Customer Story

Singapore Press Holdings: Going paperless and generating efficiencies with Google Workspace and Google Cloud

SPH hero

Singapore Press Holdings embarked on a digital transformation journey, including the creation of a paperless office and streamlined corporate application development with Google Workspace and AppSheet

Google Cloud Results

Reduces application development times from two weeks to four days with AppSheet + Apps Script

• Delivers a brand safety classification model to minimize advertiser risk
• Migrates 4,000 users to Google Workspace within 6 months
• Reduces paper purchasing, printing and storage costs by S$100,000 per year

Founded in 1984, Singapore Press Holdings (SPH) provides a wide range of media platforms that cater to audiences in Singapore’s four official languages of English, Malay, Chinese, and Tamil. In recent years, SPH has successfully expanded its readership beyond Singapore. The digital edition of Lianhe Zaobao, for example, attracts more than 90% of its readers from overseas.

In May 2021, SPH announced plans to transfer all its media business to a newly incorporated subsidiary, SPH Media Holdings Pte Ltd (SPH Media), with SPH Media eventually transferred to a not-for-profit entity.

SPH is keenly aware that news consumption habits have changed. Unlike the past, when readers dedicated a portion of their time to reading news on physical paper, readers now prefer to read bite-sized news on social media platforms. There is also a corresponding shift in ad spending from print to digital, which offers brand managers more visibility on campaign performance. SPH has embraced digitalisation to stay ahead of the competition, and Glen Francis, Chief Technology Officer of SPH, describes the organization now as ‘digital to the core’ with ‘a great level of maturity’.

“Media is about digital, and we have over 30 digital products across the business,” says Glen. “We use technologies such as AI, robotic process automation and data streaming to innovate and drive efficiencies.” The transition to digital has enabled the business to reach a global audience, build reader relationships across multiple touchpoints, and use more accurate, granular data to help advertisers create successful campaigns.

Speeding up editorial workflows and collaboration with Google Workspace

“Apps Script enabled us to build a workflow engine within Google Workspace that means we deliver all memos and requests electronically and contribute to our vision of a paperless office. We have also created a central repository that allows users to monitor memo, electronic request submissions and track usage.” -- Goh Lai Fun, Head of HR Systems, Singapore Press Holdings

In recent years, SPH has revamped its IT to improve productivity, encourage collaboration and promote a paperless office. At SPH News Center, editorial teams work against tight deadlines to create and curate content across multiple platforms. Staff journalists work 24/7 to report breaking news before readers get it from unofficial sources on social media.

Remote access used to be a pain point, with employees only being able to access company information by logging into a Virtual Private Network (VPN). Journalists resorted to forwarding emails to a personal inbox to check messages on their mobile devices when working on the go, but had to return to the office to send emails from their official email address.

With the help of PointStar, SPH migrated around 4,000 users from the legacy email server to Google Workspace in six months. Gmail provides everyone in the organization with secure email access from anywhere, anytime, and on any device. Strong security features, such as 2-step verification on enterprise Gmail accounts, protect sensitive information. When an employee leaves the company, the administrator can remotely wipe the user's mobile device to maintain data security. At the same time, SPH is able to retain the departing user's external contact list so the editor can still reach out to news sources that a journalist cultivated.

Moving to Google Workspace was an easy decision for SPH, as many reporters were already familiar with Gmail and the application suite was user-friendly and offered convenient collaboration and document sharing tools to match the organization’s business needs.

Google Workspace has now improved communication throughout the organization. Journalists out on assignments can easily use Docs to take notes or transcribe interviews, and share them with the team in Drive. Other colleagues make use of Sheets or Slides to collaborate on creating and refining documents.

Increasingly, media buyers purchase ads across multiple platforms. To plan integrated sales, SPH’s ad sales team works closely with other divisions such as circulation sales, editorial newsrooms and SPH Radio. Through group chats on Google Meet, cross-functional teams can work productively no matter where they are.

The business has also invested in Currents to share ideas with employees and build communities across the organization. However, perhaps the most important feature for SPH is the continued improvement in security across the application suite, as the organization undertakes considerable development with Apps Script, the low code platform that helps businesses build solutions that integrate with, automate and extend Google Workspace.

“Apps Script enabled us to build a workflow engine within Google Workspace that means we deliver all memos and requests electronically and contributes to our vision of a paperless office,” says Goh Lai Fun, Head of HR Systems. “We have also created a central repository that allows users to monitor memo electronic request submissions and track usage.”

The workflow engine has delivered considerable productivity benefits and enabled the business to reduce its paper purchasing, printing and storage costs by S$100,000 per year. “We have reduced our storage costs by retaining everything on Drive and our database,” says Lai Fun.

Automating processes with no code development

“We also received very good support from the AppSheet team in the transition to the product. Whenever we experienced any issues, members of the AppSheet team across different technical areas came in to support us. We also had the opportunity to make feature requests to ensure the product met our specific requirements. -- Hua Cheng Hong, Head of Corporate Systems, Singapore Press Holdings

Google Cloud’s acquisition of the no code development platform AppSheet opened up a range of opportunities for SPH to automate and streamline its processes. The business worked closely with Vendola Solutions to identify ways of ensuring the product met its application requirements.

“Based on the proof of concept use cases we identified for selected key applications such as staff claims and news planning developed using a previous solution, Vendola Solutions helped us identify webhooks that could be connected to our workflow engine developed using Apps Script, as well as the HTML enhancements required,” says Lai Fun. “This resulted in new feature requests for AppSheet as a viable replacement for the prior product.”

