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Damien Cummings on Covid'19 and digital transformation

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Podcast with Damien Part 1 


digital transformation, people, digital, engaging, software,technology, business, work, company, startup, retrenchment, building, ecommerce, products, digitization, digitizing, opportunities, digital strategy 


Damien, Liew Wei Da Andrew  

Show outline: 

Section 1: About the show 

Section 2: About the guest 

Section 3: Guest telling his story 

Section 4: How Covid’19 change digital transformation? 

Section 5: The technology paradox 

Section 6: The C-suite skills gap in digital transformation 

Section 7: Purpose is the new enablement for digital transformation   


Damien shared with us that Covid’19 accelerated digital transformation. The first wave of digital transformation generates new working habits such as allowing people to work remote. Not everyone benefits. Technology created a paradox in that it allows people to be closer to working via a medium but it also created distance intheir interpersonal relationships between co-workers. Digital transformation cannot happen effectively partly because the C-suites are lacking new skills especially in the technology side of things. Other times, some leaders lack empathy.Purpose enables people to kickstart digital transformation.      

Section 1: About the show 

Liew Wei Da Andrew 00:17 

Hi, everyone. Welcome to the AI of mankind show where I share anything interesting about mankind. I'm your host for the season. My name isAndrew Liew. I've worked across 4 continents and 12 international cities. Also,I work in tech startups across a range of roles from selling products, making customer happy, figuring out fundraising, making finance, tick, building teams,and developing sticky products. Apart from building startups, I've also worked for Fortune 500 companies as a chief data scientist or technologist, or peopleleader. You can call me Jack of all trades or master of learning. I hope tomake this podcast show a great learning experience for us. And each season there is a series of interesting things, where I invite guests to share their views about their life and interests. Now, let the show begin.   

Section 2: About the guest 

Liew Wei Da Andrew 01:26 

Today's guest is Damien. Damien is one of Asia Pacific recognized digital transformation leaders. He is currently the chief lecturer for thedigital strategy and leadership practice at the National University ofSingapore Institute of systems science. Prior to that, he was the founder andCEO of HR tech, a software as a service company people wave. Before entrepreneurship, he was the Global Head of digital marketing at the Standard Chartered Bank, and the Chief Marketing Officer at Philips Asia Pacific. Damienhas also worked at major global brands, such as Samsung, Dell, Ogilvy Marther,Coca Cola, and McKinsey & Co. let's welcome our guest, Damien.    

Section 3: Guest telling his story 

Liew Wei Da Andrew 02:2

Hi Damien,   

Damien 02:2

thank you very much. You're very interactive. You've got some fruits and cactus behind you.    

Liew Wei Da Andrew 02:3


Damien 02:3

very good. Yeah. I love it.   

Liew Wei Da Andrew 02:3

So the show is to enable the audience to learn more about AI,digital transformation and the guests.    

Damien 02:4

Okay, no problem.   

Liew Wei Da Andrew 02:4

Cool. Tell me about how do you get to where you are, from the day that you did your first startup?   

Damien 02:5

That's a great question.    

Damien 02:5

My first startup was actually back in the 1990s. So actually, my first job was at McKinsey, and then back in the 90s. And it was one of fun.He's what most the other consultants were doing there, they left during the .com boom. Now, at the time, I was very poor. I was living with flat mates. So my flatmate, my girlfriend got together, and did what we did iswe can actually formed a company that actually build websites back in the day.Now that feels very commoditized now, but we actually, you know, became Yahoo's ecommerce partner, we're building moved into kind of the early days of what would have been cloud software with email marketing and CRM tools. And we'redoing some really cool stuff that became a top 20 web development company backin those days in Australia.    

Damien 03:33 

But of course, with, boom and crash, and thecompany wound down and I end up losing everything. Of course, that was my first experience of startup. And that was about four years of doing that was the equivalent of at least doing an MBA or a master's degree, it was a great kind of actually, doing this in my 20s was amazing. Let's learn despite the fact that it didn't work.      

Damien 03:55 

But my most recent startup was my most recent job. So I, afterthat, first business kind of fell over, I had to go get a real job. And I built a career over 20 years as a digital person. So as a digital guy, i looked after E commerce or sales or marketing. So you know, i hit the top of the C suite, I became a chief marketing officer and head of digital in different companies.    

