Workplace and Workforce of the Future: Redefined

I was involved in a study several years back, together with other senior HR leaders and practitioners, on the future workforce and its implications to HR.  I ‘interviewed’ my young son, who was seven years old then, and asked him what he thought ‘work’ will look like for him in the future. I was expecting some typical school-kid answers like ‘policeman’, ‘bus driver’ or ‘doctor’ but he replied: “I want to create something new every day!”  Naive as it may seem, and many parents would have taken it at face value, it was thought-provoking to me at that point, and in light of the increasing global interest on the future of work.

After all, many of today’s workplaces in the real world are designed as places for work, literally. And ‘work’, as defined in the dictionary, is to carry out tasks or fulfill duties regularly for a salary. Assuming most kids have similar aspirations about their future, the question, therefore, is whether conventional workplaces are adequately equipped to satisfy the creative desires of future generations over the next ten to twenty years, and beyond. So, to define how the future workplace looks like, we first need to understand the characteristics of the future workforce and what ‘work’ means to them, how individuals generate economic value for themselves, and how organisations can engage them to create business and societal value.

Rapid Workforce Regeneration

Over the last fifty years, we have seen new generations of workforce emerged at a rapid pace. We had the ‘Typewriter’ generation in the 70’s where words-per-minute was a key competency for many jobs. The ‘PC’ generation in the 80’s made typing skills a thing of the past!  Then came the ‘Pager’, ‘Handphone’ and ‘Laptop’ generation in the 90’s, where such gadgets were symbols of mobility and connectedness. The ‘Swipe’ generation emerged in the new millennium. My son lost interest in a LeapFrog tablet which I bought for him when he was two because it did not respond to his swipe gesture!  Then enters the ‘Social’ and ‘Crowd’ generation of today, where ‘Friends’, ‘Likes’ and ‘Followers’ are not just icons but bragging rights for personal pride and self-worth. ‘Twitter’ and ‘Google’ aren’t just company names anymore, they have become every day verbs!  In this age, reputation has become digital and people spend an inordinate amount of time building and maintaining it online. The more entrepreneurial ones monetize it for economic gains with an entirely new industry of social influencers, marketers, and retailers created out of virtually nothing.

The emergence of ‘Cognitive’ and ‘Machine Learning’ will be the defining lexicon of the 2020 generation and beyond. Gone will be the days where one has to do their own analyses to draw insights. Instead, insights and intelligent predictions are expected without even a mouse-click, if we still use mouse at all by then. If you wonder why you are getting medical adverts on your social page and others don’t, you have probably been sharing photos of unhealthy food choices for years! Unbeknownst to you, the technologies you use learn about your lifestyle choices and predicts what attention you need and when. To the generations prior, this is a rather scary thought. But to future generations, this is going to be a basic expectation. In other words, the workforce of the future demands for insights as none of them have the time nor capacity to make sense of the universe of information which is exploding at an incomprehensible rate that requires beyond-human ability to synthesize.

Technological Empowerment

This will be the fuel that propels the fourth industrial revolution from mere conjecture to reality. More and more brick-and-mortar businesses will be disrupted by players without ‘bricks’ and ‘mortars’. With access to insights at their fingertips, more people will be empowered to create economic value on their own without traditional employment. Not too long ago, the likes of Uber and Airbnb were unimaginable. But today, they are serious billion dollar enterprises who created Blue Oceans out of the already crowded market dominated by traditional businesses. Paving forward, more and more products and services will be ‘Uberized’, so will education, talent, and skills.

Without a doubt, the common theme across these generational shifts is technology. It is no longer just means for automation, efficiency, and productivity. The evolution of technology has become the biggest influencer of human mindset, preference, and behavior, more so than fellow humans like educators, friends, and parents.  What this means is that every person, with or without formal education or qualification, is empowered to create higher forms of economic value completely on their own. With virtually zero start-up cost, one can simply make money as a value creator. 3D printer technology will mature to an extent that it costs no more than today’s personal printers. Not only can one create knowledge capital, one can produce real physical products without a factory!  The gig economy will expand to a scale that makes employees wonder why they even bother to sit by an office desk doing mundane work and makes product engineers wonder why they are paid the same salary whether their products sell a million copies or just a few.

Paradigm Shift in the Notion of “Work”

If the above is portentous, the implications to organisational designs, structures, and operating models are immense. Today, we speak of attracting talents to work FOR us, but tomorrow it will be about attracting talents to work WITH us.  The age-old HR philosophy of “Attract-Motivate-Retain” now needs a fresh definition.  To engage the “Talent Cloud”, or “Gig Economy” in today’s parlance, our traditional notion of ‘work’ will evolve into four different forms of participative work arrangements:

  1. ‘Auction’ – where individuals (or teams) table their interest, with their expected reward, to work on a challenge defined by a business entity.
  2. ‘Tender’ – where individuals (or teams) bid to undertake an assignment defined by a business entity at a fixed reward.
  3. ‘Contest’ – where individuals (or teams) compete with others to produce a deliverable to win a reward defined by a business entity.
  4. ‘Partner’ – where individuals (or teams) bring new ideas or opportunities to a business entity and share the resulting gain.

None of these arrangements require an individual, or a team, to be an employee of any organisation – no employment contract, no performance appraisal, no employee benefit to worry about, etc. Real-time evaluation, feedback, and endorsement on their quality, service, and capability will contribute to their digital reputation in the public domain validated by the crowd. This digital reputation becomes their “professional currency”, which they build and maintain over time, and which defines their value and worth to any future prospect.

The Future Workplace

To adapt and enable such new forms of participative work arrangements, corporate functions like HR, Finance, Procurement and IT operating as separate functions in most organisations today will need a new paradigm shift.  Perhaps they will converge into a new form of integrated corporate entity whose mission is to engage global Gig-ers out there to be part of the organisation’s value creation ecosystem. Such an entity will put in place the right technologies, armed with cognitive and machine learning capabilities, to manage these new work arrangements, engage the limitless cloud of talents out there on a global scale, suss out the truly valued ones, and manage and maintain the relationship ecosystem thereafter. Along with this shift comes a new kind of profession, not unlike the emergence of “Data Scientists” in response to the rise of “Big Data” not too long ago.

On the other hand, while we tend to define ‘workplace’ in physical and environmental terms today, the virtual or digital dimension will matter more to the workforce of the future where individuals value their digital real-estate than physical ones.  With digital workbench and dashboard complete with cognitively enabled tools for communication, collaboration, production, and distribution, anyone can virtually own an ‘office’ and run their business off it. Consistent with a recently published study by Mercer where “adaptive work”, “digital living”, “talent ecosystem”, “rethinking HR paradigm”, and “distributed teaming” are some of the top talent trends outlined, we will likely see significant and disruptive changes over the next decade from the status quo.

Although the transition will not happen overnight, it has become increasingly pressing that organisations need to figure out ways to imbue agility into how they operate or risk being left behind. Beyond just mindsets, behaviors and skills, agility requires an all-of-organisation approach as well from business models, operating structures, management systems to technology infrastructures. Especially for traditional brick-and-mortar businesses, the journey must begin now by anticipating how the future will disrupt their core businesses and take the necessary steps to stay on or ahead of the curve.

This article was first published on “People Matters Online Magazine” (17 October 2018).

