by Zafar Anjum

How DBS Bank’s digitalisation paid off during the pandemic

May 02, 202111 mins
Diversity and InclusionFinancial Services IndustryIT Leadership

Group CIO Jimmy Ng details how the Singapore-based bank used its in-house technology expertise to quickly change work tactics, aid customers, and still double down on diversity and green strategies.

jimmy ng dbs bank
Credit: DBS Bank

DBS Bank, a Singaporean multinational banking and financial services corporation, is the largest bank in Southeast Asia by assets and among the larger banks in Asia. It has been investing in digitalisation for years, but saw a significant payoff in 2020 as the digital efforts helped the bank adapt to pandemic-induced uncertainties by strengthening their resilience so that they could continue delivering best-in-class service to their customers in their time of need.

In this interview, Jimmy Ng, group CIO at DBS, explains how his team faced the pandemic and how their preparedness saw them through the crisis, to the benefit of customers, employees, and the bank’s stakeholders. Those efforts garnered DBS Bank a CIO 100 US award in 2021, the latest of several CIO 100 US and CIO50 ASEAN awards the bank has won over the years.

CIO ASEAN: When the pandemic hit the region and the world, what was your first reaction as a CIO?

Ng: In the early days of the COVID-19 crisis, it was difficult to predict the severity of the pandemic as the situation was evolving and information was scarce. In hindsight it is clear, but where we were then, we were trying to make sense of how severe the situation was and how long this outbreak would last.

The pivotal moment was when the Chinese authorities locked down Wuhan province just days prior to the Chinese New Year. We knew then it was serious, and we activated our business continuity plan for China.

CIO ASEAN: How did the bank’s investments in digitalization pay off in the face of pandemic-induced uncertainties?

Ng: In many ways, COVID-19 tested the readiness of both the hardware and ‘heartware’ of organisations. We could respond nimbly because of our modern technology stack, enterprise adoption of agile, and two-in-a-box platform-based organisational structure, where business and technology groups work together as equal partners.

The marrying of technology and culture—the way we operate—did not happen overnight. As early as 2014, we recognised that technology is a competitive advantage. We insourced our technology capability to build up our tech DNA. So when the pandemic struck, we found ourselves in the unique position of being a technology company and of using our technology prowess that we built up over the decade to deal with the crisis.

CIO ASEAN: What were the first few steps you took as a CIO when the pandemic hit home, both for employees and your customers?

Ng: The safety of our employees has always been a top priority for DBS. Right from the start of the pandemic, we brought our technology and data capabilities to bear in enhancing the safety of our employees at the workplace.

Our early adoption of the cloud and our mobility-first strategy was a boon when we transited to home-based working arrangements. Over 90% of our workforce were already using laptops. Owing to our flexible private cloud infrastructure and ability to increase the virtual private network (VPN) and virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) capacity at short notice, we pivoted quickly with almost no loss of productivity.

We achieved a first in managing production continuity, with 100% of our developers working from home. At the same time, to enable our employees to work securely from home, our security controls were as stringent as the controls for our customers with our “Inside is the New Outside” strategy. Advanced security solutions such as web isolation and content sanitation enabled us to scale up our infrastructure safely and securely. We further heightened our security monitoring and staff awareness through initiatives such as CYBRFIT, a gamified campaign.

CIO ASEAN: What were the crucial technologies that helped you and your team in this time of crisis?

Ng: We also leveraged our data infrastructure, analytics capabilities, and reusable library of artificial intelligence/machine learning models to develop a contact-tracing app for employees in just three days. This came in handy when we had our first COVID-19 infection case in Singapore. We were able to contact trace the close contacts of our colleagues and customers to provide assistance immediately. For our staff who continued to work in office, we used sensor technology and data analytics to monitor the density of people in our workplace and ensure adherence to safe-distancing measures.

For our customers, we worked closely with the local authorities to fast-track relief measures. For instance, to allay our customers’ anxiety, we configured chatbots to guide them in applying for COVID-19 relief measures during Singapore’s Circuit Breaker period. We also accelerated the rollout of DBS DigiDocs to enable corporate customers in Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and China to initiate transactions and submit supporting documents digitally. Customers need not visit bank branches or offices to submit paper-based supporting documents, which was especially useful for our corporate customers to perform their banking transactions.

To support the community, we launched the S$10.5 million Stronger Together Fund to provide meals, care packs, and medical supplies across the region.

Concurrently, we have been strengthening our capabilities by changing how we operated our infrastructure and applications. We leveraged site reliability engineering (SRE) principles to build stable systems efficiently and deliver quickly. Taking a leaf out of the Netflix Chaos Engineering playbook and building upon it, we created Wreckoon, a self-service testing tool designed to test the resilience of applications in development. All these have enabled the creation of scalable and highly reliable applications and systems even with the multiple-fold volume increase in online channels throughout the COVID-19 period.

CIO ASEAN: What are the new technologies that DBS is betting on and investing heavily in for a postpandemic ‘new normal’?

Ng: 5G and other emerging technologies will play an outsized role in a postpandemic world. In preparation for the 5G era, we conducted end-to-end tests of our contactless ATMs and video teller machines (VTMs). The 5G contactless ATM combines different technologies that eliminates the need for physical cables and so can be placed anywhere. With contactless VTMs, our customers can be authenticated via facial verification using biometric data, instead of an ATM card or PIN number.

