Customers still driving APAC IT priorities

Asia-Pacific businesses focusing more on IT infrastructure and new technology, but such investments meant to better engage, not neglect, customers, note panelists at ZDNet Asia's IT Priorities event.
Written by Ellyne Phneah, Contributor

SINGAPORE--Improving business processes and efficiency and improving productivity using new technologies among the top priorities for companies in Asia-Pacific in 2012, while meeting customer or partner expectations fell down the list. However, one industry player said the shifting priorities were to equip companies to better engage customers in the future, and not the opposite.

According to ZDNet Asia's IT Priorities survey, the top four priorities for companies in Southeast Asia, China and India were improving business processes and efficiency; reduction in overall IT costs; aligning IT priorities with business growth; and improving productivity through new technologies.

However, meeting external customer or partner expectations fell to 10th place from 2010-2011's third place among Southeast Asian respondents. The low ranking was similar in China and, to a lesser extent, in India.

The survey, which polled 2,664 respondents in Asia-Pacific, was unveiled by Angus Macaskill, industry analyst at CBS Interactive, during a panel discussion held here on Tuesday.

Courts Singapore CIO Bo Christensen, who was one of the panelists, disagreed with the findings though. He pointed out that retail businesses were not well represented in the survey when compared with other industries such as healthcare and finance, which could have skewed the findings.

After all, in the retail industry, forging relationships with customers and investing in technology for better customer connectivity is very important, he added.

If he had the budget to solve the company's key "pain point", Christensen said he would invest in customer connectivity. In fact, he revealed that Courts was already exploring plans to implement multi-channel marketing to better reach out to its customers.

Technologies he would also look into investing would include business analytics and intelligence because gathering data about consumers and understanding them is paramount, he explained.

"Retail is a very impatient industry," the CIO said. "We are trying to move technology aggressively to uncover findings about our customers and benchmark it against best practices so that it will improve customer relations."

Fellow panelist Alec Ang had a different perspective, however. The YCH Group CIO noted that he would invest in next-generation technology such as cloud computing and infrastructure architecture to make its systems more robust.

This does not mean that the company is not concerned about its customers and meeting their needs, though. Ang said: "People today look at the value of what IT brings, and whether it can provide transparency. Once the architecture and infrastructure are in place, only then can we bring value to our customers."

Macaskill also shed more light on the findings, noting that the level of existing IT infrastructure played a part in the final results.

Elaborating, he told ZDNet Asia at the event sidelines that in the U.S. and Australia, in which infrastructure work had been done earlier, creating customer connecting capabilities with technology ranked highly in these markets. Asia-Pacific countries, on the other hand, only recently started implementing IT, he said, adding that this was why companies' focus remained on infrastructure concerns.

The analyst also noted that respondents in Southeast Asia appeared to want to fulfill the listed priorities "all at once", as the percentages between the top 10 priorities were relatively close. As such, it did not mean that Asian businesses "do not care" about their customers, he asserted.

IT training gains importance
The survey also showed that IT training was considered a top 10 technology area of focus for companies in the region, ranking second among Southeast Asia respondents, third for India and eighth among Australians.

Ang said training was important to drive staff engagement, although the approach to training in today's "new world" had to be different from how it was in the past. For example, he said creating thick training materials and getting employees to attend "rote" training sessions that fail to equip them adequately will not work.

This view was corroborated by Michael Barnes, vice president and research director at Forrester Research, who noted a "generational difference" among workers today. The analyst, who was also a panelist, said the people that IT companies now are trying to recruit grew up on video games and e-learning, and not "thick software manuals".

Furthermore, Ang said companies should instill business skills into these employees as the best IT professionals such as former Apple CEO Steve Jobs had both excellent technical skills and keen business sense.

"Business people have become more IT-savvy and everyone is now at IT expert," he said. "As such, IT folks must realize and understand business as well."

That said, Christensen remarked that from a business point of view, he would not spend a large portion of his IT budget on training his employees. This is because he expects his employees to be capable after being hired, and should they fail to perform, "their replacements will".

The issue, he added, is not about training but recruitment. He acknowledged it was not easy to attract and recruit the best talent available, which is why Courts places great emphasis on employment branding.

(Macaskill's presentation can also be viewed here.)

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