Damien 04:17 

And my last corporate job was the Global Head of digital at Standard Chartered back then, it was a great job and fantastic people there and people with big ambition. But in a big companies like that there's not a lot of stability. And what happened is that I ended up getting laid off. So I went through a retrenchment process and it made me very angry, not because it wasn't because I did a bad job. And it wasn't because the team weren't performing. Weactually were hitting, you know, stellar runs everywhere.    

Damien 04:44 

But the reality is, that seems very political. So the reasons they kind of chose to actually disband on this team and you know, choose to actuallygive it to some people versus others, really frustrated me. I've always been more of a data driven guy. So you know, I took my little bit of retrenchment money. And I formed my last business called Peoplewave.    

Liew Wei Da Andrew 05:01 


Damien 05:03 

There are two aspects of that. 1, how do I make work fair? Youknow, I've just been through a very unfair retrenchment and I hated it. And 2,you know, could we use data to make better decisions as a manager, and the people in some of the counter people, so you know, I did that until COVID. Sothat was great raised a million dollars for two products to market, we had hundreds of SMEs using our product, then later, but two or three years in, we realized we had a bigger ambition, we signed an 11 million USD term sheet to gobig at the end of 2019.    

Damien 05:31 

But then COVID hit. So COVID kill our core business of HRtechnology, because no one was hiring, and no one's buying our software. But also the people we trusted actually put that money to business end up, youknow, not delivering, so that was catastrophic. So actually, it's pretty freshfor me. So that kind of business just went down at the beginning of 2021. And that led into whatever change and reflection about where I am.    

Liew Wei Da Andrew 05:53 

Ah And that was how eventually you gotta yourself to be the chief officer, or Principal Lecturer at the NUS Institute of system and science.    

Damien 06:02 


Damien 06:02 

I'm currently at the National University of Singapore in the Institute of system science. So I'm chief of Digital Strategy and leadership there. What that means is, you know, applied my 20 plus years of knowledge,actually, now I'm actually giving it back. So I teach programs like the masters of technology and digital leadership, doing obviously, business development,looking at actually growing capability for NUS. And also, it's fun actually going to be getting back into corporate groups. So we do executive education,around things like cybersecurity, AI, digital transformation, digital strategy,and so on. So a lot of fun, it's early days, but certainly very different change of pace in the corporate jobs in the startups I've worked at before.    

Section 4: How Covid’19 change digital transformation? 

Liew Wei Da Andrew 06:40 

Yeah, it sounds very fun. I mean, like, your whole story is like an adventure, right? Where you started out running a startup, and then you end updoing C suite, doing digital transformation. And then winding up going back to the startup again, and then now coming back to giving back to the society. Asan educator, so help me understand. So you were doing digital transformationwork or digital strategy work before COVID-19. And after COVID-19.    

Liew Wei Da Andrew 07:06 

How has COVID-19, it changed the way digital transformation is being done?   

Damien 07:12 

Well, my experience of it all digital transformation always requires a fire to be lid. So 2020, in COVID, was actually a huge fight forevery company. I mean, there was at least five years of transformation, there was a compressed into one in the last year. In general, what I've seen is, you know, work with companies like Samsung, or Dell or Philips, they've always had a version of digital transformation chips is, you know, a business unit declining or a products not hitting the market or customer complaints, etc.    

Damien 07:39 

Generally, it has to actually, you know, filter out, there's going to be a flame, somebody is going to put in hot seat for things that happen so it is challenging. And the reason I've always had good jobs at the C level, is because that skill set of actually identifying those opportunities solving that problem into a solution is always been a pretty rare skill set.    

Damien 07:58 

But with COVID, in 2020, and 2021, everything has changed. So everything has been forced to become digital, we've had to do zooms and meetings like this, I mean, managing people has been remotely using HR technology, or a Frankenstein version of them. engaging customers has been through digital platforms and so on. I mean, for people who work in digital,it's a dream come true. To everyone else, it's been an absolute nightmare. So it's a bit forced us to do things. Now I think we're only seeing the first wave of actually the digital transformation that's happened. We're all used to now doing things remotely in a hybrid workforce and engaging people with digital platforms. But the next big thing is.....   