Forensic Investigation in Cost and Contracts; Not Just for a QS Mindset


Amidst ever-changing market conditions, the move towards new technologies and ‘green’ buildings would only mean that the role of the Quantity Surveyor (QS) also has had to evolve to keep up with such new demands.

Beyond the traditional QS functions such as measurement & documentation, price, value & cost of construction, pre-and-post tender management and final account, the role has now expanded in many aspects, such as the following:

  • Performing due diligence for buildings;
  • Risk and value management;
  • Project financing;
  • Advising on the potential of a site;
  • Working out what a client can afford to build;
  • Cost reinstatement for insurance purposes;
  • Information technology in construction;
  • Sustainability and environmental services; and
  • Legal support

This article highlights the added role of the QS in providing legal support services.

Legal Support

Lawyers and expert witnesses often require the support of industry practitioners in handling legal disputes. For example, QS are called upon to provide support, especially in quantification and cost. With this support, the number of claims may potentially be reduced as there will be better knowledge of how strong or weak the claims are set out to be, and merits of the case in dispute.

The findings are based primarily on the agreed bundle of documents where the parties exchange data and information. The investigative mindset of the QS starts here. He has to tear up the documents and comprehend what took place during the project timeline. This requires time and experience, and the ability to empathise with the parties concerned.

Ask, Ask, Ask…

Some basic tools that the QS can use include the 5 “Ws” and 1 “H”; When, Why, Who, What, Where & How, and the Root Cause Analysis. With these tools, the QS can systematically address each head of claims and record down the events that led to the claim and dispute. It is paramount that the QS leaves no stone unturned, ie to query everything that can be queried. This is required because the QS has to be absolutely sure of what he is going to advice the expert witness. If the QS is the expert witness himself, his statements withstand the stress of cross examination.

Facts presented have to be strong, sustentative and substantiated. When all the information is in, there is a need to look into the matter systematically, using the heads/categories of claims as a guide on the issues to be addressed. What is useful is that each head of claim should have one file or individual section. This is so, that all documentary evidence found in the jungle of papers in the agreed bundle can be systematically sorted and categorised as evidence – a good practice so that no information would be left out or unattended.

Tracking & Monitoring

A tool that is used for tracking would be a time-line or mind mapping[1] tool whereby timelines and information spin-offs can be tracked, monitored and systematically addressed.

Project teams would need to be vigilant and have all round sensory of the project and chronology of events. Substantiation and justification would then be made much easier, supported by well-kept correspondences. The methodology of getting these substantiation is by itself, a management process. For example, if the QS wants to support the cost of an item with a rate, he has to consider the following:

  1. What rate to use?
  2. Did the rate come from Bills of Quantities (BQ) or Schedule of Rates (SOR)?
  3. Under what circumstances was this rate (BQ or SOR) derived from, and were the conditions similar?
  4. What were the preambles and general notes covering the rates in the BQ or SOR? Were the conditions similar to the case’s?
  5. Is the rate appropriate and correct? Is there a difference in rate for left-in sheet piles and sheet piles to be removed later (recyclable)?
  6. Are there any other rates that can be used to substantiate?
  7. Any legislation to consider that may affect the rate at that point? For example, an embargo is imposed on that material resulting a higher rate at that point in time.
  8. If the QS works the rate from 1st principle, will he get the same figure/rate value compared to the substantiated rate?
  9. Any external market forces or peculiar building design that would affect the quantum of the rate?

The list is non-exhaustive.

All these factors are important considerations when it comes to justifying a simple rate. This will help ensure that the rate which is used to cost an item is within reasonable doubt, and is from the perspective of the industry norms.  Hence, this will leave little or no room for the opposing lawyer to question.

This process would be similar to drafting contractual clauses as well. The QS should consider the following:

  1. What is written in the contract i.e. general terms and conditions in the contract?
  2. How would the common law stand?
  3. Any case law to support, and is the case law the latest?
  4. What would be the implied terms and how would this affect the issues?
  5. Will there be any legislation that will affect the clauses?

These processes do not just reside in the QS’ thinking process, but also within the project team members as well. To the Engineer, would his specifications contradict his designs, or is it sufficiently clear? To the Architect, would his design befits a reasonably qualified person, having taken into consideration cause and effect of his design to future maintenance for instance. Therefore, proper records and documentation, coupled with experience and wisdom, is a recipe of success for an efficiently-run project team.

Communications have to be simple, yet effective. If the story line is convoluted, the effect of the report can be lost. Statements need to appear composed, consistent and logical and there must be a clear overall view of the problem. A technique would be to take the heads of claim and formulate the report and justification under these heads. When documentation is not clearly recorded, or when statements fall into grey areas, the project can potentially go in wrong directions. Clearing doubts up-front is probably the best policy forward, true to any Partnering ethos.


Providing legal support is a growing work scope for the QS. It is fast expanding, especially with the provisions of specialist law courses offered by the Universities[2]. Being armed with the right mindset on cost and contracts is crucial for the QS to step up his plate and take on challenges which were previously unseen in the world of QS.

The opportunities are limitless for personalities with inquisitive minds and an investigative nature. Sweet success that comes with cracking a construction case and/or settling a dispute is priceless!

This article is co-created by Surbana Jurong Academy.

[1] Off the shelf programmes like Mind Mapper Pro offers an excellent array of tools to capture information and how the information can branch out to several sub information that has to be addressed.

[2] The National University of Singapore used to provide the Joint MSc in Construction Law and Alternate Dispute Resolution. This course provides the fundamental understanding and practicalities of the law in general, construction law and the related legislations. This is coupled by the spectrum of Alternate Dispute Resolutions.

Legacy planning in building & construction – Case study: The Olympic Games

Olympic host cities in the past have struggled, and some have failed, to establish a meaningful function for the infrastructure after the Games. The concept of legacy planning for global mega-events & venues, and even other build environments, is of paramount importance – to ensure sustainability and economic growth for the host cities, and beyond. All eyes on the upcoming 2020 Olympics where Tokyo stands host to, we discuss the pitfalls of previous host cities’ post-games infrastructural planning, and the shining example of London’s 2012. 

Notable Olympic host cities’ failures were Moscow, Beijing to an extent, and probably the most prominent, Athens. Large investments were injected to create showpieces for the duration of the Games, but ended up as eyesores thereafter. The infrastructure fell into total disrepair and became derelict. This stemmed from a lack of vision for the long-term functioning of space and its components. The vision was short-sighted and ad hoc at best, and meant only for the successful hosting of the Games.

The Athens Games has come to represent this failure. Twenty-one of the 22 venues were abandoned after the Games concluded, lying as derelicts overrun with rubbish and weeds. The tales of empty, forlorn and rundown infrastructure are well documented. These abandoned venues represent the desire to showcase grandeur with no consideration for a post-Games use. The result is these massive structures lying idle and bleeding the economy.

Planning for longevity of these Olympic structures and their use should be paramount for such infrastructure (owing to its size and scale of investments), this should also be imbued into the design and planning of other built-infrastructure. Multiplicity of use or flexibility for conversion from one type of use to the other helps to extend the life-time of buildings, re-invigorate their neighbourhood locale and in return, massive savings to both the economy and the environment. Such examples of re-purposing existing infrastructure are being increasingly pursued in land-constrained and immensely-dense Hong Kong. A remarkable example is:

Chai Wan Factory Estate

The Chai Wan Factory (built in 1959), was converted into a public rental housing called Wah Ha Estate in 2015. This redevelopment project now houses about 200 families. Such retro-fitting not only involves revision to the spatial layout, but also installing required infrastructure to meet the latest health and safety regulations (especially those pertaining to fire safety and sanitation). The building is also graded by the AAB (Antiquities Advisory Board) as Grade 2 Historic Building.

