Hi-Tech CEO In The Works
Anita Devasahayam , 1-Sep-2001

Owning an e-mail address is no longer glamourous but a given in corporate Malaysia. The upper echelon fiefdom that was once confined to messages scripted on paper or delivered in quick whispers, have in recent years been invaded by the Internet.

High fliers in top management such as CEOs, managing directors, company chairpersons and presidents are unable to steer clear of the new economic paradigm. Though the crème de la crème of the business community do avoid technology out of personal choice, it is not for the lack of acumen.

Some are plain unwilling—bluntly refusing to learn-—to get accustomed to the new communication currency. According to Abdul Rahman Abu Haniffa, a consultant at Accenture who has been dealing with numerous high-level officials in the public and private sectors, there are a few “chronic cases” of top-management staff who refuse to get connected due to the fear of computing.

“It is largely an ego problem as some are shy to admit that they are not competent enough or simply too busy. E-mail is not oxygen to them as it is to our generation,” he said.

Rahman pointed out that top-management staff are even more unlikely to find time to clear a backlog of e-mails or reconfigure a stalled computer—they would depend on the technical-support staff to sort out such mishaps. While these industry captains can be forgiven for not being totally technology conversant, others feel that ignorance, is by large, a virtuous trait.

Audi Mok, executive director with Arthurbooks.com questioned the need for the older folks to be Internet- or tech-savvy. He pointed out that successful entrepreneurs such as property and gaming tycoon Lim Goh Tong of Genting Berhad probably does not have an e-mail address, but everyone would still want to do business with him.

“I am sure the young people he deals with wished he has e-mail access. But maybe he is lucky not to have to deal with the invasion of yet another communication channel.”

Conversion to or acceptance of technology is a personal thing, and not everyone believes that it is necessary to convert the non-believers. “Why would you want to convert them? Is it for their benefit or for yours? It is up to the individual to see whether it is important for him. It is to the person’s credit if he can get by without technology or change with the times,” said Mok.

Local Malaysian CEOs who still do not rely on IT are typically above 40 and are from smaller companies. Although the cost of acquiring PCs is no longer prohibitive, many still are “tech-phobic”. They do not feel the need to change especially since they have been operating successfully in the same mode the last 10 years or more.

Mok said that managers from the old school of thought are sticklers for habits, and it would be difficult to change their beliefs.

“It is similar to how our parents and grandparents do not have tastes for American fast-food and inter-racial marriages, which are [commonly accepted] by the current generation. Similarly in reverse, the current generation is less likely to embrace the lifestyle of the previous generation—-whether good or bad,” he argued.

But there is hope yet as more people from the old school have started using e-mail. It is also good to note that high-level executives are printing their e-mails themselves instead of relying on their secretaries to do so, which happened to be the norm in Malaysia a few years ago.

Gadget CEO
Clearly, the younger crop of CEOs are generally more tech-savvy. But it all depends on how they use technology to improve things. A gadget-junkie who trots everywhere with a personal digital assistant (PDA) and mobile phone does not make him a widget wonder.

Image still counts high on the CEO chart and carrying one or two gadgets spruces the illusion. Ironically, many PDA owners still carry their paper-based organisers everywhere.

For many head-honchos such as Alan Fung, CEO of e-mail marketing company Permission.com, the measure of a tech-savvy individual is one that uses technology for improvement or efficiency as opposed to “using technology for the sake of technology”.

He explained that tech-savvy individuals depend on the Web for the latest news, research and to conduct online transactions. “It would be a bonus if the executive appreciates basic concepts of the ’Net, customer relationship management (CRM), supply chain management (SCM), or local area network (LAN),” he said.

Accenture’s Rahman concurred, adding that the only necessary technology skills that a chief executive needs to stay functional include knowing how to respond to electronic- and voice-mails, navigating the Internet and composing basic documents using a PC.

“The culture of using voice-mail is pretty low here and is not commonly accepted as a legitimate communication medium. They are also wary about authorising requests over the electronic medium.”

He added that although the mind shift is taking traction here, it needs to be pushed further. “For years, the telephone has proven itself to be a reliable and low cost method of communication and compared to e-mail, there is a [comfort of having a] voice at the other end of the line.”

This need to hear a voice on the other end may spur the use of videoconferencing and multi-user conferencing, which might eventually replace the need for executives to traipse across the world for meetings. And hopefully, as head-honchos find better ways to manage their time, they might migrate from desktop PCs to notebook computers.

All these seem insignificant, but observers believe that top executives with higher awareness of the usefulness of technology, are more likely to push for the implementation of cost-effective automation processes within their organisations. Such incidences, however, are not commonplace.

Fung said that it would take commodities shaped into killer applications and proven return on investment (ROI) to draw the recalcitrant CEO to technology. “Perhaps [making] things like 4D results [available] on the ’Net or through e-mail, or providing business-specific feng-shui [online] would bring in the numbers.”

Anita Devasahayam can be reached at anitadm@pc.jaring.my