The cultural challenges of digital transformation

Juliana Ang, Chief HR Officer at NTUC Income, talks about how transformation is really about shaping culture and mindsets.
By: | October 19, 2018


Recently, our company was ranked top in the Applied Innovation Institute Singapore Insurance Innovation and Digital Benchmark.

NTUC Income beat 24 other insurers, including both traditional competitors like Aviva and AIA and newer kids on the block such as Etiqa Insurance and FWD Singapore.

About the Author
As the Chief HR Officer of NTUC Income, Juliana Ang leads the HR team in its development of HR vision and strategies, so as to build a thriving and flourishing social enterprise that can have lasting impact on its customers throughout Singapore and the region.

While this accolade is a pleasant surprise, it was certainly not a fluke. In fact, NTUC Income’s digital journey took root as early as 2014, when we saw the need to reimagine insurance and the way our customers interact with us.

As we made the shift from a traditional insurer to one that is digitally empowered, one area we paid particular attention to was ensuring our employees made the transition successfully and came onboard this transformation journey.

Through my years as an HR professional, the biggest leadership challenge that I have faced in any organisation has been trying to shape a new culture and shifting people’s mindsets along with that change.

The reason is simple. By its nature, change is difficult, and, to persuade people to change can be harder. Even with the best intentions and preparation, a change as mammoth as bringing the entire organisation through a digital transformation is bound to have its challengers and naysayers.

For me, any organisation-level strategy can only succeed if employees and management can come together to agree on, mobilise, and effect change. My role as Chief HR Officer is to support the company in its shift to become a high-performing digital insurer, while at the same time, engage with and bring our people on board for the journey.

I have a few principles that have served me well in this regard:


Have a clear purpose for change

NTUC Income embarked on our digitalisation journey because it was a business imperative that would support the company’s long-term growth and sustainability (or, as some would say, “survivability”); not because it was fashionable to do so, or – worse – because our competitors were doing so.

It is important as a leader to demonstrate this clearly to employees in order to win them over to the change, and to show that the change is taking place for the greater good of the company, and by extension, its people.

The other way to bring people to the same page is to demonstrate the benefits of change. In other words, by being outcome-driven and letting the results speak for themselves.

In our case, the HR team had recently launched “HR on the Go”, a mobile application that allows employees to apply for leave and get approvals for their expenses and claims.

This was in addition to them also being able to gain entry to our offices via a shake of their mobile phones, through a new, mobile access application.

The intention has always been clear – we want to empower our staff with greater conveniences and efficiencies brought on by digitalisation, and to let them experience these first-hand.

Indeed, if seeing is believing, then having something tangible would only deepen that belief and fuel further action. In short, we wanted to encourage learning through experience.

To this end, we ran several digital-centric events and initiatives that were designed to encourage such experiential learning.

These included our inaugural “IdeaSmash” hackathon in 2017, where for 36 hours our staff were challenged to think and act like a start-up. They designed solutions to real problems faced by the modern world.

More recently, we created “Future+”, an innovation-focused community within the company where staff get first-hand updates and exclusive invites to related news and events.

Again, these have been specifically curated to get our people curious and excited about the digital ecosystem in Singapore.


Be sensitive

My approach to change management has always been to win people over one at a time. To do that effectively, it is important to employ a multiple-pronged strategy and thereby set the field for all-round internal buy-in.

At NTUC Income, our strategy was to build an ecosystem that comprised the C-Suite, employee ambassadors, and like-minded partners. They were then able to seed, mobilise, and effect change at all levels of the organisation.

If there was anything I would like to emphasise, it would be the importance of support from the top of the house.

To put our money where our mouth was, we deliberately resourced a member of our executive committee to lead and champion digital transformation at NTUC Income.

To succeed, be sure to appoint someone who is well-liked and also well-regarded as a collaborator. Any attempts to effect change will be futile if collaboration from all stakeholders is not forthcoming.

To this end, this senior member of our management team became the head of our Digital Transformation Office.

They were then charged with bringing out a groundswell of goodwill for digitalisation and innovation within NTUC Income.

Even as we now introduce even newer ways of working to the company, it is important to be mindful of any potential tension that may arise from the new-versus-old dichotomy.

Hence, we made it a point to have existing staff work alongside fresh change-makers that we hired at the Digital Transformation Office.

Not only do these experienced employees possess precious institutional knowledge about the company, they also serve as an effective bridge between the new and the not-so-new ways of doing things.


Different strokes

It is important for leaders to recognise that employees adapt to change in different ways, and at different rates. This is why I have always advocated for a change management process that involves three key steps:

  1.      Awareness or knowledge of the change in hand;
  2.      Hands-on experience or experiential learning as I explained earlier;
  3.      Practical involvement in specific change-related projects.

It is worthwhile having “ambassadors” or “catalysts” for change around to positively influence their peers and, as much as possible, ensure everyone speaks a common language.

One good example of how this has manifested within NTUC Income is the way we introduced our “Customer Experience 2.0” workshop.

To be rolled out to everyone, as well as new joiners, this introduces the Design Thinking approach to problem solving, and empowers everyone to deliver positive experience to their customers – both internal and external.

Ultimately, it is about empowering our people to be innovative, and building an environment where we challenge ourselves, harness agile thinking, and experiment with new ways of working.

Indeed, if we are to continue to be successful – and we have all the ingredients in place to do so, it is imperative that all 1,800 of our employees thrive with us.

As Chief HR Officer, that is my goal. And it is our job in the HR team to organise ourselves and the company to get there.


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