Damien 08:37  

well, I've been working with my boss for a year and a half, but I've never met him.    

Liew Wei Da Andrew 08:43 

oh Wow   

Damien 08:44 

Well I work with . err. ah.    

Damien 08:45 

that's not my case. It's in a fictional example. It's many peopleare actually going to start a company has never met, the team never met their boss, and so on. What does that mean for their professional development? Does that mean that they're going to be overlooked for opportunities because they don't know each other? And people actually don't know that first of them personally. Does that mean they actually been deprived of learning opportunities, and waking up in the morning going to your sofa, you know,putting on the computer walking in the study? That's your entire world.    

Damien 09:14 

So missing our learning opportunities, networking opportunities being passed over promotion. And you know, what we're seeing at the moment is the year of the great resignation happening because of these changing needs.    

Damien 09:23 

But what I think's going to happen next is Ah: yes, the essentials of digital transformation are there. By via e commerce use digital tools to communicate, use HR to work manage the workforce, but the next wave you know,managing mental well being actually looking at to the soft skills looking at how do we engage better, all that is the next wave, which I think we're gonna see from 2020 onwards.   

Section 5: The technology paradox 

Liew Wei Da Andrew 09:46 

Yeah, I mean, like, the way that you see it is almost like COVID-19 has enabled digital transformation to happen very fast. But yet the irony of digitization or using technology to enable work, is It brings us closer throughdigital medium without commuting, but it's not bring us further in terms ofinterpersonal relationship. Am I getting it? Right? You know?   

Damien 10:09 

Yeah, it is. I mean, it's Funnily, we're more connected than we've ever been. But I think we're more isolated and lonely at the same time. So it feels like a contradiction, but it's not.    

Damien 10:18 

I mean, you know, I've got something like up to 30,000, LinkedIn connections, I don't know how many of those people I mean, you can only have, you know, a core number of people actually get to know, right?   

Damien 10:26  

But, you know, just becauseI have that many social media connections, or I've engaged with people via email. So it doesn't mean I know them. But there's this illusion of engagement.This is the illusion of getting to know people. And you know, I think people are realizing that's very soulless to hollow. And something more needs to bedone, you know, we need genuine human interaction connection. And tools canonly take you so far. But I think the current generation has tools needs to beoverhaul to actually help with this. But the next generation tools, and again,video was a good start, but enough being said that it must be so much deeperand more engaging to get us where we need go. So yeah, we variously time from 2022 onwards as these tools evolved.   

Section 6: The C-suite skills gap in digital transformation 

Liew Wei Da Andrew 11:03 

So along the line that you mentioned about that enablement of everybody get to work freedom and flexibility, the lack of personal touch. What do you think a leader or our C suite executives need to take note when they do digital transformation Post COVID-19?   

Damien 11:20 

Yeah, well, up until recently, I always say that CEOs need to leadfrom the front. But the problem is many Asian CEOs in the Singapore context,they're very proud and don't actually acknowledge that you actually have gaps.You see this often in family run organizations, they don't want to let you knowthat they're weak or don't have skills or you know, perception of actually being unskilled or incompetent.    

Damien 11:42 

But the reality is that nobody has the answers. You know, there's people who've got expertise in different areas. But what we need to do is, I love this idea of leaving no one behind.   

Damien 11:51  

Getting people to a base level of digital knowledge, base level of skills, reskilling, upskilling, andso on.    

Damien 11:57 

I think the challenge is, I think, you know, starting in the softskills area at C levels need to be reflective. do they have the right skills tolead?    

Damien 12:05 

And yes, I'm not talking about the ability to manage people or engage them, I'm talking about having both a strong grasp, you know, the Venn diagram, technology versus people actually, are you sitting somewhere in themiddle of that. And I think a lot of C level executives actually pretty good onthe people side, pretty weak on the technology. And you have to be across both.   

Damien 12:24 

When you're looking at digital transformation, specifically, a lot of people fall into the trap of actually digitizing, rather than digitally transforming.    

