Digital Transformation Helps NTU Saves Millions For More Critical Research In Humanity Challenges

Fatihah Ramzi, DigitalCFO Asia | 29 June 2022

To further fuel the vision of becoming a world-class research university that’s creating positive impact to the world, NTU embarked on their digital transformation journey five years ago.

In just 31 years, NTU has seen an exceptional community of students and staff lead research in addressing global challenges by sparking innovative ideas. Earlier in April, NTU’s Quacquarelli Symonds World University Rankings rose across five broad subject areas, with four being placed in the global top 50.

To further fuel the vision of becoming a world-class research university that’s creating positive impact to the world, NTU embarked on their digital transformation journey five years ago beginning with finance processes – bringing them one step closer to its commitment to leveraging on technology for effective and streamlined working.

After implementing SAP S/4HANA – a cloud enterprise resource planning system with built-in intelligent technologies – NTU has saved millions (5 – 10%) from their annual purchases and saved the research scholars 30 – 40% of time taken for approval processes such as equipment purchase.

This means the researchers have more time to focus on the core goal – publish more breakthrough research that contributes to solving humanity problems in the region and in the world. With such savings, staff members have also gained intangible benefits such as a better staff and student experience with more chances for positive engagement.

To find out more about about NTU’s strategic changes to their financial processes and how it’s leading to their rising global recognition, DigitalCFO Asia spoke with Ong Eng Hock, Chief Financial Officer, Nanyang Technological University and Eileen Chua, Managing Director, SAP Singapore 


NTU

Ong Eng Hock, Chief Financial Officer, Nanyang Technological University

COVID-19; Disruptions & Setting New Heights For Post-pandemic Growth With NTU’s Technological Transformation

The digital transformation that NTU started 5 years ago has been critical in enabling the University to overcome COVID-19 disruptions. For example, at the height of the pandemic in the first quarter of 2020, NTU successfully shifted within one week from more than 1,000 in-person weekly lessons to online learning for 30,000 students. This was powered by NTU’s investment in a new scalable and cloud-based NTULearn Learning Management System, which could accommodate a four-fold increase of cloud storage for digital learning content. 

By adopting cloud-based enterprise technology, they were also able to operate and support the University seamlessly from remote locations in key areas of Finance, HR, IT, Procurement, Student Affairs, and more. Their cloud-based enterprise platforms have enabled the Administrators to continue to answer queries from students and staff, invoice their students, pay their employees and vendors, procure through competitive bidding (satisfying the Government Procurement Act), without any major glitches, or loss in productivity, anytime, anywhere. 

Their collaborative tools, such as Microsoft Teams, allow employees to continue to stay engaged, continue projects that are in flight, and more importantly, provide each other the mental support needed during the “work from home” period.

The teams’ hard work was also recognized recently by this year’s Times Higher Education Awards Asia as they were named the Leadership and Management Team of the Year for their digital transformation and administrative reforms that helped the university’s timely response to the pandemic, and for their commitment to a sustainable future. 

“We are honoured to have been commended at the awards ceremony in Nagoya, Japan in late-May (31 May 2022), alongside nine other winners amidst nearly 500 submissions from 22 countries,” comments Ong Eng Hock, Chief Financial Officer, Nanyang Technological University.

Finance And Technology Going Hand-In-Hand Towards Sustainability Research & Goals

Finance, with the great team effort across the other functions in NTU and their partners, led the issuance of a $650M 15-Year Sustainability Linked Bond in October 2021. This would provide the financial strength to NTU, when needed, in advancing and accelerating their Sustainability manifesto, with an aim to be carbon neutral by 2035. 

“Through this platform, we hope to showcase NTU’s ongoing research in the areas of sustainability, and from time to time, using NTU as a test bed for such research, and provide our success as the use case for the world to adopt and take big steps towards a more sustainable environment.”

Ong Eng Hock, Chief Financial Officer, Nanyang Technological University

Examples Of How Better Research Breakthroughs Has Created Positive Changes Across Key Industries In The Region

Last October, NTU announced its Sustainability Manifesto, which will propel its wide-ranging sustainability efforts over the next 15 years and solidify the University’s position as a global leader in sustainability. NTU will strive to achieve carbon neutrality, along with a 50 percent reduction in carbon emissions, by 2035. 