While we continue experimenting with new technologies and finding ways to meaningfully integrate them into our technology ecosystem, our focus this year will be to advance to the next stage of our digital transformation—from establishing our foundation to now industrialising our capabilities at scale across our enterprise.

Take for example, artificial intelligence and machine learning. Last year, we launched our own in-house stable and scalable data infrastructure, ADA (Advancing DBS with AI), with the capacity to handle high volumes of data. ADA is an enterprisewide, self-service platform to empower every employee of DBS to use data and AI, with inherent capabilities of data ingestion, security, storage, governance, visualisation, and analytics. We have also created a library of reusable assets for AI/machine learning models and analytics to reduce time and effort in delivering machine learning deployment and shortening the deployment life cycle. This sets the stage for DBS to move towards customer-driven, hyperpersonalised banking and service recommendations for both corporate and retail customers.

We will also continue to ramp up our adoption of blockchain technologies to shape the future of banking. In the past year, DBS became the first Asian bank partner on AntChain’s blockchain trade platform, Trusple, and was the first Singapore bank to join Contour’s global ecosystem of banks and partners to drive greater efficiencies in trade. We also leveraged blockchain to launch DBS Digital Exchange, an integrated ecosystem for fundraising through asset tokenisation and the secondary trading of digital assets.

CIO ASEAN: What steps have you taken as a tech leader to ensure diversity in your team?

Ng: At DBS, building an diversity and inclusion is an important priority for the bank’s sustainability agenda, as part of our responsible business practices. We believe that having a diverse, inclusive workforce is a powerful lever for performance. Organisationally, embracing diversity allows us to tap into a wider talent pool and have a multiplicity of views and perspectives, which are important when innovation becomes a key differentiator.

To help build a more diverse technology workforce, we are proactively building pipelines of female talent, strengthening awareness on gender diversity, and creating more supportive work environments through flexible work arrangements.

Let me cite an example. We launched our Hack2Hire hackathon in 2017 to identify and bring in top technology talent to strengthen our capabilities in areas such as AI, machine learning, cloud computing, and big data. However, we noticed that women comprised only about 5% of applicants. To address this, we launched Hack2Hire-Her in 2019, to specifically reach out to female technology talent. As a result, the proportion of applications from women rose to 30%, with the number of offers made to women also jumping about five times over the same period.

In 2020, despite the pandemic, we launched a new hiring initiative to reach out to women for technology jobs in Singapore. We called this DBS Women in Technology, and it was DBS’s first-ever woman-focused fully virtual career fair for technologists in Singapore. We received more than 500 applications from 16 countries for about 50 positions.

CIO ASEAN: How do you want to dial up on DBS’s sustainability agenda?

Ng: We approach sustainability holistically and are guided by a deep sense of purpose. Accordingly, we have come up with a sustainability programme rather than couching it as a CSR [corporate social responsibility] afterthought. We thought about sustainability around three pillars.

First, responsible banking. How do we make sure that the nature of banking is responsible? This includes responsible financing in our lending, as well as financial inclusion, to be there for those who need banking services the most. For example, to bring migrant workers into the formal banking system, from April to June 2020 we accelerated the opening of almost 60,000 bank accounts for migrant workers, so that they could bank digitally and transfer funds to their home countries with ease.

As part of continued efforts to tackle climate change and work towards a lower-carbon future, DBS is the first Singapore bank to commit to zero thermal-coal exposure by 2039. We raised our sustainable finance target to S$50 billion by 2024, to help customers incorporate sustainable business practices into their overall business strategy.

Second, responsible business practices. We do our best to manage our direct environmental footprint, and this includes tapping on renewable energy sources and greening our procurement processes. We have committed to ensure net-zero operational carbon emissions across the bank by 2022 and continue to reduce the bank’s carbon footprint while advancing our sustainable procurement agenda.

At DBS, we believe that diversity and inclusion are sources of strength. By building diversity in our workforce, we can access a greater range of talent that bring with them varied and valuable experiences, perspectives, and skills so that we can collectively create impactful outcomes for our customers and communities.

And third, creating social impact. How do we be a force for good to get other stakeholders to share the notion that business has a dual bottom line? This helps make sustainability sustainable, in getting like-minded people and communities to collectively drive a multistakeholder agenda.

Our sustainability pillars are very well-embedded across the bank, and are quite literally part of our DNA, in the way we work and do business.

In these challenging times, the “social” aspect of ESG [environment, social, and governance] has been brought to the fore, and we feel it is incumbent upon us as Southeast Asia’s largest bank to demonstrate our purpose and relevance by lending a helping hand to our customers and the public at large.

Last May, notwithstanding the economic downturn caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, we committed to hiring over 2,000 people in Singapore. As a key employer in Singapore, it seemed right to us to not just continue with hiring for business-as-usual activities but also to actively create new jobs where we can. This included new jobs in the areas of UX/UI, data science, fraud-detection compliance, and consumer and institutional banking technology.

We also dialled up the “environmental” part of our sustainability agenda, including increasing our solar production capacity by over 50% through three new regional solar installations, bringing us closer to our RE100 aspiration of using 100% renewable energy in Singapore by 2030. We are primed to build back better and stronger while delivering a differentiated customer experience. And together, we will create a more resilient and better future for all of us.