Chai Wan Factory Estate re-furbished as a public housing estate.

2012, London – Planning a Successful ‘Legacy’ Phase

With the fear of post-Games deterioration looming, London began with caution from the onset in 2005. Their solution lay in identifying, delineating and planning for the Games Mode, as well as Legacy Mode. The legacy planning intended infrastructure to provide use and function for a separate set of users after the Games. The challenge was to allow a smooth transition from the former to the latter, and to plan and build to cater to the needs of each mode without surplus in either. The dichotomy of planning every infrastructure in two modes was established. This translated to a concept of segregating the way the infrastructure is built for what would be needed for the present, vis-à-vis that for the future. Features that would remain and be used beyond the Games were to be built as permanent structures, while other surplus structures catering only to the Games would be of temporary nature and be removed, thus avoiding waste and redundancy.

The Olympic Games are often a catalyst to inspire the city to transform. London used the Olympics to regenerate a wasteland (the heavily industrialised area of Stratford, East London) into what is now called the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park. The 2.5-square kilometre site housed most of the venues, residences and plazas. After the Games, the spaces now comprise two zones:

  • the north zone has parklands, a Velopark, a business district, training centres for hockey and tennis, and a low-rise development;
  • the south zone has the Aquatic Centre (reorganised for schools, the community, and elite athletes, with a reduced capacity), the Olympic Stadium with a reduced capacity (to bring the lucrative Premier League football to the park), high rise housing, and a 55-acre landscaping project by James Corner.

To realise the Legacy Mode, the built structures were purpose-built for transformation. This enabled the structures to either be scaled down or disassembled completely, allowing them to be stored for reuse later. The London Games ventured to build facilities with energy-efficient, sustainable, and recyclable designs, to reduce the energy and water demands, and keep the Games clean and green.

2012, London – Implementing the ‘Legacy’ Phase

The London Legacy Development Corporation (LLDC) began working right after the Games to bring life and fervour back to the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park. The intended transformations of the venues, scaling down or disassembling, took time. “The sight of cranes and construction works across the site was necessary to reach the Legacy Mode”, said Dennis Hone, Chief Executive of the LLDC. It is important to phase different transformational activities so that the site does not lose the interest and vibrancy of the Games. Keeping the site void of activities other than construction for too long would make it an economic black hole.

In April 2014, LLDC reopened the parklands in the north zone and James Corner’s urban park in the south to entice people to return. The Aquatic Centre has been scaled down after the removal of its wings. It now functions as a swimming centre for the community at large. However, not everything went to plan. The greatest challenges have been economic ones relating to ownership and conflicts of interests. These have resulted in unintended design changes, construction cost overruns, and delays.

The prominent example of this has been the Olympic Stadium. The Legacy master plan intended its capacity to be reduced from 80,000 to 25,000, keeping it as an athletics stadium, which was needed in the city. However, for economic sustenance, ownership had to be leased. After six years of tussle, a Premier League football club—West Ham United—has been given a 99-year lease. But this comes with several changes to the Legacy plan for the stadium—it is no longer an athletic facility, but a prime Premier League stadium. The capacity was increased to 54,000. The stadium will have a new roof; the entire pitch was rebuilt with the requirements of a football ground; and a 1,000-capacity car park added. Despite these challenges, the Legacy Plan is scheduled to be completed by 2030. The people of the neighbouring boroughs acknowledge that the investments in the park have enhanced one of the most neglected and derelict parts of London. The space and the venues continue to garner the enthusiasm of visitors. More than the physical infrastructure, longevity has been about the community.

The illustrations below show some of the stages that helped to transform the London Stadium to a purpose-built Football stadium:

Illustration A: Necessary retrofitting to the structure
Illustration B: Extending the Roof over the seating stands
Illustration C: Adding stands and pavillions
Illustration C: Adding stands and pavillions

Images Source: (These images illustrate only graphical representation of the transformations, and may not be accurate in terms of technical details.)

The London Olympic stadium during the 2012 Games versus The Olympic stadium now refurbished as a Football Stadium.

2016, Rio – So, What Went Wrong?

The London Games have successfully demonstrated a different paradigm with structures that could be transformed, scaled down, disassembled, and stored, looking past the two-to-three-week extravaganza to what is needed for the community and the city for years to come.

The Rio Olympics in Brazil in 2016 had incorporated several of these ideas to develop their infrastructure in their particular context. One example was the Handball Arena – named the Future Arena (Portuguese: Arena do Futuro), which was designed to be disassembled after the Games and reassembled as four schools serving the community. As of August 2017, these plans have however been abandoned by Rio’s mayor Marcelo Crivella. They had also planned for the Games Mode distinctly from the Legacy Mode, and phased out the entire development with an intermediate phase of seven years to transition from the Games to the Legacy Mode. Mis-management of the projects’ planning and implementation led to major budget over-runs. The consequent economic strains led to ad hoc fixes which defeated the ideas for the Legacy phase. The iconic Maracana stadium could no longer be operated due to budget deficits, and it was looted and vandalized; while the ambitious waste-treatment facilities never materialised and Rio continues to languish as it did before the Games.

Rio Olympic Venues a year later. (Photo credits: Reuters/David Gray)

2020, Tokyo – Planning for Another Legacy after 1964

The planning for the Tokyo Games also began in the right earnest from the very onset, while the Games was at bidding stage. Unlike the usual approach, Tokyo decided that they will retrofit existing structures throughout the city, including the same stadium built for the 1964 Games – an idea which has been supported and advocated by the International Olympic Council. The 1964 Games had succeeded in achieving for Tokyo what most cities like Athens and Rio aspired to achieve by hosting these prestigious Games. It marked Japan’s complete re-entry into the post-war world and bolstered the country’s incredible reconstruction effort. To repeat the success, Tokyo will re-use three venues from those Games, thus reinforcing the concept of Olympic Legacy:–

  • Yoyogi National Gymnasium, known for its eye-catching suspension roof design, was the venue for swimming and basketball in 1964, and will host handball in 2020;
  • Table tennis will be held at Tokyo Metropolitan Gymnasium, which was home to water polo and gymnastics in 1964;
  • Judo will return to Nippon Budokan.

Tokyo also plans to revitalize its waterfront by siting the Olympic village there. However, Tokyo is still grappling with time and cost as work surges ahead to open the Games in 2020. In the context of hosting events of this scale, and with a magnitude of cost and high-density urban projects, it makes sense that scalability and temporality are addressed in the early part of planning. At the same time, sound political will and temperament is required to realize the plans, without which they risk falling apart as seen in Athens and Rio.

Here, it is not about the permanency of static physical elements that ensures a structure’s longevity. Urban planners will also need to consider the flexibility of structural conversion in our design and built environment – and success lies in anticipating the versatility of change.

It is also about putting into place ideas that create lasting value for the community.

This article is co-created by Surbana Jurong Academy.

