The digital era is upon us and organisations all around the world are investing more than ever before into technology and innovation to improve their operations and stay relevant for an evolving customer base. HGC Global Communications (HGC), a telecommunications company based in Hong Kong, owns an extensive fibre-optic network within the city and has five cross-border routes integrated with three of mainland China’s tier-one telco operators. This is on top of housing a world class international network and the first interconnection on the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge, linking HGC to the Greater Bay Area.
The company’s main mission is centred around leveraging core technologies, infrastructure and services to enhance connections among people and businesses on both a domestic and international scale. A ‘new’ HGC was formed in 2017 and Andrew Kwok, the new Chief Executive Officer, began to embark on HGC’s journey of digital transformation. “I remember when we met,” recalls Chief Digital Officer (CDO) Jacqueline Teo. “He had a firm view about the need for HGC to transform itself as a business in order to be relevant in the new digital world. The role of CDO was created to lead us on this crucial journey and define new paths for growth and success in the digital era.”
Teo joined the business back in 2018 and brought with her extensive global experience in digital enablement, disruption and transformation. Over the course of her career, she has played key roles in product innovation, managed complex technology businesses and their expansions in the Asian market, and led multiple significant organisation wide transformations. She also led the global technology integration and transformation of a US$697mn acquisition, and has led the ground up establishment of several billion-dollar telecommunications startups in Asia and Australia.
For Teo though, the most valuable experience she has gained is an understanding of the “business of technology”. “I look at technology as a means that will provide a positive experience to the user, and having an understanding of the importance of that return of investment (ROI) allows me to think differently,” she says. “What are people really looking for the technology to do? Then, how do people make decisions around technology that are not only based on the technology? How many ROI factors can I satisfy with this technology? These are multi-faceted questions and my experience has allowed me to empathise and be curious about financial, emotional, human, intellectual and rational aspects of the decision. Adding another layer that takes into account the diverse backgrounds of people whether it be age, gender, experience, nationality etc – this completely applies to HGC’s digital journey.”
HGC’s digital transformation focuses on two key areas: an internal transformation of culture, technology and process; and an external transformation of brand, services and experience that will see technology as an enabler for its customers own digital journeys. Teo’s remit covers digital businesses and services, cybersecurity, data, cloud, operations support system (OSS) and business support system (BSS).
Teo describes having open, agile platforms as key to what a telecom provider is capable of offering to its customers. “As we evolve more in this digital world, things collide and interact,” she says. “You can’t look at one thing and not look at others simultaneously. For example, you need to enrich cybersecurity with data and core OSS or BSS needs. To help our customers transform, we need to transform ourselves. My role is therefore to balance all these competing and sometimes conflicting demands, and ensure we have incorporated the right technology at the right time for the right outcomes.” To this end, she immediately enhanced HGC with agile and scrum, multi-cloud management, DevOps and site reliability engineering skills. “Our first major project as the new HGC was extremely agile, cloud native, set up for continuous integration and continuous delivery (Devops) supported by hybrid cloud methods from the start. The team didn’t know any different, so we set up a culture of continuous learning and agility to fail and fix quickly and everyone just got used to the pace of speed and change. This first project was the establishment of our API and Microservices hub with Axway to open up our platform and it took us just three months to achieve. A year in, this is the only way we will launch any new capability.”
To support HGC’s digital journey, Teo also sought partners who can work flexibly with HGC within a fast-paced environment, and remarks that “it was more important they fit us culturally first than have the cheapest price or the fanciest technology”. She cites partners like Enxoo, Axway and Cloudsmartz who have a ‘can-do’ approach, fail fast with HGC and have the courage to push the boundaries of their technology.
In order to bring about change, Teo looked at where technology could be successfully implemented and that in itself required a rethink about the value of technology to HGC. She notes that the current global perception of digital technology shows businesses don’t really understand the depths and breadths of modern technology capabilities. “They think it is easy because of own their digital experience, and they just want it and they want it fast,” she explains. This is where her experience comes into play, as she is able to marry her background in finance with her business knowledge and understanding of technology to optimise the benefits to HGC and its customers.
She adds that thought leadership is crucial in achieving any form of success in a digital transformation. “Everything is smart these days,” she says. “Smart cities, smart workplaces, smart cars, etc. Those areas all need thought leadership in the technology space to actually understand how the enablement of these technologies can support meaningful business models. A good digital leader has to know how to use technology as a progressive enabler and a disrupter – yet advocate for the customer while providing universal benefit and work all positions seamlessly to grow. You don’t always need to be the smartest person in the room, but you do need to know who is and then create the environment where each strength has a voice to shape the outcome.”