Scientists from NTU are working hard to mitigate human impact on the environment. Researchers at NTU are addressing sustainability from multiple angles, from renewable energy to environmental remediation, to biodegradable materials. In the area of solar energy, for example, NTU scientists are exploring different approaches based on perovskites, a class of materials whose crystal structure makes it well suited for solar energy production because of its highly efficient light absorption properties. 

NTU scientists have developed a new way of manufacturing perovskite-based solar cells, such that it can achieve almost twice the efficiency of current silicon-based cells. The NTU team is also developing perovskite-coated glass solar panels that could potentially turn every window in Singapore into a generator. If NTU can get perovskite solar cells to work very well here, they will work anywhere.

Shifting Finance Operations In NTU – Impact Of Hybrid Work Model On Operations

“We did a major overhaul of our financial systems, and it went live just weeks after the circuit breaker in Singapore, in April 2020,” says Ong Eng Hock, Chief Financial Officer, Nanyang Technological University.

With that in place, NTU’s finance team was able to carry out most of their activities remotely, and digitally, without the need to be on campus. NTU’s shared services were able to continue its day-to-day operations, and manage the needs of their customers, students, vendors and staff, without any critical downtime or loss in productivity. 

The hybrid model did not affect the transactional operations, since transactions are processed through a rule-based system, and tightly controlled processes.  Knowing that their colleagues are just a button away (through MS Teams) helps accelerate the operations in a way. The downside of it was fatigue, as this “always on” mode means staff is always contactable anytime, even after office hours.

For some, it proved to be rather draining on the mind, as calls were almost back-to-back and staff tended to work longer hours during that period. Nothing beats face to face meetings, and most of NTU’s staff were looking forward to returning to the office and having those warm interactions with their colleagues – that human fuzzy feeling is something that technology could never replace!


SAP

Eileen Chua, Managing Director, SAP Singapore

Strengthening Governance & Compliance Processes And Financial Stewardship With Technology

Finance is at the center of many decisions within companies, and digital transformation initiatives often start with the finance department introducing new processes. It has become clear that standardizing, automating, and simplifying financial processes allow business continuity in any workplace. At the same time, strengthen financial stewardship across all business functions. 

By digitalizing highly automated financial processes, each step can be viewed and managed in real time and is recorded, which provides a trail for compliance. Global standards are in place to help secure SAP applications and data to enable and observe compliance according to regulatory requirements.

Transitioning Companies Seamlessly Into Highly Automated Industry With SAP’s Integrated Platform

To derive insights across the entire value chain of business, companies are now seeking solutions to help integrate and make sense of data to drive decision making and provide full visibility into the consequence of every business action. With intelligent automation in every finance process, companies will find that integrated platforms such as SAP’s are customisable to their every business need. Solutions are iterated faster and seamlessly integrated into companies’ existing landscapes. They can then build extensions to business processes quickly thus freeing up resources to drive further innovation and business transformation.

“In highly automated industries, data is the new currency and a priority for all organizations as they imagine and implement ways to take the data they have, enrich it and then make sense of it,” emphasizes Eileen Chua, Managing Director, SAP Singapore.

At the same time, technologies such as AI will be used to drive process automation. With instant insights across end-to-end operations, companies can always analyze, collaborate, prepare then plan for next steps and act from anywhere immediately.

Finance & Technology Working Hand In Hand With SAP’s Intelligent Technologies 

The need for transformation in business processes is an important ongoing revolution amidst an accelerating pace of change. Finance processes enabled by SAP’s S/4 HANA, which NTU has adopted, can turn a back-end function into a strategic asset by freeing up operational constraints with automation to allow more time focusing on enhancing NTU’s business strategies.

For instance, the deployment of AI, machine learning and IoT will certainly be central to the enablement of Institutes of Higher Education and Research.  Specifically, we have seen automation being deployed in the prediction of manpower expenses based on enrollment and faculty growth, grant management, and asset management, to name a few.

By closing the development gap, technology plays a key role in accelerating transformation towards industry 4.0 (iRPA), improving efficiencies, moving from manual/labor-intensive towards automated, intelligent, and highly skilled processes.