APB is one the Asia Pacific's largest breweries, with operations in 12 countries in the region. Its flagship product, Tiger beer, is distributed in more than 60 markets worldwide. Ong's role in the company includes overseeing the MIS structure within the APB group of companies, to ensure that the IT investments and infrastructure are aligned with the company's business objectives to operate in the most cost-efficient manner.
'Practical, cost-effective and secured information systems for the various brewery operations', is Ong's target, and standardisation plays a key role in achieving this target. "Integrating and standardising solutions for sales and marketing, distribution and logistics and production planning, amongst others, onto a single common platform environment achieves a more dynamic supply chain information system."
The benefits of a common, integrated platform, according to Ong, are obvious. "Good practices of business information and infrastructure models can be developed, and the concept of 'build once, use many', can be applied, thus enabling knowledge transfer and replicating learning from one operation to another," says Ong.
Citing an example in August 2006, where APB's operations in Vietnam acquired two breweries, one in Danang and one in Tien Giang, Ong says: "Apart from facing a tight timeline in the integration of two separate systems into a single infrastructure platform, we had to ensure that both the existing systems and the newly integrated system continued to support the business functions throughout the entire integration process. In addition, the data connectivity changes for all the breweries, warehouses, depots and sales offices had to coincide with the transfer over to the newly integrated platform."
Ong says the integration experience in Vietnam allowed him an opportunity to grasp a better understanding of culture, processes and needs of the Vietnamese market.
He said that one of the key challenges of IT management, on a large regional scale, is the continual coordination of the supply chain operation, which comprises both front and backend processes in the cross-functional areas of forecasting, planning, sourcing, manufacturing, supplying, and executing cycles.
"To ensure that the front and backend operations are seamlessly coordinated at all times, the IT platforms must adequately cater to the complexities of each operation and the different conditions of each market."
The differing nature of the markets within which APB operates has created the need for variants of the same solution to be implemented, according to each location's requirement. One example, Ong says, could be something as commonplace as connectivity. That which appears straightforward on the surface may not prove to be so, due to varying levels of infrastructure available.
Citing the example of two countries with different conditions, Ong says, "The level of infrastructure for telecommunications and internet services was good in Laos, given the stable internet connectivity, reasonable Internet bandwidth; good quality of local loop circuit (referring to fibre-optic cables); and good support of technical services. With that, we introduced Internet Virtual Private Network (better known as VPN) as the core link for APB's business application system in Laos."
Sri Lanka, on the other hand, proved more challenging. "We observed that Internet connectivity in Sri Lanka was slower and less stable. Thus, we introduced Multi Protocol Label Switching (better known as MPLS) gateway, to ensure a suitable quality level required to support our Sri Lanka business application system, which is housed in a data centre over in Singapore."
Certain market conditions, which require a departure from the regular sales and distribution model, could also result in IT having to 'think out of the box', according to Ong. One such example would be the company's distribution model in Mongolia, where APB is a relatively new entrant to the local beer market. The company's beers, in Singapore and its neighbouring countries, are usually disbursed via local distributors, who work with retailers in order to get the products into the hands of the consumer. Retailers deal directly with the distributors, and place their beer orders through them. This process, however, is different in Mongolia, where local distributors are currently not part of the supply chain. Instead, APB's beers go directly from the manufacturer to the retailers, for sale to consumers.
"Given the different business models, sales distribution and logistics execution, together with the market dynamics of Mongolia, a specific handheld solution had to be created, in order to support and automate the day to day operations in the Mongolian market," says Ong. "The handheld device aimed to eliminate all the duplication efforts in the sales transactions processing as well as simplify the administrative tasks that integrate into the backend ERP system housed in the Singapore data centre."
Ong explains that the company's IT operations in Singapore are mainly geared towards data churning and analysis. "Unlike Mongolia, the IT requirements in the field force operation for the Singapore market are more inclined towards closing the gap of collecting relevant data in the trade and market as well as gathering other information provided by the distributors for further market analysis."
The changing nature of technology also brings with it potential areas which APB can expand into, according to Ong.
"Technology devices are getting smaller and more compact, without compromising power, while technological convergence continues to take place in all aspects to simplify project deployment in a secure computing environment," says Ong. "Hopefully, deployment costs of technology and maintenance costs will further reduce to enable technology adoption which will help tighten the links in the supply chain between distributors, retailers and customers.