SingPost Chief Digital and Technology Officer on Singapore’s postal services digital strategy

Alex Tan, Group Chief Digital and Technology Officer at SingPost, speaks about the company’s innovative digital services and the importance that ecommerce is gaining in Singapore’s postal industry

alex tan group chief digital and technology officer at singpost october 2018 image requested by cri
SingPost

Postal services in Singapore date back to the early 19th century, when Stamford Raffles founded the British colony in 1819.

In those days the mail volume was very small and letters were collected and delivered from a single mail office - the whole establishment of the post office in the 1830s consisted of just one European clerk, one local writer and a peon.

Following independence from Malaysia in 1965, Singapore took over its own postal functions in stages and the following year it was admitted into the Universal Postal Union (UPU). The Singapore Postal Services Department became a fully autonomous body on 1 January 1967.

Today Singapore Post Limited, commonly referred as SingPost, deals with more than half a billion postal items every year and envisions itself “to be the global leader in ecommerce logistics and trusted communications.”

Behind this titanic set of operations and managing the organisation's technology and digitalisation strategy is Alex Tan, Group Chief Digital and Technology Officer at SingPost.

In an exclusive interview with CIO Asia, Tan spoke to us about the company’s digital services, his evolving role as IT executive and the impact of ecommerce in the postal industry.

“Disrupting traditional incumbents”: How’s the role of the CIO changing?

It is to no one’s surprise that with technology being a game-changer and an omnipresent feature in modern organisations, the role of the CIO has shifted from a purely IT-centric job to one with a proactive business focus.

Writing in Forbes, Geoff Webb noted how CIOs in 2018 have assumed a much more prominent place in the strategic thinking within a business, not just passively letting C-suite colleagues achieve their goals, but rather by actively setting their own agenda for the future of the digital enterprise.

Before joining SingPost as Group Chief Digital and Technology Officer, Tan was Regional CIO of DB Schenker Asia Pacific, Regional CIO of Pacnet, and Head of Group Payments Products at OCBC Bank.

His impressive career in IT spans more than 20 years and during that time he has experienced changes in the responsibilities and job description of the Chief Information Officer.

“There is a definite shift from a backroom, tech-focused role into one that is focused on being a credible partner to business colleagues,” he told CIO Asia. “Technology is a crucial pillar in many industries today compared to a decade ago - it will reshape business boundaries and differentiate great companies from ordinary ones by way of ‘disrupting traditional incumbents’ that may be too slow to change, lacking digital and technological talent or financial resources due to competing demands.”

SingPost, as a leading postal services organisation, is at the forefront of the use of disruptive technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI), big data or cloud computing. However, for Tan what is most important is being able to recognise that technology is “the enabler” and that the use case or business narrative has to be the starting point for any strategy.

“For example, in last-mile logistics delivery, a fundamental question is: How do we achieve meaningful scale given the small geographical size of Singapore? Can we leverage partnerships from overseas or with local champions to create value for each other – and if so, how? The underlying technology then becomes the ‘plumbing’ or infrastructure,” he said.

What’s SingPost digital strategy?

Tan’s current digital strategy in SingPost includes the developing of LaMP, a new disruptive last-mile platform that will serve as a regional technology platform to enable unique and differentiated customer experience. It combines asset-heavy and asset-light operations through a meshed network of technology-driven and technology-agnostic assets.

The Chief Digital and Technology Officer explained that LaMP will allow online customers to order goods online and receive them via any last-mile delivery node in the network, whether a courier delivery, a parcel locker, or even a brick-and-mortar retail shop in a mall.

This will facilitate ecommerce for both online and offline retailers, from multinational corporations to small and medium-sized enterprises, with the ability to trade cross-border within the region.

“We want to be the regional last-mile delivery and urban logistics platform of choice for Southeast Asia,” said Tan. “We plan to build asset-light, tech-driven platforms and partner with the region’s local champions to provide an ecosystem to enable ecommerce in the region.”

In September SingPost and AXA, the multinational insurance firm, announced the launch of AXA@POST Virtual Assistant, Singapore’s first remote advisory service in the postal services.

Tan explained that SingPost and AXA have been in an exclusive post-assurance partnership since 2015 to market and sell life and general insurance products via SingPost’s retail network in the island-estate.

“The partnership has enabled both companies to leverage on each other’s strengths, synergise efforts, and increase market competitiveness – bringing high quality and holistic financial planning advice and services to people from all walks of life,” he said.

The pilot project will virtually connect SingPost’s customers with AXA Financial Consultants to provide advice and services, and it’s the first advisory service in the country that will provide financial advice to customers remotely.

“AXA@POST Virtual Assist provides end-to-end sales advisory services via a live, interactive video feed – from having their financial needs and goals ascertained, to receiving financial advice on insurance solutions based on suitability, and completing the entire insurance application online in one sitting,” Tan said.

“SingPost Financial Services Ambassadors (FSAs) are present onsite where they will guide customers to the AXA@POST Virtual Assist booth," he continued. "Customers will then begin their face-to-face consultation with an AXA Financial Consultant via a video interface.”

The impact of ecommerce on the postal services

With email being the preferred method of correspondence worldwide for businesses and most individuals, one can’t avoid but fearing that stamps will soon be confined to collectors albums and museum display cabinets.

What future will await to postal services as traditional post continues to fade away?  In Tan’s view, ecommerce will be the rescuer as it presents a priceless opportunity for the postal industry at a time when digitalisation continues to take over regular mail correspondence.

“Postal operators have a crucial role to play in ecommerce as last-mile providers of choice,” he told CIO Asia. “They tend to have the widest-reaching, lowest cost infrastructure for last-mile delivery in their domestic markets. They are also part of a well-established global network that suits cross-border ecommerce flows, a large portion of which consist of items that are small, light, and low in value.”

“That said, technological innovation and capacity investments are still required to stay ahead of evolving demands for ever greater speed, flexibility, and cost efficiency,” he added.

It’s Tan’s commitment to stay at the forefront of digital transformation and make sure that postal services are still relevant and a valuable service in society.

“At SingPost, we are digitalising our postal operations for better operational efficiency and customer experience,” he said. “We will be launching an initiative called SmartPost, which deploys mobile app, near-field communication and other digital technologies at our last-mile delivery operations.”

“At the front-end, we are rolling out our Smart Post Office network, which combines our physical branch network with our SAM omnichannel platform – comprising self-service kiosks, mobile app and web portal – to provide 24/7 retail access to postal and other essential services.”