Such leadership is fundamental for a business like HGC which serves a wide range of market segments on a local and international scale. With such a large mass market, Teo recognises that transforming and digitally enabling each and every facet in order to remain relevant is a challenge. She is keen to stress the need to have empathy for those going through such transformations and the challenges they face. “They're at different stages of their own journeys of relevance and they've got customers at different cusps of this evolution,” she says. “A consumer for a telecommunications service has a different set of needs to one of the large corporates we serve, and the way they're perceiving things can be at very different extremes. Staying relevant to a customer that continues to be empowered and has more access to information than ever before requires an understanding of just how much that customer has changed and will continue to change.” HGC’s varied market segments creates an incredibly diverse set of demands that it has to be aware and ahead of. “People are changing at different rates, in different ways,” says Teo. “My take on this is to put your customer in the middle of everything you do and start from the idea of ‘what is going to make my customer successful today, tomorrow, next year, in 10years?’ Next,work backwards and challenge the way you think about making your customer happy. Then and only then, how and which technology can enable that.”
In order to overcome this challenge, Teo approaches education and change management innovatively to enable a new way of thinking, asking: “Where is that shift that will make our people look at and think about things a little differently?” and “How do I create a safe environment for our people to collaborate and stay genuinely focused on the customers’ needs?” Challenging the company’s own thinking bias and allowing people to be openly uncomfortable about the impending change has been essential. “It’s about having different conversations, looking at how our customers and our partners will be affected and how we can tackle these challenges in different ways,” she says. “Change is a certainty in this digital era and we must continuously look at where the dial needs to be in order to remain meaningful as a business and ultimately to our customer.”
HGC’s customer requires an increasing number of touch points with more direct connectivity and access. In response to this, HGC is exploring ways in which it can build out from its open platforms and leverage its data capabilities to better create true frictionless engagements with its customers, suppliers and partners. Teo looks at artificial intelligence (AI), virtualisation and infrastructure as the key technologies defining this journey. “Data becomes much more meaningful with AI,” she says. “I made a strategic decision to enable AI capabilities to drive our sales from day one. This includes chatbots for the consumer market and AI driven sales for all our direct sales teams.” The next set of digital functions to benefit from AI are already in progress and Teo would like to see this extended to its customers as well.
Additionally, Teo believes that the edge will become increasingly important to all segments as we enter a world of high volume, micro transactions driven by our growing love for all things ‘smart’, the internet of things and 5G services. Functionality and intelligence at the edge will increase and drive how HGC continues to virtualise access to cloud and network resources while enabling customers to virtualise their processes, prioritise their usage and dynamically use edge to optimise efficiency.
Software enabled infrastructure (software defined networks or ‘SDN’, known as virtual data centres ‘SDDC) or infrastructure as code, is a key area for HGC to unlock operational efficiencies though sellable, flexible and reconfigurable infrastructure. HGC can also optimise availability and performance as well as automate provisioning and activation, allowing its customers elastic infrastructure and networks. The company partnered with CloudSmartz, a global provider of software solutions for communications service providers (CSPs) to enable this part of its digital transformation journey. “CloudSmartz SDN development teams, using CloudSmartz SDxSuite platform and OpenKilda SDN Controller, worked closely with Jacqueline’s HGC teams to develop and globally launch SDN network-on-demand products within 6 months,” says Manjeet Dhariwal, CTO and Co-founder, CloudSmartz. “This kind of speed and agility is unheard of - Congratulations to the SDN teams and the leadership.”
Noting that while there are many SDN services companies in the world, Teo adds that CloudSmartz’s culture and shared goals set it apart from any other. “If you look at the culture that we built to thrive as being digital, CloudSmartz stood out for us for two reasons: one was their thought leadership. They know the software defined space, and they knew how to lead us to that space. The second was that they understood the diversity of our customer base and are aligned to the empathy we have for our customers and customer focus of this journey. Plus it helps that they work at our pace.”
Teo uses the word ‘journey’ liberally, for she feels that transformation suggests a process of moving from one stage to another, whereas for HGC it is a continuous evolution to stay relevant in the fourth industrial revolution. Technology will continue to redefine the telecommunications space, and HGC has had to continue to redefine itself too. “HGC is courageous in the way it disrupts its own ways of doing business,” she says. “It takes personal courage and organisational courage to stand up and say that we are happy to disrupt who we are and we are happy to take the first steps in evolving our business today, tomorrow and beyond that.”
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