Why parental coaching techniques matter in the workplace

Every parent understands the challenges and rewards of teaching children. But can similar skills be employed in the business and office environment to help attract and retain the best staff?

What are the secrets of successful companies? Why do staff so often stay with companies and in roles, despite a lack of perceived benefits or financial rewards? In most cases, the answer lies with the boss.

Anecdotal and actual evidence so often suggests that job satisfaction and loyalty to a business is more likely to be governed by the quality of the relationship with your manager, than about the money that you earn. It is a factor that many successful global businesses now appreciate.

These firms understand that while it is critical to first recruit the best possible talent, retaining and developing these people requires more effort. My own experience suggests that the use of staff coaching techniques based largely on the parenting skills honed by humans over thousands of years are a key success factor in modern businesses.

What makes a good parent coach?

A good parent coach takes time. They address their child at eye level as they speak, listen and question actions and motivations. They talk to the child to help them to understand the reasons for a certain behaviour. They listen to help to ensure that the child understands and owns the route to improvement. They ask effective questions to ensure that the child will avoid repeating the same mistake in future.

Albeit with slightly different psychological language and maturity in a parent-child environment, these are precisely the coaching skills and actions used by successful leaders in businesses.

For example, careful use of the word “why” is important when addressing and teaching children as it has been shown to invoke a strong emotional response, prompting the brain to prepare for something bad that is about to happen. The result is that the body tenses in response, limiting our ability to behave in an open, creative way.

As parents, we typically understand this reaction, and so control the way we act with and speak to children. By choosing words carefully, the adult can create a more effective coaching environment that encourages open, innovative reactions from the child.

So instead of using “why”, parents tend to craft questions differently. For instance, instead of asking the child “why are you always making this mistake?”, they would rephrase the question as “how can daddy help you understand this better?”. In the business world, a frequent latecomer might be reformed by asking “how can I help you to be punctual?” rather than blasting them with “why are you always late?”.

Substituting words that can instil fear and apprehension, with words that are “fun” and “encouraging” is a key part of parent coaching, as is the use of a positive attitude when highlighting the child’s mistakes. Celebrating both successes and failures create a safe learning environment for the child.

Similarly, a good business leader or line manager knows how to use coaching business language to create a safe environment in the office for learning and creating value in a team.

The art of recognition and edification

Good parents communicate love and support for their children in different manners and gestures, as set out and discussed by author Gary Chapman in his book “The 5 love languages”.

  • through words of affirmation as parents tell their children that they love them;
  • through gifting and buying the child presents;
  • through quality time and being present for the child;
  • through acts of services and doing something such as sending your child to school;
  • through physical touch such as a hug, a pat or simply holding hands.

Although the business setting and relationships are clearly very different from that within the family unit, the five love languages are also present in effective teams. While used appropriately, respectfully and depending heavily on situation and gender, they can be interpreted by a team leader as:

  • Words of Affirmation: “Hey bro, great job in winning the contract!”
  • Gifting: “Hey guys, I’ve bought tea for everyone – keep up the good work!”
  • Quality Time: “Hi John, can you spare 20 minutes for a brief chat?
  • Acts of Services: “Guys, I can help deliver the tender document once it’s done.”
  • Physical Touch: a light pat on the shoulder to show encouragement.

The learning and working environment

Creating the right learning style and physical environment is crucial in helping a person to learn, as factors that apply as much in the home and school for children, as it does in the workplace.

The old school mantra insists that the child sits still and study continuously for two hours without any disturbance, distraction or external motivation. I used to adopt this coaching style as a parent and noticed that my daughters became fidgety very quickly, undermining their ability to learn.

I soon realised that this was the wrong approach. Like me, they are both kinesthetic and visual learners, so I started to change the way they study. I made them stand up or sit for a few minutes with frequent breaks to ensure that there is no monotony in the lesson plans; placed M&M’S and chocolate candy in front of them as a motivating reward and glasses of water to keep them hydrated.

I also introduced props to demonstrate how scientific principles work as this played to their desire for visual learning, and needed to see something in action in order to comprehend and understand better.

Underpinning these new learning styles was a stimulating environment which creates a sense of fun for the child. An organic chaos of furniture, music and even colour of the room, also helps to promote curiosity and playfulness, and the right fragrance and plants can assist.

Similar techniques can be brought into play in the business environment, to create a working environment that enables staff to effectively communicate and enjoy performing at their optimum level for the maximum amount of time.

Body language

Lastly, the importance of understanding body language cannot be underestimated as a coach –  when addressing and teaching children, and when attempting to get the best out of adult teams in an office environment.

For instance, when parents address a child, it is best to sit side by side and at the same level to get the message across. It is a similar situation when addressing a trainee or employee in the business environment, where finding the most effective location to communicate can reap great reward.

Parents also understand the impact that simple adjustments to tone of voice and body language can make when communicating with children. Adopting this approach in business can boost performance and clarity when presenting projects or addressing issues within different business teams.


In the design, engineering and management sector, a firm’s competitive advantage rests squarely with the quality, capability and managing understanding of their staff. Creating the culture and learning environment to maintain and advance these skills is critical to sustaining this advantage.

I strongly believe that the development of coaching skills for leaders will be the weapon that makes an organisation strong amidst crisis or successes. In the business environment, we have much to learn from the best parenting skills and techniques seen all around us every day.

Perspectives, developed by SJ Academy, is our platform to explore new ways of tackling some of today’s most complex challenges. We draw on ideas and opinions from our staff associates and experts across different businesses. Click here to read more about Technology & Innovation, Infrastructure & Connectivity, and Design Leadership.

The race of change continues

Technology is accelerating the pace of change and disrupting every aspect of modern life. Engineers of the future will face a critical challenge to lead, shape, plan and integrate the built environment solutions that allow society to live safe and rewarding lives. Aaron Foong explains why.

I vividly recall my school days when mechanical pencils were a novelty. Today, not only are there many more different writing tools to choose from but even the humble piece of paper has morphed into the modern electronic tablet.

Society’s choice of communication has evolved to embrace the digital world. In the same way, businesses are moving fast and changing to embrace the on-going digital disruption. Across society we see that digital is the new normal, disruption is real and technology has become the key enabler.

Engineers working in built environment sector have also seen emerging digital technologies promote tremendous change, impacting all aspects of work from design to procurement to construction and asset management. New applications and tools are emerging, driven by digitalisation of information and technological innovation.

New tools to solve new problems

The explosion in knowledge sharing has had a profound impact on our lives. At the click of a mouse or swipe of a touchscreen, we can now access the information we need and find answers to virtually any questions we ask.

In the old-world view, technology was an outcome of engineering. Today, we are riding the reverse wave, with technology now very much a tool assisting our engineering processes. It enhances our creative process and helps to maximise all relevant resources as we solve problems. Where technology was once an operational requirement, it is now the clear strategic differentiator. In the built environment, applications like Virtual Design and Construction (VDC) are increasing our visibility and communication clarity.

The economy in which we work is influenced by the global marketplace for engineering services; we see a growing demand for interdisciplinary and system-based approaches and an increasingly diverse talent pool.

But critically, the steady integration of technology into our infrastructure and lives also demands that engineers develop safe mechanisms and appropriate strategies to protect the public from the risks that this disruption brings.

