TM R&D CEO interview: Innovating Malaysia’s digital future

Dr Sharlene Thiagarajah of TM R&D demonstrates 5G Innovation

Malaysia recently announced its intention to develop a data ecosystem, involving private and public collaborators including national Telekom Malaysia’s innovation arm, TM R&D, which is working as a data technology partner with Malaysia Digital Economy Corporation (MDEC).

Interestingly, TM R&D has won seven globally recognised awards during just the last two years and raised its innovation adoption rate from 5% to 100% within the same period.

The company has also generated more than 2,800 intellectual property rights and 1,400 digital assets to-date.

In the wake of this steady surge of digital creativity, Disruptive Asia recently interviewed Dr Sharlene Thiagarajah, who helms TM R&D as CEO, to delve more deeply into the company’s vision, and motivational drive.

Dr Sharlene started with a brief explanation of the data technology ecosystem to illustrate one practical outcome of an innovative, collaborative approach.

The latest initiative synchs neatly with TM R&D’s role, she says. “Our vision is to make life and business easier with smarter ecosystems, with innovations that enrich humanity and progress the nation.”

As data ecosystems describe a collection of applications utilised to capture and process big data, the next evolutionary step is cited as an innovation ecosystem.

The addition of other stakeholders, including financial investors, holds much potential to unlock as well as generate greater value through enhanced collaborative efforts.

Collaborative platforms and ecosystems are cited as crucial factors behind innovation in digitalisation agendas, as observed in a Boston Consulting Group report back in January 2017.

Multiple Collaborations

To complement the public-private collaborative approach, digital economy encouragement from the Government continues through the pandemic with such initiatives as the PENJANA (short term recovery) programme.

Dr Sharlene outlines that since 1946, Telekom Malaysia has invested in telecommunication infrastructure to continually evolve and address the country’s national connectivity and digital infrastructure. “The latest move includes a large scale cloud infrastructure – to ensure data is kept in the country (in the interests of data sovereignty) – with a ‘first of its kind’ hybrid cloud platform – Cloud Alpha – through TM ONE, TM’s enterprise and business solutions enabler.”

“On a smaller scale, TM R&D supports the Malaysia’s digital nation aspirations via the development of the Open Innovation Platform (OIP), which serves among other things a data brokerage and data service exchange platform to help enterprises leverage their own data for productivity and efficiency gains.”

Active interest in leveraging the power of data through the OIP is reflected in several vital collaborations – variously involving MDEC, AXA Insurance, Human Resources Development Fund (HRDF), Selangor Human Resource Development Centre (SHRDC), Cyberjaya-based global tech enabler Cyberview, and others.

Speaking of the latest announcement, Dr Sharlene explains that TM R&D’s role under MDEC’s Data Technology Partnership Program embraces the objectives of building a robust data technology ecosystem to accelerate data technology adoption and develop Data-Driven Decision (DDD) Enterprises, and talent. Underpinning this move is to better secure data sovereignty and to sustain the country “technology security.”

Cultivating an ‘Innovation Zone’

Empowering TM R&D’s goal requires a much-sought-after innovation ecosystem. Dr Sharlene places much emphasis here on tapping inspiration within an open problem-solving approach within people, providing they are given a conducive zone.

“Focusing on an elevated goal or higher purpose than ourselves, such as serving humanity acts like a motivational magnet. Our stream of intellectual properties and assets are all due to the hard work and dedication of my incredible team at TM R&D,” she says.

Looking back at the turn of the year, the TM group, as part of a collaborative effort to demonstrate the potential of 5G for Digital Malaysia – demonstrating major industry and societal enhancements – with some exciting proof projects in Langkawi and Subang in conjunction with the national regulator MCMC.

Although the change in government earlier this year has led to a review of the nation’s 5G implementation plans, Dr Sharlene’s team has continued to build on the proof projects and successfully commercialised all the solutions including the OIP.

In addition to securing new customers for these, one of TM R&D’s solutions is being used to combat Covid-19. She detailed one of these solutions as an example.

“We tapped upon all our digital assets on the OIP to create an Artificial Intelligence (AI) driven solution named Early Warning Alerts & Response (EWAR) during the country’s Movement Control Order (MCO, a form of lockdown to offset the spread Covid-19) within two months.”

EWAR was initially developed to help businesses perform early detection and screening at their premises. “It is a 4-in-1 solution which offers businesses with some peace of mind to resume operations more safely.”

Currently, EWAR is offered in two forms – EWAR Crowds and EWAR Compact. EWAR Crowds is designed to conduct rapid temperature screening of 15 individuals per second in crowded/high traffic areas such as schools, malls, airports and building lobbies while

EWAR Compact is suitable for a one-on-one contactless screening. It eliminates the need to use hand-held temperature devices, which helps maintain social distancing as well as minimise queues.

“We have deployed the solution across verticals, including at schools, sales outlets, construction sites, company lobbies and airport,” explained Dr Sharlene. “EWAR has now gone regional with our first export contract a few weeks ago.”

Building Industry 4.0 in a Crisis

Moving on to review her current take on Malaysia’s aspirations as a digital nation. Digital Malaysia now hinges to a significant extent on its Industry 4.0 intentions and manifestations.

With a solid history as a manufacturing and oil palm base, the country does have the advantage of diversified opportunity streams. However, the real inducement today to digital adoption has been supplied by the Covid-19 crisis, she believes.

“I believe Covid-19 has been an eye-opener for all organisations. The need for organisations to rethink how they envision and manage their business and internal processes have been brought into sharp focus.”

“Organisations that do not adopt ‘fit for purpose digital solutions’ quickly will find themselves at significant cost and efficiency disadvantages over competitors that go digital. The key words here are ‘digital fit for purpose’,” emphasised Dr Sharlene.

Sustaining the Future

“One of the keys to sustainability in Malaysia’s digital development rests in innovation,” she said. “We have already started tapping and building on talent within the country. Now we are moving to make it a sustainable flow of much-needed talent for our future development.”

There is some confirmation of the talent to development link on a global level with the United Nations Development Programme’s (UNDP’s) data ecosystems for sustainable development project, which assessed viability across six pilot countries.

Industry has a significant role and must stay relevant with new innovative solutions that the market cannot afford to be without. Speaking of TM R&D’s contribution, she says, “Most companies already have the building blocks. What’s missing is the digital infrastructure to enable companies to harness the power of their own data, without costly investments. That is the beauty of OIP. “

“Another factor lies in our experience of solving real-life problems – not only for telcos but for enterprises and SMEs of all sizes, across multiple verticals such as healthcare, retail/commerce, agriculture, and education,” continues Dr Sharlene.

Some examples of such solutions used commercially are the Smart Water Solution for Air Selangor; Digital workforce solutions that embrace various industry sectors; and the Telco Intelligent Support System (used in TM’s core network/IT).

She envisions that the right digital architecture, such as OIP, is playing an important in propelling Malaysia’s digital efforts. The key advantages of building on “open source” principles include inclusivity and being free from ties to any technology stack or proprietary vendor technology.

Its scalability is bringing fresh, exciting projects onto the immediate horizon. “For example, we are leveraging the strengths of OIP to create a ‘Digital Agriculture Platform’ to help our agriculture sector go digital.”

Looking ahead, Dr Sharlene summarises: “As the innovation arm of Telekom Malaysia, and thanks to the innovation culture, we will continue to bring unique contributions to the table, as well as our experience in architecting and building open data platform architectures and use cases – as evidenced by the Open Innovation Platform (OIP).”

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