Over the past decade, DBS Bank’s continued rise is a success story of the global banking industry. Under the leadership of CEO Piyush Gupta, the Singapore-headquartered bank has embarked upon a journey of deep digital transformation, seeking to become more of a tech company than a financial institution. Its efforts have paid off — it was recognised as the best bank in the world by New York-based financial publication Global Finance last year, beating out other more established global names.
Despite Gupta’s prominence in leading this digital transformation, the CEO also relies heavily on the bank’s chief information officer (CIO) to execute his vision for the organisation. He has credited former CIO David Gledhill for playing a defining role in shaping this transformation over the decade. The veteran banker retired in 2019 and is now serving in a part-time advisory role.
Stepping into these large shoes is the bank’s former deputy head, group technology and operations Jimmy Ng, who has been the CIO for close to two years now. He is no newcomer to DBS, joining just one week before Gupta. After more than a decade at the bank, Ng has experienced DBS’s digital transformation first hand, helping to pioneer the use of artificial intelligence (AI) in managing the bank’s ATM fleet and streamlining its auditing processes.
Not that Ng’s foray into technology roles has been a conventional one. While he earned an undergraduate degree in information systems, most of his career has been spent in a wide range of banking functions that have nothing to do with technology. These include stints as the executive director of risk advisory services at ABN-AMRO, the head of derivative operations, APAC at RBS Global Banking and Markets, and regional head of FX audit at JP Morgan.
Ng says that the drive to digitalise DBS’s operations was initially a logical solution to solve a collective business problem rather than a deliberate move to digitise. “We had the aspiration of becoming the ‘Asian Bank of Choice’,” he explains. But this motto required the bank to become more customer-centric. So, digital technology was harnessed due to its potential to improve customer experiences such as helping reduce ATM wait times and machine breakdown rates.
Building on the strong foundation of his predecessor, Ng aims to steer DBS towards its vision of becoming the “best bank for a better world”, combining top-class banking with changing the world for the better.
But the onset of Covid-19 interrupted these plans and the bank huddled down to weather the economic storm. Ng sees the pandemic as not only a challenge, but also an opportunity for innovation. “[The pandemic] actually accelerated a lot of thinking about how we should be taking our technology forward over the next five years,” he says.
While there had previously been doubts on whether certain segments of the workforce (such as the older workers) would ever be able to achieve digital readiness, many of these workers stepped up and adapted during the “circuit breaker”.
People, he says, are also increasingly asking “how something can be done” instead of “why it cannot be done”, signalling a more progressive and innovative mindset within the bank.
Tech for all talents
It is perhaps Ng’s unique journey to the CIO role and his experiences during the pandemic that have influenced his understanding of who is able to partake in this digital revolution. The stereotype of tech workers is unfortunately that of socially inept tech nerds. While science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) graduates have been encouraged to boost these ranks, it is often assumed that these jobs are not meant for non-STEM graduates.
Ng disagrees with such a misconception. He argues that graduates in these disciplines have a unique and valuable contribution to make to a digitalised firm. “The ability for us to problem-solve is not just about technology — it is about bringing in different skill sets,” he says, adding that DBS’s approach is to get people from various disciplines and train them in the basics of technology so they can apply their unique skill sets within a digital context.
For instance, Ng observes that the question of data privacy is not just about the technical ability to protect data, but also about understanding the ethical concerns behind upholding that privacy and building that into tech solutions.
Even his initial ATM optimisation project, he notes, was a combination of both data science and “consumer science” to ensure that the end product was pleasing to the consumer. The latter implicitly requires an understanding of human behaviour and psychology that is best developed via the humanities and social sciences.
To that end, the bank has started the DBS Future Tech Academy to train employees in technology skills. Currently offering courses in site reliability engineering, data processing and analytics and application security to employees, DBS has put several of its SGUnited Trainees through these programmes and given them basic training in technology skills. “Truth be told, they actually pick it up quite quickly,” Ng says, recognising their contribution to a diverse workforce.
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But fostering this diversity among employees also means creating more opportunities for women within the male-dominated tech space. This year, DBS has tripled the number of job opportunities available at the “DBS Women in Tech” virtual career fair to 140. DBS has been listed in the Bloomberg Gender Equality Index four years in a row since its launch in 2018, and is the only Asean firm listed in its top global quartile this year.
A diversity of skills is something that also applies to Ng’s own CIO role. “The CIO of the future has to be a superman,” he says, noting that a strong grasp of technology is not the only thing needed for the role. Strong CIOs must also understand how to apply technology to the appropriate scenarios and maximise value-add for the firm, therefore requiring a multidisciplinary skill set. He reflects that his time in non-tech roles has given him a wider perspective of the business.
CIOs must also have a different perspective regarding the “social, political and philosophical aspects” of their operational environment. This is especially the case as technology and tech-related issues take on increasing socio-economic and political significance that CIOs have to navigate.
