Sime Darby: An elephant learning to dance
The title of this piece is inspired by the book “Teaching the elephant to dance” by James A. Belasco, a best-selling author, consultant and teacher who is passionate about ‘leading the journey of change’ for organizations.
Sime Darby’s recent debacles in the IJN and LCCT @ Labu projects, as it turned out, were lessons learned in leaving things a little too late. They were opportunities missed compounded by suspicions and speculations zipped ahead of corporate social responsibility announcements that took on a life all their own. The rest, like they say, is history. The projects died still-born brought on by a fury of public objections energised by the speed of “digital democracy.”
It was Tun Musa Hitam, Chairman of Sime Darby Berhad, at the dinner organized for a sit-down meeting with bloggers at Bukit Kiara on 25 February 2009, who spoke about “digital democracy” and its power and how it can influence public opinion and bring about change.
Tun went on to add, “In this digital age, gone are the days of doing things the old way. We must change and keep up with the times.”
Sime Darby’s failure to react to the IJN takeover news breaking first on television by a minister (so we were informed at dinner) was a disaster that could have been avoided if they had proper public relations in place. But what was Fox Media, the public relations outfit that was purportedly paid a hefty RM250,000 a month for its service, doing? Shouldn’t they know better and advise Sime Darby accordingly?
The same scenario was true too with LCCT @ Labu. While the controversy was raging, Sime Darby hardly came out with a statement to allay the public’s concern. The public was kept in the dark and when there’s silence one naturally assumes the silent party is guilty which was most unfortunate for Sime Darby.
Perhaps it was a case of Fox getting too cosy in its comfort zone or Sime Darby too big to respond quickly given its heritage in government with a bureaucratic mindset. Whatever the case may be, Sime Darby could have had taken the bull by its horn with the two issues and came out smelling like roses by making simple statements. All it probably would have required was to assure the public that the company was just as surprised as they were with the breaking news and more information will be forthcoming once the conglomerate received firmed assurance and details of the projects from the authority.
In fact, Dato’ Seri Ahmad Zubir Murshid, President and Group Chief Executive of Sime Darby Berhad, could perhaps be excused for his apparent lack of executive savvy. The fault was not his entirely. He was governed by Sime Darby’s coporate culture by ensuring that all the T-s were crossed and the I-s were dotted before making any form of announcement. In being too accurate and careful, Dato’ Seri inadvertently lost precious time in this “digital age” and public opinions had surged ahead and overtaken events.
Both Tun Musa and Dato’ Seri Ahmad Zubir recognized the weakness in the conglomerate’s exercise in public relations and had taken steps to rectify that department. We have been told Fox Media is now gone and Leela Barrock has come on board as Head of Corporate Social Responsibility & Group Communications and Corporate Affairs to help kickstart the section.
Through the years, Sime Darby has grown. Today it is a very different organization than it first started. It has grown into a huge conglomerate and a world player with interests not only in plantation but also property, energy, industrial, motors and utilities. The board and management of the company have a responsibility to the company’s 10.5 million shareholders, its 100,000-odd employees and the communities it serves worldwide.
In short, Sime Darby has become an ‘elephant’ and would be expected to lose some of its nimbleness and become clumsy. The episodes with IJN and Labu are cases in point. The company’s deficiency in PR is partly to blame and that will change with the setting up of the company’s own PR department. And with other plans the company has put in place it is reassuring to know that Sime Darby is learning to dance once again despite its size. To do things the new way and possibly with a little more speed – especially in this digital age.
(The bloggers who were present for dinner and a sit-down session: Datuk A Kadir Jasin – The Scribe, YB Wee Choo Keong, Ahirudin Attan – Rocky’s Bru, Nuraina Samad – 3540 Jalan Sudin, CT Choo – de minimis, Syed Akhbar Ali – Outsyed The Box, and yours truly.)