“We also received very good support from the AppSheet team in the transition to the product” explains Hua Cheng Hong, Head of Corporate Systems. “Whenever we experienced any issues, members of the AppSheet team across different technical areas all came in to support. We also had the opportunity to make feature requests to ensure the product met our specific requirements.

“As a result of these discussions and activities, all applications we create through AppSheet can call our common workflow engine, meaning we can now use that engine in a very productive way.”

Through the combination of Apps Script and AppSheet, SPH is continuing to add new applications to automate and accelerate processes and support the transition to a paperless office. “We focused initially on the high volume paper applications, but there are still some pockets of paper around we are working to automate,” explains Cheng Hong. “AppSheet enables us to develop front end applications, while Apps Script provides the business logic through the workflow engine to execute the processes effectively.”

With a front end developed in AppSheet, the business was able to create a staff reimbursement application that could run on mobile and desktop devices in just four days. “Without the platform”, Cheng Hong says, “developing the application could have taken up to two weeks”.

This efficiency and agility enable SPH’s corporate systems team to focus its resources and expertise on large-scale projects such as the deployment of an SAP HR system. “We cannot afford to spend too much time on corporate applications such as claims, training and onboarding – we need to get them done quickly so we can devote our energies to core systems like SAP,” says Cheng Hong. “Apps Script and AppSheet enable us to prioritize our development work so we maximize our contribution to the business.”

Overall, consolidation onto a single service through Google Workspace means new employees do not need to ask around for forms or access permissions. All apps are listed in Google Workspace for information, transactions or requests, reducing the time required of the HR team to onboard new people to the organization. The business is now looking to open up its systems to HR and Finance team users and evaluate the feasibility of developing a common applicant tracking system to be used by hiring managers, HR Talent team and job applicants, with the details captured seamlessly in the organization’s internal systems for the hiring process.

Executing data strategy with Google Analytics and BigQuery

“We cannot afford to spend too much time on corporate applications such as claims, training and onboarding – we need to get them done quickly so we can devote our energies to core systems like SAP. Apps Script and AppSheet enable us to prioritize our development work so we maximize our contribution to the business.” -- Hua Cheng Hong, Head of Corporate Systems, Singapore Press Holdings

Data plays a key part in SPH’s digital transformation and Dr Deb Goswami, the organization’s Head of Data, points to internal and external factors as the key drivers of change. The demise of third-party cookies and identifiers, and shifting consumer trends and behaviors such as the migration of readership segments to websites or apps, is profoundly impacting traditional media organizations. Internally, SPH is transitioning to a data-informed culture in which data enhances the decision-making process. “Data plays an important role in the technology component and a cultural component.“, explains Deb. “It is critical to right-size the data so internal stakeholders do not have to look at large numbers of dashboards and numbers during their decision-making process.”

“Data itself is a nervous system,“ he continues. “When you lose the physical touchpoints with your customers and when you’re engaging in a primarily digital ecosystem, the ability to understand whether your product meets the needs of your customers and adds value to the ecosystem becomes paramount.”

“That is the technology part of data, which enables you to understand the signals customers and readers are providing to your platform, and enabling executions via these signals becomes crucial.“

Google Analytics plays a key role in facilitating a data-informed culture at SPH. Journalists, analysts and the management can access deep insights into how readers use SPH publications, which helps editorial and other teams serve the content audiences want. “With the Google Analytics stack, we’ve been able to ‘stitch’ our view of user engagement journeys to provide a baseline over a long period of time across our publications and between our publications.“, says Deb. A BigQuery data warehouse ingests the Google Analytics data for analysis and decision-making powered by a multi-cloud data architecture.

In the newsroom, the editorial team views audience data on large overhead displays. SPH uses Google Analytics and Data Studio to create some of these easy-to-use dashboards that show reader behavior such as page views on trending stories, engagement metrics including return visits and time spent, and conversion rates. Reporters use these newsroom metrics to improve reader engagement. For example, if a particular topic is trending, reporters can capitalize on that interest and attract more traffic by writing relevant articles.

In recent years, SPH has started to move away from relying heavily on third-party data to a data analytics model more representative of how readers and users interact with its websites and ecosystem. Deb says the analytics team works with product managers and teams in business units to identify strategic areas for investment. “We consider, for example, whether we should run a dynamic paywall and what that would look like, and whether it should craft subscription propensity models for users and readers.”

Delivering efficiencies with machine learning and AI

Moving forward, SPH is looking to further utilize AI and machine learning with Google Cloud to support key use cases. Deb describes himself as “a big fan“ of Google Cloud’s machine learning offerings and is keen to leverage managed containerization offerings that make deployments of machine learning workflows via Kubernetes easy and scalable and, when combined with Cloud Composer and Airflow, deliver improvements and innovations to the business.

The organization’s data science team has started to make its mark with subscription and churn propensity modeling, and recently leveraged its in-house machine learning and domain expertise to augment a brand safety classification model that ensures advertisements are not juxtaposed unfortunately with content - for example, advertisements for motorcycle brands are not displayed adjacent to articles about road fatalities that involve motorcycles. “We used a combination of article data from our CMS systems, Colab workflows and an MLflow framework on Google Kubernetes Engine to run the model,“ explains Deb. “This is currently being trialed alongside incumbent vendor solutions.“

Furthermore, SPH uses a visual object detection API, developed on Google Kubernetes Engine, to analyze feeds from cameras to determine the number of people who pass by billboards on which SPH ads are shown. This helps the organization’s advertising team calculate appropriate pricing and gauge the reach of news headlines.

*Google Workspace was formerly known as G Suite prior to Oct. 6, 2020.

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PointStar

PointStar is a leading cloud-centric IT consultancy that offers solutions and technical expertise to help clients create the ideal smart office.