Understanding the problems; communicating new solution

Predicting the future with precision is not possible. However, scenario-based strategic planning can help us understand these risks and future possibilities. It can assist our thinking about the future of engineering. Within the realms of our intellectual capacity, we must be continuously challenged to anticipate future needs, find resilient propositions and build on ideas that are cost effective. And at critical junctures, it will require paradigm shift in our thinking to challenge the establishment.

This will require team players with effective communication skills and an understanding of the complex issues of a global market and the social context in which we operate. They must be able to articulate the value proposition of engineering and infrastructure investment to both a technical and public audiences.

Ideas need to be practical and pragmatic, and engineers must remain open, flexible, receptive to change and respectful. And with technology increasingly providing engineers with a common pool of tools, the future differentiators will be the quality of articulation and rigour of the thought – put into finding and delivering cost effective, resilient and practical engineering designs.

In tandem with society – delivering experience and integrity

Regardless of technology, it will be experience and innovation, plus the ability to cross- fertilise ideas, that will enable the engineering community to add value through its services.

Such innovation is likely be through application of approaches from different sectors. The context of a great design is no longer viewed from the angle of aesthetics, but more often, from holistic qualities. These might include fitness for purpose, safe design, energy efficiency, flexibility of future reuse or the way that infrastructure compliments its surroundings over the long term.

Integrity must continue to underpin the core principles of our engineering work. We must be constantly reminded of the relentless duty that we owe to the public at large and to be honest in our day-to-day delivery of work. While we engage in ever bolder design solutions that push at the boundaries of engineering possibility, we must always be guided by first principles of safety.

This approach will preserve the quality of our work in this complex environment. In our day-to-day operations, we are habitually guided by the essential scrutiny that cautions us on the probability of error against the possibility of success. This helps to cultivate an honest, down to earth approach, coupled with the ability to graciously admit what we could have done better.

Even more so when we increase our carbon footprint on Mother Earth, we must work hard to ensure that sustainability becomes an important driver. Incorporating life-cycle thinking in all engineering design will become the norm; solutions today will need to be taken into account and adapt to the inevitable improvements, and innovation brought about by future technologies.

Some believe that the emerging digitally enabled era will eventually eliminate the profession of Engineers. I disagree that this will be the case.

We have seen, for example, how IKEA has changed the furniture industry, raising questions on whether the same will happen on a larger scale across the built environment; will the digitally print and flat package be the eventual outcome of our built environment? It doesn’t sound too remote and the future possibilities of technology are endless.

And if that is the case, it is even more vital that the engineer’s brain remains focused on solving society’s fundamental problems, fully integrating core knowledge and skills from across the various disciplines.

Future engineering challenges; future engineering opportunities

The opportunities, for the future of engineering – and challenges – are likely to be even greater. As the economic competitiveness, military strength and standard of living of a nation are closely linked to its engineering ability, we will continue to play a pivotal role in this collaborative effort, solving societal problems long into the future.

However, engineers will have to embrace a major leadership role in this technological society. This will see us shape, plan, generate and integrate new and possibly revolutionary solutions and ideas to meet growing challenges in our society.

We are all participants in a dynamically changing and evolving interconnected world, guided by the hands of social, cultural, political, and economic forces. So, as we continue to design endless exciting future possibilities, we must remember to reflect upon the fundamentals of professionalism.

As Abraham Lincoln once said, “Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe. Astute advice indeed as the global race of change continues to accelerate. This is no moment for engineers to rest.

The fine line between pleasure and blight

Ecotourism should be about the experience rather than mere sightseeing. Its focus ought to be on the preservation and wellness of the indigenous ecosystem, including the local communities. At its best, ecotourism can rejuvenate the ecology and induce development for the communities; at worst, it can degrade the environment and people that depend on it. Which way it falls depends on how a balance is struck.

How much is developed to make it a viable tourist destination vis-à-vis how much is left pristine

The 180-kilometre long Mekong Discovery Trail in Cambodia was launched in 2007. It is a network of journeys through the most natural and least populated areas along the river, allowing travellers to get close to some of Cambodia’s least-seen areas by bike, boat or foot. The trail enables visitors to pace themselves and penetrate deep into the heartland, letting them experience native communities and undisturbed nature.

Mekong Delta Floating Market, Cambodia

This project was implemented in four phases to build on the unexplored potential of the river valley in northeast Cambodia. The first couple of phases identified the prospective circuit and its capacity to attract tourists when developed. The third phase brought in the investment to develop the circuit and promote the trail. The final phase was solely about involving the local communities by setting up micro-businesses required to provide only the most basic facilities along the trail—food, accommodation and guide. Thus, with limited intrusive development, the project was able to affect the lives of six communities living here, 80 percent of whom resided below the poverty line.

Travellers live amongst these communities in their dwellings according to their lifestyles; they explore beaches, orchards, rice fields, ancient Buddhist temples, etc. They get close to endangered species like river dolphins, plus other native fauna and flora. This concept of a rough-it-out eco-trail permits a limit to be set on infrastructural development associated with tourism that might otherwise have compromised the very thing that people come to see.

The El Nido Marine Reserve Park in Palawan, Philippines, is another example of cautious penetration. This pristine island archipelago, rich in extensive beaches, coral reefs and hidden lagoons, has been carefully developed to bring in tourists. Resorts are built away from ecological areas, allowing visitors to stay comfortably without disturbing these habitats. The park illustrates a government’s policy that critically juxtaposes commercial interests—investment into local infrastructure—against the need to preserve the native natural heritage. It mandates that commercial developments be married to investments for the community and environment, thereby protecting the fragile ecosystems. Such balance entails macro-level planning and micro-level deliverance.

El Nido Marine Park Reserve, Philippines

Attract thousands or limit access to a few to preserve

During the peak season of trekking in Nepal, there may be as many as four visitors for every one local Sherpa resident. Consequent increase in activities for construction, trekking, food and beverage have inflicted serious damages to the local ecosystem. Swathes of rhododendron forests have disappeared in the area around the Annapurna Circuit to provide for the trekkers’ needs. The receding tree line bears testimony to the fact that locals have excessively harvested wood—needed to support tourism—from lower ridges, rendering them barren and denuding populations of native fauna and flora. Certain areas in these circuits have seen tree lines recede by up to 8 kilometres in a period of 15 years.

Heavy loads carried by a local porter in Nepal
Litter near lodge on the Annapurna Circuit, Nepal (Photo credits to:

This is accompanied by a deluge of plastic and other garbage cast into the scenic Himalayan landscape—earning it the epithet of “highest dump on earth”. The absence of policy and controls has meant that the tourists who embark on treks ultimately cause degradation to the ecosystem, which they had hoped to experience. Efforts in recent years have been to regulate visitors and manage resources.

Traditional institutions prevalent amongst the local Sherpa like the forest guardian system have been revitalised to manage and improve the environmental conditions with government support. Parallel initiatives have been made by the government and several organisations to promote offbeat trails, which offer a more serene wilderness experience to the trekkers. It also helps relieve the pressure on the overtly popular trails like the Annapurna Circuit. Strict regulations and control of facilities, like those in the European Alps, are necessary to preserve the ecosystem and yet remain popular without severely restricting visitors.

