A union I.T. transformer
- 09 January, 2008 22:00
Overcoming the disparity in the IT literacy rate among members of an organisation is a challenging issue. Would having various applications for differing IT proficiency levels be the best solution in the long run? Improving internal user satisfaction ranked as a key management priority in our State of the Asian CIO 2007 study, and the NTUC's Martin Tsang outlines some key strategies to achieve this. Overcoming the disparity in the IT literacy rate among members of an organisation is a challenging issue. Would having various applications for differing IT proficiency levels be the best solution in the long run? Improving internal user satisfaction ranked as a key management priority in our State of the Asian CIO 2007 study, and the NTUC's Martin Tsang outlines some key strategies to achieve this.
The National Trades Union Congress is a federation of trade unions of workers in the Lion City's industrial, service and public sectors, with more than 60 trade unions, six associations and nine cooperatives under its wing. Tsang handles the IT systems requirements of those belonging to the NTUC family.
From 2000 - 2001, shortly after Martin Tsang joined the establishment, he spearheaded a programme with US-based IT company People PC, which had expanded into Singapore. The programme's purpose was to provide the Singapore NTUC's then mostly low-income members with affordable personal computers, and it started a technology transformation.
"They [People PC] did not need to make any money; in fact they wanted to spend some in order to make more in the future," recalls Tsang. "The proposition was that this company would buy PCs for members and charge them on an affordable monthly basis because our members were mostly blue-collar workers."
"We were able to bring in IBM computers through that company, give them to our members and charge them at the rate of $1 per day for a period of three years."
The bubble burst
The People PC scheme got off to a decent start and benefitted a few thousand members, but did not see the complete light of success due to a number of factors. People PC went bust along with the dot-com bubble, and NTUC lacked support from a critical internet service provider.
"I always believed just a PC alone would not work; you need the Internet and broadband connectivity," Tsang said. "I'd been in talks with Singtel, the only broadband service provider back then, to provide an affordable broadband connection for our members, but all I could get was a dial-up connection."
NTUC took on the extra liability after People PC shut down, so existing members could continue keeping their PCs on the same terms, but new members could not get in on the scheme.
"In that sense, I considered myself not totally successful."
Fast forward to 2007 and it's obvious that things have changed. Singtel has since discontinued the free dial-up connection plan (outlined above) in support of the nation's iN2015 Masterplan, which aims to have 90 per cent of households hooked up with broadband internet access by 2015. NTUC's blue-collar members are still present, but its members' ranks have also gradually been infiltrated by, what Tsang terms, 'technologically savvy knowledge workers'. What Tsang hopes to attract are more members belonging to this segment of society.
Growing knowledge workforce
"Our approach today is geared more towards the knowledge workers. The population of blue-collar workers in Singapore is shrinking. Many of them are members who want to develop their skills, and we continue to help them do so," says Tsang. "The knowledge workforce, on the other hand, is growing rapidly, though their percentage within our members is still very low. Our aim is to increase that percentage and we are putting a lot in resources into doing so."
Tsang believes a key to achieving this goal lies in the way members' information is handled at NTUC. He envisions a holistic view of members' data which stretches beyond day-to-day requirements.
"In the past, we used to keep members' information in terms of operational requirements. Most of the data for members were things relating the operational sphere, such as payments. Moving forward, members' information will become more strategic to us and we'll be using that to position NTUC in various areas in order to serve our members better, as well as to recruit more members. We can also initiate new services for those who haven't joined us yet, once we understand our existing members better."
"One very big area for us in the next three to four years concerns data mining and a more customer relationship management (CRM) approach."
Closing the IT gap
How then, does Tsang deal with the gap between the IT savvy and the less so in the same corporation?
"I will have one group of users being neglected if I use technology too much, but I will neglect another if I don't use it at all," he said.
Clearly, seeking out the perfect equilibrium is a precarious task, which sometimes calls for separate applications for different groups of users.
"We have been trying to push the blue-collar workers towards new technologies through the years, and they're actually picking them up. The problem we face now is having another group which stands at a higher level of competence. We believe the gap can be further narrowed as the first group continues to improve."
Better member services
A possible solution to hasten the narrowing of this gap could lie in enlisting technology to extend the scope of NTUC's member services beyond the traditional over-the-counter transactions.
"A key focus is to provide services through the phone and the Internet, and all our services in future will be based around this. There are certain over-the-phone and Internet services available today, but this will become more important for us as our membership database expands."
Tsang also sees much potential in the concept of employing Web 2.0 technologies within NTUC, although he admits a strategy concerning Web 2.0 has yet to be worked out. This is due to the company's business requirements and the large number of users still coming to grasp the concept of IT.
"We want to have a more holistic approach to our business requirements, and only then will we go shop for a technology that matches them." Tsang believes that it's pointless to implement a fantastic application if it doesn't suit the business's requirements -a view that reflects a finding of the State of the Asian CIO 2007 study that Aligning IT and business goals remains a top management priority for 2008.
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