Turning a bank into an innovation lab: DBS' digital transformation journey

How do you foster a culture of innovation in an organisation that has more than 20,000 employees?

For Mr Neal Cross, Chief Innovation Officer at DBS Bank, the key is to ensure that innovation is not just "owned" by a single unit or entity, but extended to the entire organisation.

"Many people are trying to develop innovation by establishing specific innovation units or innovation labs, but most of them are structured wrongly," he told AsiaOne in an interview at the bank's headquarters at the Marina Bay Financial Centre.

He elaborated that many innovation units are focused on inventing or developing new products, which often may not take into account actual problems or challenges that are faced by the business or their customers.

Mr Cross pointed out that DBS' innovation group, which has grown from three to about 20 staff, is different in a number of ways, not least in the fact that one of its foremost principles is: No inventing.

"We don't invent products or services. Instead, an executive within the bank will bring us a problem, and from there our focus will be to give them the right tool kits or mindsets, and train them up with certain methodologies, such as lean startup and human-centred design.

"This way, we can ensure that the solutions that are developed will actually be able to help the business and improves our customers' lives," he remarked.

What's more, while most innovation teams are usually staffed by technology people and business experts, none of these are to be found within DBS' innovation group.

Said Mr Cross: "You won't find tech people or bankers, because I already have 22,000 of those here at DBS. But what I do need are people to fill the gap, in particular people who will be able to run the training programmes and workshops that we conduct."

The objective of all this is to make the whole organisation more experimental and "scientific" in producing solutions for customers.

For instance, a key initiative that the innovation group has introduced is the incorporation of hackathons to drive their staff's talent development programme. Last year, more than 2,000 of the bank's employees were put through hackathons with startups and human-centred design workshops, in which about 1,000 prototypes were developed.

Participants in one of DBS' hackathons. In 2015 more than 2,000 of the bank's employees were put through hackathons, in which about 1,000 prototypes were developed.

Another tangible outcome of DBS' digital transformation journey include the development of DBS digibank, India's first mobile-only bank that allows customers there to access bank services from their smartphones or tablets without having to visit a physical branch.

"In the process of developing digibank, the innovation group took the India team through many hackathons and design thinking workshops," Mr Cross said.

A screengrab of DBS digibank, India's first mobile-only bank.

The bank has also increased its partnerships with local startups with its HotSpot pre-accelerator programme. The six-month programme allows startups in fintech, social enterprise and digital technology as well as innovators within the bank to get advice from entrepreneurs, pitch their business ideas to executives, develop their product and seek funding.

Participants at DBS' HotSpot pre-accelerator programme.

The push for innovation is even extended to the very highest levels. Mr Cross reveals that one of the key performance indicators for the financial institution's managing directors (some 250 of the bank's senior leadership) is to run at least one customer journey roadmap with their teams to improve an existing function or service faced by the bank's customers.

"This means trying to become a customer that is going through a journey, such as a mortgage application, and then trying to understand the process they go through and improving it so that it becomes as friction-free as possible," he explained.

Mr Cross, who joined DBS in 2014, admits that it has been a challenge to change the culture and mindsets in a large Asian bank, but said that his target is to establish it as the most innovative bank in the world.

He also pointed to a growing number of partnerships with government agencies and schools in Singapore as evidence that DBS' innovation efforts are gaining recognition.

DBS' HotSpot programme allows startups and innovators within the bank to get advice from entrepreneurs and pitch their business ideas to executives.

The ultimate goal, he adds, is to turn the whole bank into its own innovation group, and enable an organisation as large as DBS to combine the culture of a tech company like Google together with the nimbleness of a start-up.

"Our role is to get the rest of the bank to innovate, and over time the hope is that there will no longer be a need for an innovation group," he said.