Damien 12:32 

And digitizing is, you know, taking paper or, you know, simplesoftware and folding that into more complex data driven software. But it doesn't mean the moving forward. In fact, a lot of digital systems can actually push it back because they're either more complex, or they got terrible workflow. I think we've all been to an experience of actually getting a piece of crappy software that just is terrible to use. And it's so much easier to runon a piece of paper. Not all technology is good.    

Damien 12:57 

So understanding actually, where you need to invest in technology,how to upskill in the right ways. And it both those things are probably not surprising for people going through digital transformation. But again, truly understanding what the strategy leads to in terms of digital transformation.   

Damien 13:13  

Does it mean more money? Does it mean saving money? Does it mean additional workforce? What does it mean for you? And having a clearly articulated plan. I think it's gonna be much moreimportant.   

Liew Wei Da Andrew 13:22 

Yes, like you were mentioning about digitization is not the same as you know, digital transformation. And I share the same sentiment, you know,when I talk to clients, when I'm on my gigs, people always can have the notion that digital transformation is first, let's get everything that is pen and paper onto software.    

Liew Wei Da Andrew 13:42 

But maybe there's just a first start, even then, when everything ison to the software doesn't mean problem has been solved. What business owner needs and C suite needs is they will need business activities decisions to make productivity to make output to make things faster, makes use of resources quicker.    

Section 7: Purpose is the new enablement for digital transformation 

Liew Wei Da Andrew 14:03 

And how do you think companies through this digital transformation? What do they need to do need to think about to enable that to happen?   

Damien 14:12 

Well, paper in and of itself isn't bad, right? So you've got to think about the reasons and people that often don't think about the reasons of why you go from paper into into digital.    

Damien 14:20 

So the reason you want to actually kind of put maybe your employee data, you know, might be held in a physical files a moment, you eventually want to move that to an Excel spreadsheet, or maybe HR system. Now most people seethat as a cost saving somehow. That's completely false. It's not a cost saving at all. It's just digitizing an existing paper based process.    

Damien 14:40 

The reason you do it and actually how that becomes digital transformation is about faster decision making. So understanding who those people are without having to go through your files might be seeing in somebody's head but actually kind of breaking it out and making it easy, easily available for fast decision making is the reason to do it.    

Damien 14:56 

And that's the challenge. So understanding the digitalizationjourney You've probably shouldn't start there. That's a bit of a false economy and essentially taking you down the wrong path, I find ditches probably not where you need to be. I love paper. And I love the fact that we've got old school processes, many of them work really well. But you got to think about actually what you need.    

Damien 15:14 

And often it is, how do you make fast decisions? How do you visualize your work in a way that makes sense? How do we actually kind of havea clear vision of where we need to be as a company, say, one year, five year 10years? And what can digital technology do to help us get there? Good example isthings like E commerce, you know, Omni channel.    

Liew Wei Da Andrew 15:32 


Damien 15:33 

I mean, there's a very logical step of actually going to go from physical retail, because people just can't walk into your store at the moment, building a website actually engaging into other platforms.    

Damien 15:43 

Now, it doesn't mean that you need to go out actually get a Shopify or you're building a direct to consumer ecommerce store, what you might want todo is actually just simply work with the shopee, or Lazada or someone else thathas those things for you.    

Damien 15:54 

So digitizing your existing process from shop into your eCommerce store is not necessarily the right solution. Understanding that you need to engage into a different audience that you can't reach at the moment because they can't walk into your store is the real problem. And actually figuring out where there's people currently go and actually having a solution in front of them. I mean, it could well be the work with a partner or actually do somethingvery different.    

Damien 16:16 

But it really doesn't mean you have to build your own software oryou really put your own technology in place. So I think that understanding truly where you want to be is a good start. Understanding that digital transformation is not digitization is another one. And at the end of the day,it's usually about one or two things, you know, how do we make money or save money? And every decision I think has to be in those kind of terms.   

Liew Wei Da Andrew 16:36 

Hey, guys, thanks for listening to this podcast. If this is the first time you are tuning in, remember to subscribe to this show. If you have subscribed to this show and love this episode, please share it with your friends,family and acquaintances. See you later and see you soon