The marine parks of Malaysia are also much sought-after and promoted as ecotourism destinations. A study by the School of Housing, Building & Planning, Universiti Sains Malaysia, suggests that although Penang’s carrying capacity has been exceeded, there has not been any effort to limit the number of visitors. The Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) has made similar assessments. Resort building continues unabated and their operations cause freshwater intrusion and sedimentation, threatening the survival of corals. Chemical run-off from human settlements and farms are competing with coral growth and accelerating coral bleaching. The situation is fast approaching a critical threshold.

Benefits the community and the place can derive vis-à-vis the income it can generate

Several regions use tourism to act as a springboard of opportunities for locals, who derive income and other benefits that ameliorate their lifestyles and pace the economy. To proliferate community-based tourism (CBT), governments offer training to rural/ethnic communities, which enable them to work as tour guides, operate homestays, etc. CBT has enabled ethnic and ecotourism to proliferate in many regions, especially in Southeast Asia. The ethnic people have become powerless commodities in the tourism market. Such a situation has been termed as cultural commoditisation.

Sapa, North Vietnam, is one such picturesque destination nestled amongst the mountains that attracts thousands of foreign and domestic tourists each year. From 1997 to 2007, the tourist footfall increased tenfold to 300,000. More than 90 percent of the tourists are attracted to its remote mountainous rural areas to experience life amongst the nine ethnic communities residing here. These tribes have traditionally relied on agriculture and forestry to eke out a living. The remoteness of the region insulated and preserved their culture, making them a unique draw for these tourists.

The main benefit from this growing tourism industry has been monetary income. According to the Vietnam National Administration of Tourism, income from tourism in 2007 was 22 times higher than in 1990, amounting to more than US$3 billion per year and accounting for 4 percent of GDP. However, in Sapa, all CBT-based businesses and activities remain confined to its town area, while 80 percent of the ethnic population resides in the remote rural areas outside the town. Besides putting on display their ‘ethnic household’, their only participation in the tourism industry has been restricted to selling traditional handicraft products. Yet, income from these tourist sales is much higher than in the past from agriculture or forestry and the work is less strenuous.

A survey conducted amongst the Yao tribe in Ta Phin village showed that almost 100 percent of the households have shifted to tourism-based occupation, with 80 percent of them selling handicrafts. It also showed that at least 46 percent of them earned at least US$140 annually, allowing them to significantly ‘improve’ their lifestyle. Such income potential has caused many locals to travel every day from their villages with souvenirs on their back to work as street vendors in the town. The majority of them are women and children. CBT here becomes income-centric; its benefits are largely superficial.

Tourism interests feign only a superficial sense of development wherein the locals desire a real change to their lives akin the urban lifestyle

Sapa highlights the problems of income biased tourism, which can result in deep changes to existing socio-economic patterns. This shift, it could be said, has resulted in degradation of the traditional agriculture-based societies. Nearly 100 percent of some villages in Sapa district have shifted their economic base to tourism-based activities. Both poverty and ease of earning from tourism has forced this shift. In Ta Phin, more than 20 percent of the households of the Dao and H’mong tribes have their women and female children working as street vendors in Sapa town.

These tribal vendors started by selling local handcrafted products and costumes, but increasing tourist numbers and demand have caused many of these items to be mass-produced, even imported. Increased tourism has also forced changes in farming structure to meet food demand; while demand for timber and non-timber forest products has caused severe depletion of local environment and forests. Worse still, ethnic groups are often put on show by tour operators to simulate village festivals whenever there is demand from tourists, not because of an actual tradition. Thus, the ethnic people have become powerless commodities in the tourism market. Such a situation has been termed as cultural commoditisation. Local products, customs, rituals and ethnic arts become touristic services for touristic consumption.

This proliferation of ethnic vendors and commoditisation of ethnic cultures is causing Sapa to lose the very essence for which tourists flock there. This situation in Sapa has been aptly portrayed by one travel website, which states that to see communities become so completely dependent on tourists suggests that the soul of the place seems to be lost.

Ecotourism is only necessary for far-flung pristine nature areas

Urban ecotourism was termed controversial at the 2nd World Ecotourism Conference in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia in 2010. It represents inherent contradictions of urban and nature-based tourism activities, yet it has been gaining momentum. With 50 percent of the world population residing in urban areas, urban conservation and Greening projects represent a great opportunity.

Singapore, with its city-in-a-garden concept and burgeoning park-connector network, has woven eco-destinations into its urban fabric—bringing nature close to the people. Looking beyond its nature reserves, it has created novel projects such as the Bishan-Ang Mo Kio Park project—a biodiversity hub in the heart of the public housing estates—and Gardens by the Bay. Similar urban programmes have been implemented in Canada, New Zealand, Australia, Venezuela and South Africa.

Bishan-Ang Mo Kio Park, Singapore

The challenges facing ecotourism are in reality also applicable to tourism in general. It should strive towards an authentic experience and meet high standards of social and environmental impact.

Prof Raphael De Kadt, Head of the Undergraduate Studies Department at St. Augustine College of South Africa, suggests that “policymakers concerned with tourism development should strive to make the conventional more sustainable”. All tourism needs to be more than a panorama; it should instead be about real engagement with nature.

This article was first published in FuturArc magazine and has been republished with permission.

Perspectives, developed by SJ Academy, is our platform to explore new ways of tackling some of today’s most complex challenges. We draw on ideas and opinions from our staff associates and experts across different businesses. Click here to read more about Technology & Innovation, Infrastructure & Connectivity, and Design Leadership.

A defined vision: the starting point for collaboration & project delivery success

The successful outcome of construction projects is so often determined at the start. This is well-demonstrated by our three recent Building and Construction Authority (BCA) Awards winning projects – The Scotts Tower, SBF Center and NUS AS8 building. When the client sets out a clearly defined vision, the delivery team will be able to draw on their creativity, analysis, good judgement, and leadership to deliver outcomes that exceed the original expectation.

Any consumer today, whether buying a new car, television, house or a pair of shoes, demands certainty from their purchase. How much will it cost, when will it be delivered, will it meet my needs, and will it work?

The modern construction client is no different. Regardless of the type of project they are commissioning, be it residential, commercial, industrial or infrastructure, they also want certainty of the product’s performance, delivery date, cost, and quality.

In both cases, a successful outcome starts with a clear understanding of what you want to buy. For instance, what outcome is sought from the investment, what performance is needed, and what quality is desired.

It sounds simple and obvious, something that we do every day. Yet in reality, the construction sector still falls short of achieving this goal.

So often around the world, we see unsatisfied owners lamenting late, underperforming and over-budget projects, alongside a supply chain that is still struggling with poor productivity, poor margins, and wasted resources.

It does not have to be this way. As demonstrated by the successful projects recognised by the recent BCA Awards, it is possible to create assets that delight clients, underpin reputations, and improve bottom lines of everyone involved.

Solving the right problems

Setting a clearly defined brief cannot be underestimated. It means the client must take the time to establish and set out its vision for the project. It also means that everyone involved in the design and delivery process must understand and buy into this ambition.

As professional engineers, our passion is to solve problems. A project such as The Scotts Tower, has no shortage of technical challenges to overcome – difficult ground conditions, space constraints, old foundations left behind by a demolished building, the close proximity of underground MRT tunnels, and the architectural ambition to construct slanted columns to support the building’s 30 floors.

