be cheap depending on your usage.  He added, “A lot of enterprises in Malaysia pick us because we move faster and have lower cost of experimentation. The cost of change also has to be low. In the cloud there are a lot of options. It allows you to jump around.”

Following up on that, Andrew asked if management tends to understand the tech.

Deva from CIMB said his CRO went for Python programming. They want to understand tech. He sees other banks doing it with their board of directors and leadership. They need to know what they are approving. So, this basic understanding helps. Amir added that even his CEO knows his stuff and most of their staff know SQL, which shows a lot.

The Qubole reps said that it goes down data democratisation. Everyone has to be enabled to learn and understand how tech works.

Freddy said that’s especially relevant for his line of business, as publishing is a dying industry. He stated, “It’s a known problem. Now we need to use data to study the users of articles. We study who reads what and when.” His challenge is to convince his management to understand this. They need to experiment and now it seems to be going well.

Andrew concurred that experimenting in a dying industry is not risky. Indeed, there is resistance to change as it’s a cultural thing, not a technical thing. Be it print or banks. How do you deal with resistance to change?

Leon, Freddy and Swan all said that it’s not easy to change the mindset, but they need to try and do it.  Freddy added that it is difficult. It’s really about selling the concept. The problem with analytics is that it is never a definitive answer. There is a need to come up with something from this. While Swan said there’s too many negative feedback and Freddy said it’s the reality.

Andrew then asked the panel, does resistance prevent progress?

According to Amir, businesses need to be a data-driven and tech-driven. It is the culture for change. They must learn from competitors, identify their success and use that data to their benefits.

Andrew said this means everyone must move to a cloud-first approach. Cloud ultimately is the key to transformation.

But Swan interjected, saying the cloud is not the cheapest solution. From the costings over a 5-year period, it’s not. They have to look at currency problems based on cloud. They budget for five years but it can change. They are going to cloud, but it’s not about cost. It’s about efficiency. It’s about value. Different cloud providers will have challenges.

Jimmy and Peter both said that converting to cloud will deliver value eventually. To which Andrew asked if it was about value or speed when it comes to switching?

CIMB’s Deva said the first step is for companies to virtualise their servers. Look at the savings and move to the next level. BNM has cloud guidelines, so it allows banks to move to cloud.

Dr. Karl said MDEC’s city-brain is built on cloud AI. It puts all the data on the cloud from traffic lights, sensors, etc. It is a pilot project to ensure traffic efficiency. But the problem MDEC faces is getting councils to agree with this.

Andrew concluded the discussion saying there is always the cultural blockade. There will always be pushback, but you can’t stop progress. In conclusion, the panellists all agreed that change is inevitable and businesses need to make the right decisions fast or face the risk of being left behind or losing out.