Keeping pace with change
Speaking to Wong Heng Chew about technology, robotics and artificial intelligence could set you back a few hours of your time.
The Country President of Fujitsu Singapore is a man of refreshing candour, as he articulates how each of these disruptors are affecting the entire spectrum of businesses within his industry.
Wong has spent his entire career working for information and communication technology-related organisations, and has known the power and value of disruption since before it was the buzzword of business today,
Having begun his career in Hewlett Packard as a production engineer, Wong moved to the sales department to sell computers.
He then got his first taste of general management at Hewlett Packard before moving to Motorola at a time when telecommunications was, as he recalls, the “in-thing”.
However, having assumed a regional role, Wong found himself travelling around three weeks out of a typical month and soon realised it wasn’t his cup of tea.
“The travelling was a bit too much for me and my family,” he says.
Following his stint at Motorola, Wong decided to look for a locally-based job and was soon offered the role of Head of Compaq Singapore.
His work there caught the attention of Sun Microsystems in Singapore and he then accepted the opportunity to lead its operations here.
After Sun Microsystems was acquired by Oracle in 2010, Wong stayed on for another four months before coming to what he says was “the crossroads” of his career.
“Fujitsu approached me and I was keen to try something different and be in a non-American company,” Wong says. “Here I am still, seven years later.”
Fujitsu has been traditionally known for its computing and software products, but it has now ventured into other areas such as cloud computing and infrastructure solutions. Is this an inevitable consequence of being in the technology sector?
I think it’s an evolution. We have always built on our strength and heritage. If you look at when Fujitsu first started, we were anchored in telecommunications and computing. This year, we are celebrating our 82nd anniversary. The fact that we’re a long-enduring company means we have been able to look at trends, move with them, and evolve based on our experience and expertise.
Companies cannot survive if they don’t move with the times. For example, today’s mega-trend is the different mode of consuming services. That’s why we have things like cloud computing.
Companies need to find a competitive edge in what they’re doing, whether it’s in Big Data or the Internet of Things. All this gives rise to a different way of doing things in business. This is where the application of artificial intelligence and robotics becomes very important. Artificial intelligence is the means of making sense of the voluminous data. For example, police forces around the world are applying it to fight terrorism.
As a leader in my business, I need to bring my people from one paradigm to another. I read up and talk to people about this to really understand what’s going on in this sector and to see how I can lead effectively.
How is Fujitsu implementing artificial intelligence and robotics into its business?
AI and robotics are emerging businesses. If you look at today’s market share, the revenues from these streams are not very big, but over time, this is where we will see lots of growth. As a business, we always need to be looking at high-growth areas. For example, we recently acquired a robotics company and we’ve also been investing in research and development for the last 30 years. In fact, we’ve probably had more patents in Japan than any other company in the country.
That’s how serious Fujitsu is in this space. In terms of market share, we are working in high-technology areas such as looking for cavities in roads. In Japan for example, there are lots of old sewerage systems that could lead to sinkholes over time. It’s a huge safety concern over there. We’ve been applying artificial intelligence techniques to these problems, but it’s still very much in its infancy stages.
Talent and culture
Fujitsu has more than 159,000 employees in 100 countries. What are some of your biggest workforce challenges?
In our part of the world, talent management becomes very important. People move around quite a lot and there’s a lot of workforce mobility. It’s always a question of how do we keep talents.
With all the incoming developments in our industry, it’s also about knowing how to equip our people and retrain them to ensure their skills are relevant.
Technology can also be applied quite quickly now, although the adoption rate is different in various countries. I think that disparity will come into equilibrium, though there will still be certain gaps. This disparity will then be filtered down to people in terms of competencies.
Being a Japanese conglomerate, how does the company still maintain strong local values?
I think I can relate with my own experience.
My career has always been built around American companies and the western way of thinking and looking at things. I was initially unsure about joining Fujitsu. I heard that it was a different environment and I had often heard many things about Japanese culture. But when I look back, I can actually associate myself as an Asian and with the Eastern influence in terms of treating people and of my leadership style.
One thing that always surprises me is how Fujitsu treats its customers. From my experience, I think we’re over-serving. But after seven years with the company, I think it’s the right way. You pay attention to your customer and treat them as a partner because you want a life-cycle relationship, not a transactional one.
I was told that in the early days, when Toyota wanted to have a foothold in Asia, Fujitsu stressed that it would follow Toyota till the end and set up operations to support its customers. It wasn’t about Fujitsu calculating the return-on-investment. That’s the kind of mentality we have as a business.
Helming the fort
How would you describe your leadership style?
I think I have a very engaging style. I like to be at the forefront of things with my employees and customers. I’m very much of a “feel” person and I’m in the trenches with my people, rather than being at the back.
How would your employees describe you?
I’m pretty friendly and approachable. In fact, you can see me walking the ground all the time and striking up conversations with staff. People do not avoid me, so I guess that’s good news to me!
What would you say is your biggest challenge right now as head of Fujitsu Singapore?
The pace of change in this industry is tremendous. I always think: how can I get my staff through this transformation where they can move from one phase to another? They need the support and guidance, and that’s my biggest challenge.
What is your biggest regret?
I don’t really have regrets but I always wonder what’s it like to be an entrepreneur rather than an employee. I also wonder what it is like not to work in an IT company. Whenever I see a fish or vegetable farm, I often think that if I had taken on that track, my life would have been very different. It’s probably a bit too late at this stage!
What is your top tip for leaders?
Employees on the ground do struggle. Whether you’re fresh from school and entering the workforce or even if you’ve been working for five to 10 years but you’ve yet to gain the wisdom and experience needed for this new business environment.
I really think managing change is tough for many junior employees. Leaders must help employees with that.
First of all, leaders should talk about change with their employees. If you talk about it, you let employees know that change is impending and at their doorstep. Talk about change so they’re well prepared.
I love: Quiet time, and being in deep reflective mood
I dislike: Indifference or “couldn’t-care-less” types of behaviour
My inspiration is: Mother Teresa. Her work defined what pure human love is all about
My biggest weakness is: Sweet dessert
In five years’ time, i’d like to be: Be in a slower lane
Favourite quote: “Give, but give until it hurts” (Mother Teresa)