The key challenge is to ensure that from the very start of the project, each of these technical challenges – the exciting problems we love to solve – are actually relevant to the client’s vision. If it doesn’t, or if it hinders progress towards that vision, then, regardless of the technical achievement, it is not the right problem to solve.

For example, minimising the sway of the SBF Center, a slender tower, was critical for occupants’ safety. Our team worked hard to optimise the performance of the basic skeletal structures using innovative ideas to resist sway from the very start of the design process, rather than simply deploying additional active mechanical damping systems that require maintenance and cost in the long run. Linking this largely unseen work back to the client’s vision of overall cost-effectiveness with the fitness of purpose throughout its full life cycle is critical to building confidence in their investment.

Creating a culture of collaboration

Setting out and understanding a clear brief is also the fundamental pathway for any project to establish an effective, motivated and collaborative supply chain throughout the project delivery. If every member of the delivery team understands what the client is trying to achieve, his role, and how he interacts with the rest of the team, it contributes to the vision being realised.

This collaborative approach established and maintained by regular meetings, and having a shared culture with the others across the project, is crucial to ensuring that the multiple interests and often competing demands are effectively addressed. In short, true collaboration helps the team and the client to agree on “what will work best”? This implies finding the right solutions that will best achieve the client’s vision for the project and also enabling the skills and capabilities of the supply chain to be effective and efficiently mobilised.

Collaboration is, after all, about working together for mutual benefit. Decisions or solutions that fail to embrace the competing demands of the entire team are unlikely to deliver sustainable results.

Our work on the NUS AS8 building saw a huge amount of rigorous design and robust detailing by engineers in collaboration with the construction team and the architects – creating a buildable structural frame that could not only resist huge lateral earth loads from the sloping ground but also achieve the architectural intent of discontinuity in space volumes.

Only through deep collaboration across the team from the start can this complex web of competing needs be addressed satisfactorily.

Technology as the enabler for the better design solutions

Of course, none of today’s increasingly complex and technically challenging projects would be possible without huge investment in innovation and digital technology. The advent of 3D design tools and Building Information Modelling made possible today by technology is what we could only dream of in the past.

On the Scotts Tower project, the design of the novel “outrigger” transfer system to mobilise the stiffness of the central spine core walls using a pair of splayed balanced cantilever fin beams connected to secondary tie beams on four inclined mega columns would not have been possible without modern design tools.

Similarly, the design and planning for the hybrid, cost effective foundation solution for the SBF Center using both piling and a ground bearing raft foundation to work around the constraint of historic underground pile obstructions, would have been difficult if not impossible without digital technology.

However, while leveraging digital technologies is crucial for better efficiency and to accelerate the delivery of creative solutions, it is vital that the power of these tools does not lead professional engineers towards the wrong solution. Once more, a reference to that clearly established vision for the project is crucial to aligning the team’s knowledge, experience, and technology to deliver the desired project outcomes.

Surbana Jurong engineers scoop BCA awards

Surbana Jurong engineers Aaron Foong Kit Kuen and Allan Teo Kok Jin were recognised by the Singapore Building and Construction Authority with the top award for creative engineering solutions[1]. An unprecedented scoop of all three Awards made across the Residential, Commercial Building, Institutional & Industrial Building category, saw Aaron and Allan, both of Surbana Jurong’s  subsidiary, KTP Consultants Pte Ltd, rewarded for innovative engineering solutions which overcame project challenges for safe designs and construction[2].


[1] The Building and Construction Authority (BCA) of Singapore’s annual awards are made to a small number of professional engineers each year to recognise engineering excellence as part of its work to champion the development of an excellent built environment for Singapore.

[2] Aaron was handed an Award in the Residential category for his work on the complex 30 storey Scotts Tower and in the Institutional & Industrial category for the National University of Singapore AS8 building. Both featured complex ground conditions and challenging structural forms to overcome.  Allan was also recognised with an Award in the Commercial for his work on the SBF Center project Singapore Central Business District, which at 184m tall, has a floor plan width of only 20.2m and a slenderness ratio of 9.1.

Your organisation’s strength could lie in its cultural diversity

In today’s globalised world, an appreciation of cultural diversity, and knowing how to leverage it, not only breaks down barriers but also leads to better organisational performance.

Cultural diversity is rarely given its due in discussions around organisational success. The world focuses on intelligence quotient (IQ) and emotional quotient (EQ) as traits for success, but often forgets about cultural intelligence. Large, multicultural companies demand culturally intelligent leaders with the ability to synthesise diverse attitudes, perceptions and cultural influences into a cohesive and integrated identity.

Cultural intelligence is a differentiator for successful leadership. Since leadership is ultimately what shapes an organisation and determines its course of action, it is imperative that the leadership team recognises that it needs to do things differently in different cultures.

A successful leader in today’s multicultural environment always works to the strengths of others, helps employees develop an awareness of cultural differences, wins the trust of the different people they collaborate with and is sensitive in their communication.

An appreciation of cultural differences allows you to maximise every employee’s unique strengths

IQ involves an individual’s intelligence, which may have nothing to do with their capability on the job, and EQ is interpersonal intelligence that comes into play during interactions at work. However, cultural quotient (CQ) is more advanced, encompassing how one uses this intelligence to work across boundaries, spot opportunities and respond to change.

A leader’s ability to appreciate cultural differences is crucial to both performance and creating value for an organisation. Recognising what these differences can or cannot do for your business is important and you must ask yourself: ‘How do I maximise what everyone is bringing to the table?’ The collective experience across multiple cultures should be used to add value to and increase the performance of business.

The competitive advantage arising out of leveraging cultural diversity is a bit like a fine watch.  The dynamic competencies required to work cohesively are like the wheels inside a watch. Should one of the wheels not turn, or turn in the wrong direction, the watch won’t work.

In an organisation like Surbana Jurong, which operates in 44 countries and includes about 70 nationalities, you must inherently believe in the value of working together and understand the strengths of everyone’s contribution.

Employees who are open to cultural diversity are more self-aware  

Interacting with different cultures can make a person self-aware. Having the openness to accept alternative perspectives allows us to better reflect on, recognise and adapt to cultural differences. It helps us understand our own weaknesses and learn from them, and see how to apply our strengths to develop interpersonal relations.

Unfortunately, not all employees have exposure to various cultures, and hence organisations should institute cultural awareness programmes to remedy this. Having the opportunity to work in cross-cultural teams is important to one’s career growth, and should be a part of every employee’s toolbox. It helps them pick up on all kinds of cross-cultural skills – from learning how to address people from another culture to dealing with disagreements in the workplace.

Cultural intelligence gains trust at every level of the organisation

I believe that trust is the greatest differentiating asset of any successful organisation. Without a natural trust in their leaders, employees will not give their best.

Winning the trust of all employees becomes more challenging for leaders as they move outside of their culture. With more scope for misunderstanding and miscommunication, trust becomes more fragile. More simply, different cultures have different frameworks for defining trust.

Cultural intelligence in a leader is therefore a requisite tool, helping them navigate uncertainty, unify people, and build trust to define outcomes and solve problems.

Good leaders must understand the nuances in communication across different cultures

The best strategy in the world will work only when people feel empowered. To reach the desired cultural outcomes, leaders need to think of different ways to communicate and maintain meaningful dialogue with people. Otherwise, however promising your organisational strategy, it will not take off.

