How four Asian companies scaled to millions of users

Innovation is at the forefront of most leaders’ minds, but it often slides to the bottom of a company’s to-do list as short-term goals and competing priorities suck up resources. The main resource in question is, of course, developers. They, more than any other group, are responsible for pushing forward innovation and delivering new digital services.

Every company wants to innovate, and we know developers play a key role, so why doesn’t it happen more often? Why is innovation the exception, while most organisations struggle to modernise? How can we find the right mixture of people, processes, and platforms to help companies get to where they want to be?

There are no easy answers, but I do believe that there are many examples of organisations in Asia-Pacific that we should try to emulate. In this article, we’re going to follow my friend Mona, the consultant, as she travels the region and interacts with different companies that can teach us four lessons on how to innovate quickly.

Staying agile to accelerate fintech innovation

Mona’s first stop is in Thailand.

People are used to travelling with physical cash, particularly in Southeast Asia, but it can be cumbersome and inconvenient compared to its digital counterpart. Fintech apps have made a splash over the years as they look to remove the friction of financial services such as banking and payments. One such app is MAKE, which was created by Thailand’s Kasikorn Bank. The mobile banking app lets everyday customers perform various banking tasks, such as cardless money withdrawals, money transfers, and QR payments.

The app was developed by a team that had fewer restrictions and a remit to drive digital innovation. The team needed to be flexible and fast to facilitate rapid prototyping and ideation, with the app initially launched as a minimum viable product that has now scaled to more than 1 million users as of January 2023. The bank boosted the number of transactions in MAKE from 900,000 to more than 7.5 million in a span of one year.

Lesson for Mona: Find ways to free up your developers’ time to allow them to focus on building new features and services, not on managing infrastructure. Using the right services and a flexible data model will greatly improve your developer’s productivity.

Digital integration makes zero-paper flights a reality

The next stop on Mona’s itinerary is Singapore, and she is taking a Cathay Pacific flight to get there.

Digitalisation is crucial even for service companies such as airlines. Flights typically involve a significant amount of paperwork, so digitising the process not only simplifies the flight but also makes it physically lighter. Cathay Pacific built a customisable tablet app to improve the pilot briefing experience. This app also enabled the airline to conduct its first zero-paper flight in 2019, removing 50kg of manuals, charts, maps, and flight briefing paperwork.

Developers had a one-year time frame to launch the app, which had to consolidate a significant amount of complex information in one place. This consolidation was part of a broader effort to enhance the pilot briefing experience, allowing flight crews to share their experiences with others easily. An additional digital refuelling feature also helped save significant flight time and costs.

Cathay Pacific has completed more than 340,000 flights with full digital integration in the flight deck, which has improved the flight crew experience, cut flight times, and consequently avoided the release of 15,000 tons of carbon.

Lesson for Mona: Innovation is everywhere. Even non-obvious areas of the business can be ripe for innovation that is transformative for the company. A situation where there is no or very bad internet connection seems like a terrible place to build digital tools, but Cathay Pacific showed what can be done.

Digitising to track and protect public health

Mona arrived on time at Singapore’s Changi Airport, which is world-renowned for its efficiency and user-friendly layout. In that same vein, the Singapore government created a digital form builder, FormSG, during the pandemic to collect COVID-19 data securely. This includes travellers like Mona who are passing through the airport. Health declarations and personal information were given via phone, reducing physical contact and making the process more hygienic.

FormSG tracked test results in real time, enabling health officials to identify and respond to any potential outbreaks quickly. This rapid response helped contain the spread of the virus and protect overall public health. The digital form builder has served more than 120,000 public officers from 155 agencies, creating more than 500,000 digital forms to help collect data on travel and health declarations by visitors to Singapore, applications for COVID-19 swab tests, and applications for financial assistance.

Lesson for Mona: Balance innovation and data sensitivity. The use of FormSG demonstrates that it’s possible to quickly build new customer experiences even around the most sensitive and private data sets. The key is to use the appropriate tools.

Improving speed to boost customer satisfaction

After spending a few days in Singapore, Mona heads to her last stop – China.

Upon touching down, she realises she needs a local SIM card for internet access. She stops by a China Mobile booth, where she can purchase a SIM card quickly. The major mobile network operator sends out billing details to more than 1 billion users every month through its critical push services. However, as the number of users grew, the performance of its services degraded. Despite significant investments, China Mobile was still taking too long to complete basic requests such as finalising and delivering bills to users. The telecom company needed a database capable of handling the large amount of data generated by such a vast pool of users.

To address this challenge, China Mobile used native sharding, a method for distributing data across multiple machines. This approach reduced the resources needed while improving performance by 80%. China Mobile now serves more than 168 million monthly users and holds one of the highest customer satisfaction scores in the China Mobile group.

Lesson for Mona: Infrastructure change can unlock massive opportunities. Changing the foundational infrastructure of an application can be a daunting task for many organisations. However, this example from China Mobile shows three things: It’s possible, it might not be as hard as you think, and the opportunities it unlocks will more than make up for any time spent on the move.

Embrace the future

Mona’s trip through Asia has shown the importance of ensuring that companies and their developer teams have the right tools, opportunities, and partners to innovate. This accelerates their ability to build the cutting-edge products needed to take companies forward. With the right mixture of people, processes, and platforms, any organisation in a variety of industries can innovate and create more value for their customers.