Bigger is better, but not always the most efficient.
Homegrown construction company Utracon began to face both physical and language barriers when it grew to become a market leader with regional offices in countries like India, the Philippines and Uganda.
Receipts and invoices were submitted in other languages, making them more difficult to process at the Singapore headquarters.
Utracon turned to a digital consultant from Stone Forest, which offers complimentary professional digital advisory services under the Chief Technology Officer-as-a-Service (CTO-as-a-Service) initiative, and started to develop an expense management software with a built-in foreign language translation function and Optical Characters Recognition (OCR) function.
“We first ventured overseas in 2007 and are growing bigger. We want to achieve international standards through continuous improvement, which can be done only through technology,” said Mr Khoo Jyh Hao, Director of Utracon Overseas.
For companies like Utracon and other small-and-medium enterprises (SMEs), they have the benefit of tapping on the Infocomm Media Development Authority’s CTO-as-a-Service initiative that was set up in 2021.
It enables SMEs to assess their digital readiness and receive in-depth digital advisory and project management services from qualified consultants.
This is vital for companies in the Built Environment sector, which has been looking to step up digital transformation, embracing solutions like Integrated Digital Delivery that connect stakeholders throughout construction projects.
The digital advantage
Utracon’s business is in reinforcing concrete structures by using high-strength steel cables. However, to support the front-end work, back-office functions such as accounting also have to do the heavy lifting.
Technology helps to lighten the load. The upcoming expense management software is expected to improve the efficiency of claims processing by 50 per cent while minimising errors or incomplete reports.
It has been in development since August 2022 and will be rolled out in the first quarter of 2023.
While filing claims used to be done through hardcopy forms, Utracon’s digital consultant suggested automating this process under CTO-as-a-Service. Optical Character Recognition (OCR) was deemed the most compatible with Utracon’s needs among the available digital solutions
With OCR, images of hardcopy text can be converted to machine-readable text instantly, saving time and manpower.
In fact, before using CTO-as-a-Service, Utracon had already been regularly working with Stone Forest to improve its accounting software. However, when the consulting firm started offering CTO-as-a-Service after the initiative was launched, the two parties took their working relationship further.
In the first half of 2022, Stone Forest began to offer digital advisory services to Utracon on top of its usual technical advisory role. Utracon was just as eager to engage their services.
“We are not a tech company; we don’t need an in-house CTO,” Mr Khoo explained. “That being said, construction is an old-fashioned industry. We see a need to digitalise our construction equipment and business processes.”
Utracon’s digital journey is off to a good start. Eventually, it hopes to implement the expense management software across all its offices in Asia.
Speeding up digital transformation
Utracon’s biggest takeaway was that a company-wide digital transformation drive does not happen through one-off initiatives or unilateral decisions from the top. Instead, it has to be supported by a sturdy change management plan.
More specifically, employees must first be engaged and convinced of the value of the digitalisation vision. So, even before the company’s first session with their digital consultant, they identified a list of “super users” to helm all such discussions.
Mr Benny Chua, Director, Group Finance of Utracon Corporation, calls it a “bottom-up instead of top-down approach”. To him, employees are the actual users of various software such as accounting and procurement. They know the improvement they wish to have to enhance their work efficiency, and therefore should lead the change.
“First-hand interaction with the digital consultant gives employees a higher sense of ownership and a personal stake in their work; they feel they are contributing to the company,” he explained.
Utracon’s Digitalisation Task Force Meeting
This group of employees from different departments has since become part of a flexible digitalisation task force that can move much quicker – a speedboat compared to a large ship that is Utracon. Now, it takes as little as three months, compared to a year previously, to initiate and expedite digitalisation projects.
The new task force also complements Utracon’s existing, albeit unofficial, team of tech-savvy individuals who have always been eager to drive digitalisation.
For instance, they plan to digitalise their recording processes at construction sites. Instead of taking manual measurements using construction rulers and filling in forms to be sent to the backend office for analysis, they hope to digitalise their measuring equipment so that all data can be digitally transmitted, in real-time, through a cloud system.
CTO-as-a-Service has also paved the way for a company-wide culture of innovation. Equipped with a robust team of motivated employees, Utracon hopes to build a repository of digital solutions, which it eventually aims to convert into commercial products to generate more revenue.
The company’s push for digitalisation has fostered greater cohesiveness too, Mr Chua noted. In particular, employees now take more initiative to collaborate.
While digitalisation efforts used to be sparse and uncoordinated, employees are starting to collectively brainstorm new digital solutions. “In the past, employees used to think that it is their department head or manager who wants to make the changes. Now, employees are motivated to co-create solutions as they see the benefits,” he said.