In a multicultural organisation, you must first understand cultural nuances before implementing strategies and changes. When people feel they are engaged, you can then walk projects with them and sell successes.

For example, in an Asian culture where people are quiet and don’t challenge things, management has to intervene to break those barriers. At Surbana Jurong, we have Friday get-togethers to allow management and employee teams chat intimately about day-to-day lives.

I myself adopt different styles of working with different people. Scandinavians aren’t as outgoing as most Europeans and may require a consensus before reaching a decision, so I am careful about understanding and managing that. With Africans, I encourage them to speak up more and express their opinions. I don’t want to have them just take orders from other people in the team.

Here’s an interesting example of how I would typically communicate bad news to two different cultures – Indian and Australian. When I need to communicate bad news to the Australians, I tell it to them straight. Australians are direct and they want you to be direct with them. But Indian employees won’t be comfortable with that. I will first need to speak to the manager and agree on the ways to communicate the same news.

Leading by example

Personally, despite the cultural diversity I have seen, every new experience brings new challenges. In coming to Asia, I’ve learnt to be more patient and adapt myself to the different working styles here. In a continent like Asia that offers so much cultural diversity, I have also learnt to better appreciate differences and embrace the advantages that they bring.

It is important that leaders share their experiences with the rest of the organisation. We need to empower our people and give them clear cultural outcomes and identify genuine, memorable values that are shared throughout the organisation. Creating an environment based on this shared understanding will allow cultural appreciation to flow throughout the organisation and across geographies.

Perspectives, developed by SJ Academy, is our platform to explore new ways of tackling some of today’s most complex challenges. We draw on ideas and opinions from our staff associates and experts across different businesses. Click here to read more about Technology & Innovation, Infrastructure & Connectivity, and Design Leadership.




“一带一路”的经济规模有多大?从现在到2030年,亚太地区需要投资26万亿美元建设基础设施。未来10年,亚洲每年需要投资1.7万亿美元用于基础设施建设,才能维持增长。有估计认为,未来 “一带一路”长期累计的投资将达4万亿至8万亿美元。因此,“一带一路”国家乐见并支持此倡议,希望以此加速其基础设施驱动的经济发展。2013年至今,中国向“一带一路”沿线国家投资总计600亿美元,最近还宣布,未来五年,每年将对外投资达到1200亿至1300亿美元,总计投资6000亿美元。





















Perspectives, developed by SJ Academy, is our platform to explore new ways of tackling some of today’s most complex challenges. We draw on ideas and opinions from our staff associates and experts across different businesses. Click here to read more about Technology & Innovation, Infrastructure & Connectivity, and Design Leadership.

A vision for the future role of cost engineers and quantity surveyors

The Quantity Surveyor and Cost Engineer professions have the opportunity to embrace a broader vision for the future and redefine traditional roles. As new technology sweeps rapidly across the construction industry, existing professionals and new graduates must evolve to meet the changing demands of global clients.

There is a saying that “what got us here will not get us there”. For professionals working in the rapidly evolving built environment sector, this is increasingly true.

Cost engineers (CEs) and quantity surveyors (QSs), in particular, are facing a critical moment in their professional lives as the traditional infrastructure project delivery practices are being disrupted by new modern, digitally enabled and data driven processes.

Like every other profession in the built environment, CEs and QSs face a major challenge to redefine their role and stay relevant in this new world; a world in which clients are more demanding, more informed, and expect greater value from every professional service that they buy.

However, they also have a major opportunity to strike out and reposition themselves in this new and evolving world; driving new levels of efficiency, creating competitive advantages and providing the value added services demanded by modern clients.

To achieve this goal, CEs and QSs will have to change their professional approach and the services they provide. While some of these changes might be considered evolutionary, others, as will require more fundamental rethinking.

Merger of minds – birth of the CEQS profession

The traditional concept of employing a QS to measure quantities and a CE to provide advice on costs is becoming a relic of the past.

Today’s clients expect more flexibility and broader professional advice. They will turn to the CE for advice on issues as wide as procurement management and engineering or look to QSs to estimate costs of preliminary designs without drawings but using their experiences, data sheets and rules of thumbs.

Given this blurring of responsibility, a merger of the two professions as CEQS is an obvious win. This new group of professionals would provide a range of services covering cost advice, procurement management and strategic advice, design reviews, facilitation based on risk and value, and perform value engineering exercises.

The role would be transformed from passive individual to become an effective, central contributor to the client’s entire project team. With an inherent knowledge of design efficiency, combined with a deep understanding of cost drivers and structure, the CEQS will be in a unique position to provide clients with holistic advice on project cost, time and quality.

The need for a knowledge upgrade and networking

Of course, this transformation would require the CEQS to substantially increase their understanding of construction technology and basic engineering principles. In addition, they would require good knowledge of contract law to help the CEQS offer procurement advice to promote the modern partnering arrangements sought by clients as they seek to boost productivity.

And clearly enhancing skills across the professions will require an environment that actively supports learning. As such, a professional knowledge network would be critical to support and drive the development of required skills across businesses and ensure that the learning and efficiencies gained are shared across the emerging profession.

Similarly, a programme of mentoring throughout the new CEQS profession would be vital to ensure that younger professionals can learn quickly from the experience and knowledge of colleagues around them.

Facilitation and the art of collaboration

More often than not, the CEs and QSs find themselves at the heart of the design discussion, using and demanding information from all design disciplines and ensuring that information is correct and verified. They play a critical role to bring parties together – facilitating communication and promoting collaboration – a role that is increasingly in demand by modern clients and that should be embraced by the CEQS profession.

The roles and responsibilities of a facilitator are wide and may include conducting cross-disciplinary workshops, to help understand the emerging issues and find collaborative solutions. Again, as with other new skills required by CEQSs, special training programmes for such facilitation would be required.

The use of computational BIM

Technology will be central to the future role of the CEQS profession. Specifically, computational BIM, the next frontier of BIM tools, will be critical. Such advanced BIM modelling requires designers to better understand the BIM model and get the best out of the data.

For the CEQS profession this presents great opportunities due to their inherent closeness to, and familiarity with, the project data. But it also presents great challenges, not least from the need for the new profession to accelerate its own understanding of the emerging discipline.

Some form of computational BIM will have to be taught to CEQS professionals so as to expose them to the outer limits of the use of BIM. That will mean understanding how to interrogate models, how find optimum solutions for value engineering purposes or how to identify cost drivers.

It will be a big challenge as the speed of technological advancement is so rapid. What once took design team months to do, can now be carried out in minutes. The CEQS profession must evolve to keep up.

Operating in the global environment; operating in the virtual environment

Meanwhile, the world is getting smaller as actual and virtual borders are being torn down. Firms are increasingly moving the main bulk of their measurement activities to more cost-effective parts of the world, leaving traditional graduate roles “outsourced”.

However, this challenge opens up great opportunities for the young CEQS who will now be tasked with acquiring the new skills required to manage these outsourced processes. They will, in effect, move further up the project value chain, adding greater client value and commanding greater reward.


The scale and pace of change sweeping across the construction industry means that leaders must act now to embrace the new world. While the core skills of cost management and cost engineering will always remain embedded in the QS and CE professions, there is a need to broaden the vision of existing professionals and new graduates to align with the new world of intense competition, client-centricity and technology advancements.