How DBS became the 'world's best bank' through digital transformation

DBS's Soh Siew Choo explains how behind three global best bank awards lie the adoption of an agile startup culture and the leverage of emerging technologies

Soh Siew Choo (DBS Bank) speaking during the opening keynote of IBM Think 2019 in Singapore
IBM

Most hardened marketing executives would argue that for a bank, the tagline of ‘Live more, Bank less’, goes against core business objectives.

Shouldn’t the plan centre around driving utilisation through luring customers onto platforms or through the door into branches? Shouldn’t banking be an important daily or weekly function embedded into everyday life?

Perhaps more than 50 years ago, when DBS Bank first launched, such an approach would suffice.

Granted, the tagline is the product of an opening rebrand investment of S$30 million, but underneath the campaign lies a truth – DBS is a digital bank.

“In order to remain relevant, we need to re-imagine banking, and to do that, we must make the lives of our customers simple,” affirmed Soh Siew Choo, Managing Director and Group Head of Consumer Banking and Big Data, AI Technology, at DBS.

With net profit totalling S$5.63 billion, DBS operates across 18 markets, housing more than 27,000 employees and S$551 billion in total assets.

The accumulation of such healthy financials came through a shift in focus amid plans to build out a digitalisation strategy from the ground up.

According to Siew Choo, who recently spoke during the opening keynote of IBM Think 2019 in Singapore, DBS excelled through aligning to three core principles and priorities.

“Firstly, you need to be willing to re-platform your architecture,” Siew Choo said. “You must change your system from front to bank, moving away from the systems that you used to have, that are more than 50 years old.

“Our systems ranged from mainframe to the latest cloud systems, and 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.”

Secondly, Siew Choo cited the importance of creating an internal culture capable of facilitating such change.

“We believe this is the most important one,” Siew Choo added. “This is difficult but we have been making a lot of progress and we want to ensure we adopt a startup culture.

“This allows us 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.”

Thirdly, Siew Choo said plans are in place to “embed ourselves” in the journey of the customer, billed as the “most important stakeholder” for the financial services giant.

“To do that, we need to be customer-obsessed,” Siew Choo qualified. “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.

“We have been on this journey for quite some time, the journey is not done yet and we continue to do more to create the best experience for our customers.”

Maximising the power of data

In recognition of digital advancements, DBS became the world's first bank to hold three global best bank honours at the same time.

In 2019, the business was named the World’s Best Bank by Euromoney, following Global Bank of the Year from The Banker, and Best Bank in the World from Global Finance, both in 2018.

“Banks have been big users of data for a long time, we have data warehouses and all the data assets you can name,” Siew Choo added. “But the problem was that we had data silos which prevented us from using data at scale.”

Consequently, in May 2017, DBS assessed how to maximise data and artificial intelligence (AI) at scale within the organisation, creating a way to enable every employee to leverage new and emerging technologies.

“We looked at how we could enable everyone in the bank to be able to use AI, especially to hyper-personalise the experience of the customer,” Siew Choo said. “We then set about looking at the solutions in the market and assessing the state of technologies, architecture and operating models, especially in the technical stream. We looked at every industry, especially in technology.”

Such focus allowed DBS to create a blueprint for its first data platform-as-a-service, under the banner of Ada - named after the world’s first computer programmer.

“Ada stands for ‘Advancing DBS with AI’,” Siew Choo added. “That is our ambition for this platform, we want this to be truly self-service so we can empower every employee of DBS to use data and AI.

“We want every single developer in the bank to become a machine learning engineer having created this platform from an open source solution – we curated the whole solution from scratch within the bank.

“Today it’s serving hundreds of users ranging from data scientists to data engineers and data analysts – we are running many of our AI projects using this platform today. It’s an evolutionary architecture and we continue to make it more relevant and sophisticated in what it can offer.”

Copyright © 2019 IDG Communications, Inc.

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