Or as Ng puts it: “You really need to be multi-skilled and it is not easy to find that sort of individual.”
Building a start-up culture
Ultimately, one individual — even one as influential as the CIO — cannot change the firm alone. Instead, it is about building an organisational culture that embraces technology and innovation.
Despite being one of Singapore’s three major banks founded shortly after independence, DBS seeks to reinvent itself as a “29,000-person start-up”, where people think creatively about how to use technology to serve their customers.
Now, some may be cynical about such claims as many large organisations often try to “start-up wash” themselves with little success. In 2009, then General Electric CEO Jeffrey Immelt sought to convert the firm into a “124-year-old start-up”, which led to massive layoffs and GE being kicked off the Dow Jones Industrial Average after 110 years.
Of the US$1.3 trillion-worth of transformation initiatives in the US in 2018, reports CNBC, seven in 10 failed while just 16% saw performance improve and changes sustained.
“We discussed the morbid humour, in large companies pretending they are going to install ‘start-ups’ within their organisation, and then using the same rotting apparatus that has led to dysfunction, falling numbers, a complete lack of innovation and other remarkable setbacks to help populate said ‘start-ups’,” writes Srihari Yamanoor, a manufacturing engineering lead at Sofar Ocean — a company that makes instruments to collect ocean data — in a recent LinkedIn article.
But DBS’s digital transformation has succeeded where others have failed because the bank has committed to changing its culture first. “The good thing about the innovation team is that they don’t do innovation. Our entire job is to...create an environment for innovation to thrive,” says Ng.
Switch the mindset
At DBS, technology has a seat in the bank’s management, giving it the influence and platform to embed its innovative culture at the heart of the bank’s operating model. “What sets us apart is our ‘two-in-a-box’ approach, where our business and technology teams work alongside as equal partners, with customer needs at the centre; rather than tech functions being laid over as an afterthought,” Ng explains.
Naturally, this involves slaying sacred cows deeply ingrained within the Singaporean mindset. Chief among these perhaps is to exorcise the constant fear of failure that haunts local culture as kiasuism (the fear of failure) often dampens the desire to try new things. In the start-up world, says Ng, wrong choices are not only normal but encouraged, with mistakes seen as “feedback and learning” on the path to innovation rather than an existential failure.
“It is human nature that people do not want to be wrong,” says Ng, who sees removing blame-pushing as key to creating a fail-friendly culture. Having developed an in-house chaos testing tool Wreckoon to test app resilience, DBS has also translated this concept into business decision-making. Business meetings set aside time called “What does Wreckoon Say?” for criticism to be shared in a non-confrontational and non-emotional manner. Failures are examined through “blameless post-mortems”, allowing people to contribute ideas freely.
More proactively, Ng wishes to get DBS staff to think creatively about their business models. He also hopes they would be able to continuously think about how to adapt their business models to the fast-changing business environment. Consistent tweaking today, he adds, is much easier than having to uproot and reform one’s entire operating model tomorrow when it is found to have been rendered obsolete.
This transformation is strongly supported by DBS’s CEO Gupta, who has the authority to implement cultural change from the top down. “It has always been a pleasure working with Piyush. What we really need is an enlightened CEO and board,” says Ng, who appreciates Gupta’s understanding of the need for digital transformation and his willingness to challenge him to do better. Calling his partnership with Gupta “a dream team”, Ng adds that DBS’s investment in digital technology actually rose even as Covid-19 saw most firms scale back.
Just like the relentless march of progress within the technology industry, the work of DBS’s CIO never ends as the bank looks to reach the next stage of digital transformation.
Despite its success in digital transformation so far, DBS’s end goal is to get itself fully digitised. This means overcoming last-mile challenges and avoiding running front-end services from the back-end, allowing the bank to then scale and optimise its operations.
Much of Ng’s work going forward involves improving operations productivity through platform re-engineering. “The idea is about taking our entire operations, putting it on workflow, and giving everybody there access to that workflow,” he explains, noting that this would enable staff to conduct seamless remote working.
He sees improved remote working enhancing workforce inclusivity and diversity, giving new opportunities to homebound demographics like caregivers and the disabled who may otherwise not have contemplated a career in banking.
Industrialising AI and blockchain automation will also be a key focus of DBS’s Technology and Operations team. Last year, DBS became the first Asian bank partner on AntChain’s blockchain trade platform Trusple and the first Asian bank to close a trade financing transaction on the platform worth US$40,000 ($53,806). It has also launched the NAV Planner in Singapore, which has delivered more than 30 million hyper-personalised insights powered by more than 100 AI and predictive analytics models.
But your humble ATM will not be disappearing any time soon. While Ng sees cash as potentially being less relevant going forward,
ATMs still serve as important touchpoints for banking services like IPO and bond applications. “ATMs will evolve in the nature of use rather than disappearing altogether,” he says, noting that DBS’s more advanced video teller machines (VTMs) may signal a more service-oriented future for these ubiquitous machines
Image credit : DBS