Mr Lee Song Kheun: Very often, we get too engrossed with solving operational and technical issues, but what is more important is to look at what is of value to the organisation.
From horticulture to the high-tech world of enterprise ICT – this has been the career trajectory of Colombo Plan scholar Mr Lee Song Kheun, who helms the ICT role at the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority of Singapore (AVA).
Mr Lee graduated in horticultural science, earned a master’s degree in business administration and worked in research and agricultural administration, but developed a strong interest in computer science along the way. He was appointed Chief Information Officer (CIO) of AVA when it was restructured into a statutory board in 2000 and set up its own Information Systems Division.
AVA is tasked with ensuring that food in Singapore is safe for consumption and works closely with the food industry to diversify Singapore’s global sources of food supply. As its CIO, Mr Lee’s role is to help the organisation harness ICT to achieve these corporate goals and objectives. In addition to planning ICT projects and policies, his division also develops systems and infrastructure to meet the needs of its users and customers.
In this interview with e-Gov Bulletin, Mr Lee talks about the ICT challenges faced by the agency, assesses the lessons learnt, and outlines his expectations for the future.
What are some of the key challenges that AVA faces in ICT adoption?
The special challenge we face in AVA is the need to work with many business partners within government as well as the food industry, both in Singapore and in other countries. We have to engage our stakeholders and bring them on board to support the systems we have developed. There needs to be a happy partnership and just as they need to understand technology, we also need to understand their business needs. It involves engaging people and choosing the right technology.
This year, reaching out to customers is a key thrust for AVA. We have been using the Internet for licensing and electronic payments, but we are increasing its use to reach out directly to our customers abroad. Planning has already started to enable overseas suppliers to get accreditation for their farms and food factories online. To do this, we have to work with the overseas authorities and sort out the workflow so that we can develop a seamless and speedy approval process. It is challenging as there are different standards, competencies and infrastructure, but the new system will help in our efforts to increase our sources of safe food.
Describe some of the innovative uses of technology at AVA.
One of our key systems is the Intelligent Food Approval and Safety Tracking System, also known as iFAST. AVA regulates the import of food, animals and plants, handling about 800,000 consignments a year. We download huge volumes of data from the TradeNet system and have a module to process all the consignments, many of which are pre-approved. This allows us to use limited resources to focus on high-risk foods that require more stringent checks. We also pioneered the use of product and establishment codes to provide our inspectors with sufficient information to check the consignments using the iFAST system.
We also use business intelligence software to analyse the vast amount of data that we have, and we are exploring the use of additional tools to help us with predictive analytics. This will help us discover trends and prepare our strategies for tackling rising issues related to food diversification and resilience.
What other interesting ICT projects is AVA working on?
We are making a push for mobile computing as there are significant potential benefits in its use, especially by our field inspectors working at the various entry points, warehouses and factories. Mobile computing can raise the productivity of the inspectors by allowing them to download specifications and providing them with a single point of data entry, which will help to reduce human error.
Our earlier forays began with ultra-mobile PCs and tablet-based laptops, but some staff found them heavy and bulky. However, we are now excited about the next generation of mobile devices like the iPad which have good connectivity, are much lighter and incorporate true touchscreen technology which makes them easier to use. We are planning to embark on a pilot project to evaluate our hardware options.
The challenge is how to protect the security of critical data. Once security is addressed, we will focus on improving our processes and enhancing services to our customers.
As CIO of AVA, what are some of the learning points you can share with regard to the effective use of ICT in an organisation?
For IT to be truly effective, there needs to be business process streamlining. We cannot simply port existing manual processes onto an IT system. You have to actually change your business processes to optimise the use of technology. This requires the changing of mindsets and taking a step back to have a holistic view of the processes. For example, we look at what critical data we need to capture and whether there is some other way to get it. Every process is unique and the technology used may be very different, so there is no fixed way of doing things. That is a key learning point.
It is also important to leverage partners to make use of innovative technologies. Things change so fast that you just can’t keep up. So we leverage IDA, vendors, and also tap on the CIO network. To me, it has been a great way to keep up to date and find out more about key concerns and challenges.
One final point is that it is very important to harness the value of ICT systems. Very often, we get too engrossed with solving operational and technical issues, but what is more important is to look at what is of value to the organisation. In the past, it was cost savings and reducing manpower. We’ve moved beyond that, and IT is now a strategic enabler for all our business processes, and the driver for us to reach out to our customers.