Published on 04 Oct 2023

Digital transformation journeys

Prof Christina Soh, Dean of NTU's Nanyang Business School, shares her views on how organisations can build resilience and agility by going digital.

Prof Christina Soh, Dean of NTU Singapore's Nanyang Business SchoolOver the past 30 years, Prof Christina Soh from the Nanyang Business School (NBS) has closely watched and researched how organisations and sectors have transformed themselves digitally.

Her research has ranged from assessing the business value of technology investments and tracing digitalisation efforts in banks and the public sector, to evaluating the implementation of enterprise systems in healthcare and the increasing use of artificial intelligence (AI) to augment healthcare professionals. 

A Goh Tjoei Kok Professor in Business, Prof Soh is also the Dean of NBS and NTU’s Vice President (Strategy & Leadership Development).

She is an advocate of interdisciplinary education and was one of two co-architects of NTU’s double degree programme in business and computing in 2005. Prof Soh was also involved in designing the Renaissance Engineering Programme at NTU and the business school’s specialisation in business analytics.

She shares her views on digitalisation in this Pushing Frontiers interview.

Q: How has digital transformation for healthcare evolved in Singapore?

A: When I first started in this area, the focus in Singapore was on using enterprise-wide systems to automate in-patient and out-patient processes across hospitals. The key issues were around streamlining processes and automation efficiencies.

Over time, the conversation shifted towards electronic medical records. These records hold potential to link across healthcare providers to address fragmented healthcare services, a common challenge in many countries.

Today, with the growth of data from healthcare systems, we’re looking at AI that builds on these data. The idea is not to replace the judgement of doctors but to build models and use data to augment their decisions.

Q: Can you give an example of how going digital has helped healthcare organisations?

A: In the 2010s, we were fortunate to study the telehealth initiative of Khoo Teck Puat Hospital’s geriatric unit. The initiative reached out to several nursing homes to give their residents access to specialist eldercare from the hospital through video conferencing.

This meant that elderly residents did not have to face challenges in getting to the hospital. And, time-strapped nurses and specialists did not have to travel for consultations.

Challenges were worked out, like implementing the technology and training nurses to support specialists during teleconsults. But there were questions on whether telehealth was economically viable in the longer term.

Then COVID-19 happened in 2020. Pandemic restrictions made it difficult for nursing home residents to have visitors in-person.

Because the nursing homes and the hospital already had telehealth protocols in place, they quickly shifted consultations and visits online, as well as rolled out measures to control COVID-19 spread.

The project showed that digital transformation on an ecosystem basis – information flow, systems and processes across organisations – can deliver healthcare effectively, and increase resilience and agility of healthcare organisations.

Q: What are the common issues organisations across industries face when they transform digitally?

A: Every organisation experiences four types of tensions between the new and existing that never go away but can be managed: tensions relating to the identity of workers and the company; tensions regarding workers’ goals and key performance indicators; tensions linked to workplace processes; and tensions dealing with workers’ knowledge.

When an organisation transforms digitally, these tensions flare up because you’ve changed the basis of performance, identity, what workers know and are good at, and standard practices.

You cannot look at just one side of the tension, for example, focusing primarily on new knowledge and skills associated with the transformation while ignoring those associated with the existing business. This has been shown to exacerbate tensions and, over time, dampen and even stall digital transformation.

You have to address all sides, such as solving the problems workers face, while also meeting the needs of organisations. This requires a managerial mindset that accepts the apparent contradictions of competing demands and is open to creative ways to address them.

Q: How does being at the crossroads of business, science and technology bolster NBS’s research?

A: Because we’re a business school in a technological university, we’re able to carry out research across disciplines that is generally hard to do.

A growing area is in sustainability. For example, our first major project under the Global-Asia Insurance Partnership between the insurance industry, public sector agencies and academia is on climate change.

Industry partners wanted us to look at the flooding risk of major Asian cities and develop actuarial risk models that would subsequently influence insurance products.

We are able to do this because NBS’s actuarial faculty can partner with scientists from NTU’s Earth Observatory of Singapore and together work with the insurance industry.

Our interdisciplinary research and skills play a big role in differentiating us from other business schools.

Q: How else does NBS differentiate itself?

A: Our location in Singapore means that we can synthesise ideas from Asia and ideas from the West in a way that resonates with Asians and can be understood by westerners. NBS faculty can also contextualise knowledge and experiences from the West to an Asian environment.

This cultural dexterity is another big differentiator for us among business schools. We have a group of faculty and researchers who have pioneered research on cultural intelligence for 20 years. Companies with large, multinational workforce have come to us for training to manage employees and customers from around the world.

Our cultural intelligence research has been incorporated into NBS Masters’ and undergraduate programmes. For NTU undergraduates from other disciplines who go on exchange programmes, we also offer an elective course to them before they head overseas.

The article appeared first in NTU's research & innovation magazine Pushing Frontiers (issue #21, December 2022).