Digital transformation – a strategy you can bank on

Eloisa Tovee 3rd November 2020

The financial industry is an evangelist for many aspects of business.

Processing large volumes of transactions reliably. Maintaining 24/7 availability. Meeting complex regulatory requirements. Analysing and responding to risk. Sustaining financial stability and public confidence in their offerings.

Unfortunately, speed and agility and often missed off this list.

That is unless you have followed in the footsteps of financial giant DBS Bank, Singapore.

DBS Bank’s transformation story begins back in 2014, when it realised technology would be its key comparative advantage. In the words of Chng Sok Hui, Chief Financial Officer at DBS Bank;

the way it started is the realization that we were not just a bank, we were becoming a technology company”.

Becoming digital to its core evolved into the official mantra of the bank’s multi-year transformation. This position draws parallels with that adopted by Netflix when transitioning from a mail-order DVD-by-mail business to the de facto video streaming service for movie buffs.

Netflix’s success is often credited to the company’s ability to create a “true north” for its people to follow. By setting out a clear vision for the business, change became an expectation built into everyday activity. But it wasn’t a bump-free journey.

Former VP of Product Management Gibson Biddle recalls being repeatedly asked by focus groups what ‘streamlining’ was.

His reply was always ‘it’s not streamlining, it’s streaming’.

Back in 2005 when these questions were being posed, streaming was a term that needed introducing and owning by Netflix if they were to succeed with their new brand positioning. DBS find themselves in a similar boat.

Up until recently, customers had the luxury of holding onto the comforting reality of brick and mortar stores. Digital services were a choice; an extra. That was until 2020. COVID-19 provoked a watershed moment, plucking this choice from out of their hands in one fell swoop. It also created the perfect environment for more sophisticated cyberattacks, the acceleration of cloud adoption and experimentation in the digitalisation of services.

As can be expected, these trends are far too cumbersome, expensive and complex for individuals to address. That’s why there is such focus on the response of businesses and the steps they are taking to navigate the uncertainty of today’s landscape.

In fact, people are depending on market giants to lead them safely into the new normal – customers and staff alike. Much like Netflix having to define a new language around its streaming services, DBS Bank and others in the financial sector are faced with the unfamiliar territory of 100% remote working, 5G technology, IoT and blockchain.

Fortunately, the problem-solving culture that DBS Bank instilled over the past 6 years has been amplified in its dedicated innovation lab. This innovative environment has paved the way for rapid prototyping of 5G-enabled ATMs, digi-doc platforms and the very first Video Teller Machines (VTMs) in Singapore, enabling the bank to reach new heights of virtual conferencing and remote banking.

Not only has the transformation groundwork positioned DBS as a survivor, leader and disruptor into today’s new normal, they achieved everything despite the odds being out of their favour.

Among traditional sectors, there is just a 4-11% success rate for transformation initiatives. This jumps to an unexceptional 26% within high tech industries – and this is before you factor in the level of uncertainty driving change today.

The problem is, when traditional banks tackle digital transformation initiatives, they typically adopt one of two approaches.

The first is to create an internal silo of innovation away from existing legacy processes and technology. In some cases, this has resulted in former fintech rivals being acquired to create a separate internal innovation capability. Great for a sudden injection of digital skills and start up mentality, but there will always exist two sides of the same coin – one progressive, one restrained by latency.

The second is an incremental approach to digitalisation, enhancing existing process with the adoption of agile ways of working and digital technologies. The benefit of this second approach is that it builds on existing strengths and skillsets. The disadvantage is that it requires significant investment and an enterprise-scale cultural change.

According to McKinsey, whichever approach you choose to follow, organisations whose transformation initiatives are successful tend to deploy or try more technologies than those who fail. Our experience of driving transformation change for clients, ECS has also witnessed greater success when organisations adopt a multi-pronged approach – taking into consideration people, process and technology in equal measure and managing perceived value of change in these areas.

In the case of DBS Bank, the bank’s success came from aligning three core principles and priorities

Siew Choo Soh – Managing Director, Group Head of Consumer Banking and Big Data/AI Technology at DBS Bank – noted these priorities to be:

1. Willingness to re-platform your architecture.

In Siew Choo’s words;

You must change your system from front to back, moving away from the systems that you used to have, that are more than 50 years old.  

You must be willing to adopt more agile systems that are cloud native. This applies not just at the front-end but also the back-end to ensure that the process is truly seamless.”

2. Creating an internal culture capable of facilitating enterprise-level change

According to Siew Choo, adopting a start-up culture was the most important principle. Doing so had enabled the bank to:

be more agile, to experiment more and to not be afraid to fail. We want to fail fast and learn fast and that’s the culture we are trying to adopt for the entire business.” 

Building on the above, Chng Sok Hui notes that when it came to changing the organisational culture, the bank had to:

remind ourselves that it’s not only the executives at the top, that it’s not just the IT folks, that it’s not just the business folks, it’s everyone. So, we started with a lot of change agenda items. I remember we had human-centered design thinking. In fact, almost everyone had to go through a process of coming up with an app.”

3. Become customer-obsessed

Noted as the most important stakeholder for the financial services giant, Siew Choo said plans were made to ‘embed ourselves’ into the customer journey so they can create the best experience for its customers.

“To do that, we need to be customer-obsessed,” Siew Choo explains. “We need to experience what they experience in leveraging all the assets from the bank and we need to add value. Most importantly, we need to meet their unanticipated needs.”


Siew Choo also noted the importance of empowering every employee to effectively use new and emerging technologies. To reach this technological nirvana, DBS first had to crack how to maximise data and AI at scale within the business.

DBS recognised that despite facilitating data warehouses and data assets, they had no means of breaking down the siloes that prevented them from using this data at scale.

They looked to leading market solutions, technologies, architecture and operating models before settling on the tools that would become part of its first data platform-as-a-service blueprint.

This blueprint represented the DBS’s ambition for the service: to be truly self-service so we can empower every employee of DBS to use data and AI.

Interestingly, Chng Sok Hui spoke about the need to translate operational metrics and the success the bank has had in communicating the value captured during their transformation.

In Chng Sok Hui’s words:

“we believe we were the first bank to make this effort to link the methodology of how we demonstrate digitalization efforts and link them directly to the P&L.”

Passion has been the receding response from the businesses in light of these demonstrations of value, enabling the bank to accelerate digital adoption and progress their transformation journey.

Everything DBS Bank achieved since 2014 has prepared the bank for a unique set of challenges and enabled them to respond with technology. They have protected their people, met strong business demands and volumes with no visible loss of productivity and have delivered new services to better assist their digital-dependent customers.

While DBS Bank had a six-year head start, ECS is witnessing first-hand the acceleration of digital initiatives within the financial industry. Those who had already launched initiatives before the pandemic have accelerated their efforts in line with new business demands. Those who have been waiting for a reason to digitalise have either suffered greatly at the hands of the pandemic, or they have viewed this pandemic as the catalyst of change they needed to act.

The world is heading into a new normal, and this new normal will impact the future of banking whether organisations are ready or not.

We’d like to finish this article with a thought from Jimmy Ng, group chief information officer and head of group technology and operations at DBS Bank:

“What you’re seeing is a rush to digitize. And our industry definitely has the bandwidth to do that.”

Will you follow in DBS Bank’s footsteps?


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