Assuaging Singapore’s Obsession With Comparative Ranking

June 26, 2011Singaporeby Bill Rylance

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Singapore is one of the most competitive economies in the world. Despite its small physical and demographic size, the country takes immense pride in its ability to stand among the world’s economic giants as one of the best countries in the world for businesses and investments. However, according to Bill Rylance – founder and CEO of WATATAWA – Singapore’s competitive nature has led to a nation-wide obsession with global rankings. Rylance points out that differentiation, rather than comparison should be the defining factor for a country’s competiveness; and explains why global rankings can hardly be definitive of a nation’s true competitiveness.

In case you missed it, Singapore apparently faced a major crisis the other week —plunging to third spot in a world competitiveness report.

“Ranked below Hong Kong – oh, the humiliation,” fretted some in online chat forums in response to the closely-watched annual survey by the World Competitiveness Centre of Switzerland’s IMD business school.

Yet just a couple of days later Merrill Lynch was telling us that the size of Singapore’s economy will overtake that of Hong Kong this year; in fact, search the web at any given time and you can probably find a reasonably recent survey that validates what a great place for business the Lion City is.

Of course, that’s the thing about the Internet – and about surveys or rankings – there’s always something out there, good or bad, if you look hard enough.

Smart organisations have – with all due respect to the learned folks at IMD – rarely made significant decisions on the basis of a single source of information. Now, more than ever, they have access to almost unlimited information or opinions that can influence a business decision.

That’s not to say that a CEO planning an investment or a top talent mapping a career move won’t one day have to make a choice between Hong Kong and Singapore; it’s just that the decision is very unlikely to be made on the basis of a single comparative report or ranking.

Organisations are now obliged to engage directly with stakeholders — like consumers, employees, investors and regulatory bodies – and that means establishing credibility through authentic, relevant conversations; they also need to participate compellingly in the conversations going on around them – like putting into context what Singapore has to offer, regardless of a step up or down in an annual competitiveness ranking.

Singapore Airlines doesn’t push a panic button when another airline picks up a best airline award now and then. That’s because SIA’s reputation and continued success is based on its customer engagement and not on the number of gongs it accumulates; they’re a nice by-product but not the lifeblood of the business.

A country’s competitiveness, like a company’s, is based on the proven quality of its tangible and intangible assets. Authentic and relevant engagement is what really matters because a monologue – which was once the foundation for most organisations’ communications – is no longer credible.

I understand the pride and natural sense of competitiveness behind the Singapore/Hong Kong rivalry but I’ve never bought into its real world relevance.

I lived and worked in Hong Kong for a decade and have been based in Singapore for the past couple of years. It’s inevitable to draw some comparisons – the cleanliness of the environment, cost of living, overall quality of life – but most businesses have a whole host of other boxes to tick and I’d wager that in most cases they don’t break down to a straight choice between the two locations.

The obsession with comparative rankings – and the bated breath ahead of their annual publication – is, to my mind, pointless.

In the past 20 years, I’ve been involved in FDI campaigns – both to attract foreign investment to Asia and Asian investment to Europe; as such, I’ve been privy to research covering thousands of executives around the world – and what emerged overwhelmingly was that what was most important to them in assessing a business environment wasn’t some ranking index, or a cool ad campaign, or even the endorsement of the international media.

What matters to them is their own due diligence and independent assessment of the competitive advantages of a location and a keen interest in what has motivated their peers; hence, an organisation responding to Singapore’s initiative to attract high-end manufacturing is going to want to know the factors that drove Rolls-Royce to make that same investment decision. A major firm making such a significant commitment is the most credible of endorsements.

Such due diligence – and the decisions that follow – is based on a wealth of independent information, enlightening conversations and informed opinions now available; so worrying about where Singapore sits on a day-to-day basis is a waste of time.

Related: Singapore Economy

Related: Singapore Economic Forecast

Ultimately what any country should be worrying about is not comparisons but differentiation. In Singapore’s case, with its strategic imperative of focusing on developing both its service industries and very high-end manufacturing, its differentiator must be the one thing that makes any nation or organisation successful – the recruitment, nurturing and retention of great talent.

Singapore by dint of history, geography and more recent socio-economic factors has a potential pool of talent greater than most other locations in Asia because of its multi-ethnic population that helps achieve closer connections with other parts of the region, including China, India and Southeast Asia. This makes Singapore highly competitive and for the long-term—not just measured year to year.

 One thing that I’m sure won’t make the country competitive is the over-analysis of an annual competitiveness index.

Crisis? What crisis?

Read more of Bill Rylance's commentaries at the WATATAWA blog.

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