LOOKING back on the formidable pace of digital transformation in Thailand and within Total Access Communication (DTAC) over the past three years, DTAC’s outgoing chief executive officer, Lars Norling, has declared mission accomplished on his key task of turning the telecommunications operator into a strong digital company.
“In 2015, Thailand was moving towards the digital world but DTAC was not very digital. So we started DTAC’s digital transformation to make ourselves more relevant to customers. And it’s a different company now,” Norling said.
“As part of its digital transformation, DTAC has utilised machine learning to make better recommendations to its customers and also to answer customer queries via SMS more quickly. We also have agile teams that develop new products in rapid, two-week sprints. A lot has changed.”
The company's financial performance is also quite different, Norling said. “We had negative growth in 2015. Now we’ve really improved and gone back to growth. Thanks to our digital transformation, that growth should continue over time,” he said.
The company has also implemented what it calls a strengths-based development programme for its employees. The system will encourage managers to coach employees on their strengths, and supports the company’s digital transformation to a more project-based way of work.
Late last year DTAC said it needs to recuit hundreds of skilled digital workers by 2020 to fulfil its goal of becoming a leading digital organisation.
The Swedish national assumed the CEO post at DTAC in April 2015. Previously, he was chief executive of DiGi.Com Berhad in Malaysia and, earlier, held the same role at Telenor Sweden.
Norway's giant telecom operator Telenor is DTAC’s foreign strategic partner.
On March this year, DTAC announced Norling's decision to step down from his CEO post to pursue new opportunities. He will remain in his current role until September 1. Norling will be replaced by Alexandra Reich, an Austrian, who currently serves as CEO of Telenor Hungary and head of Telenor Group’s Central-Eastern Europe cluster.
“I will join Kinnevik as an investment director. Kinnevik is a Swedish investment company with telecom, media and digital assets,” Norling said. “The purpose of Kinnevik is to build digital businesses that provide more and better choices for customers. This is achieved by using digital technology in combination with a strong entrepreneurial spirit.”
Norling said that what has impressed him the most about Thailand as an individual and as the
CEO of a telecom business is how tech-savvy Thai consumers are. He said that they are highly advanced in terms of their digital usage and consumption.
“Thailand is among the top nations in terms of YouTube watch times, Facebook penetration and Line Mobile users,” Norling said.
“Thais use 8GB [gigabytes] of mobile data per month. That’s double the European averages. It also means Thais are very demanding in terms of network quality. There are
countries in Europe that have much less coverage and density than we do here”.
According to a global digital report in early 2018 by We Are Social (www.wearesocial.com), Thailand is one of the world leaders in high-speed mobile Internet daily usage. The analysis of the mobile Internet usage behaviour of Thai people shows that they consume the most and second-most data on chat app and video, respectively. Thailand is also one of the top countries for YouTube viewing times.
He is also impressed with the dynamism of Thai society. He said the situation in Thailand's market is very fluid, with change happening quickly. A few years ago, Europeans were using data on 4G wireless broadband technology for data and Thais were still using voice. Today, Thais have outpaced them in data consumption.
“On a personal level, I love working with Thai people. There are a lot of very smart, competent people here. But I also like that people are empathetic, easy to work with and friendly,” Norling added.
When taking the top job at DTAC, he said that it was not difficult for him to adjust to the environment in Thailand.
“I had travelled a lot before coming here. I studied in Sweden, both in Upsala and Gothenburg, but also in the USA. That really developed my taste for always being on the move,” he said.
“I also worked in South Africa and Taiwan before joining Telenor Sweden. Before coming to DTAC, I worked for a year in Malaysia, with which there are some regional similarities.
“The Swedish and Thai cultures also have some things in common. Swedes believe in consensus. We don’t polarise. We’re not confrontational. I’d say the two cultures are a pretty good match.”
Of course, he and his American wife and two kids, who moved to live with him in Thailand, miss friends and family in Sweden sometimes, and they visit them in Sweden twice a year. His son, 14, and his daughter, 11, speak English and Swedish fluently.
“The food we most miss from Sweden would have been Swedish meatballs but then we’ve figured out how to make some pretty tasty Swedish meatballs at home. When we go back to Sweden, we’ll all miss the pad Thai, though,” he said.
Norling describes himself as “a bit impatient and someone who likes new challenges, new experiences”.
“If it’s too much of the same thing, I get bored. I’m also pretty curious.
That’s why digital transformation has been so exciting for me,” he said. “I’d also like to think I’m sincere and trustworthy.”
As a manager, his key strengths are strategy and execution. He can both set a clear direction and get stuff done. He is also good at managing complexity, creating some order out of chaos.
Norling once said that the only way to beat the competition is to perform better than the competitors. He is very focused on execution, to get the job done. Planning is also important but it is only 20 per cent – 80 per cent is execution.
“Living in Thailand, I’ve mellowed out a bit and learned to be more patient. Sometimes, you just have to take things day by day here. It can be a very unpredictable business environment,” Norling said.
He said that DTAC's greatest challenge is the end of its concession on the 850MHz and 1800 MHz spectra in the middle of September and the uncertainty surrounding that.
“But we’re taking all the necessary steps to ensure continuity of service for all our customers. And once the DTAC Turbo [wireless broadband service] reaches them, they will enjoy a very smooth, fast and reliable network experience,” he said.
CAT Telecom has granted the 1800MHz and 850MHz bands to DTAC to operate under its concession.
After the concession expiration, the National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission will put both spectrum bands up for auction in August.
The company kicked off the DTAC Turbo service in some major provinces in June. It launched the service under a partnership with TOT, using the state agency's 2.3GHz spectrum.
In June, DTAC’s chief technology officer, Prathet Tankuranun, said that the DTAC Turbo’s 4G-Time Division Duplex (TDD) network coverage is expected to cover 37 provinces this year, with more provinces added later.
Norling said that with DTAC Turbo, the company became the first operator to bring 4G-TDD services to Thailand, which has put DTAC on an evolutionary path to the advent of 5G services.
“That’s why DTAC is so interesting. We’re part of a changing society. We’re in the middle of the change and empowering that change,” he said.
He added that he wants to use
technology to make a difference for society and for people.
“That’s what’s driving me. That’s why I started a fibre to the home broadband company in Sweden. Internet was terrible there. And I wanted better Internet at my home, too! Then the company was sold to Telenor and I joined Telenor Sweden,” he said.
During his spare time, Norling exercises almost every day.
“I also try to combine watching Netflix while running or cycling. Of course, I’ve travelled all over Thailand to meet DTAC teams. But Krabi and Phuket are where I head to most often when I want a break,” he said.
“I also read a lot. I just finished “Homo Deus, a Brief History of Tomorrow.” It’s a great read, if a bit scary at times. It demonstrates how belief systems allow humans to form complex societies. But it also questions what will happen when we succeed in creating machines smarter than ourselves,” he said.
When asked what he plans to tell DTAC staff when it comes time to bid them farewell and what will be his recommendation to his successor, he said he would tell Reich that DTAC’s digital transformation is well under way, so he thinks she will be able to really focus on growth.
For DTAC staff, Norling will encourage them to keep building on the company's well-known "Jai Dee" market position [jai dee in Thai means kind heart], keep growing, co-operating and innovating with the new DTAC culture.
“And I’ll also tell them I will miss DTAC employees very much, and all of Thailand as well,” he said.