DBS Case Study

Victor Leung
8 min readMar 4


The motivation of DBS for the second phase of future-ready digital transformation is to fight back as an existing incumbent against the challenging fintech companies. They need to adapt to the profound change in the banking industry driven by the powerful change of technology. They are under threat by many new fintech companies powered by cloud computing, which are disrupting their traditional value chain.

DBS as an incumbent in the banking industry is under threat to be disrupted by the new startups and big technology companies entering into fintech. The degree of disruption is uncertain, so the bank has to respond by entering the second phase of digital transformation to prepare for it. It was not easy and quoting Piyush Gupta once said, “The second stage was tougher because no one knew what a digital bank should look like.”

The paradigm shift is a partnership mindset and changing how the bank works with partners. In the old way of thinking, it was a vendor relationship, where DBS would ask others to follow what they said. However, in the new way of thinking, DBS is looking to go hand in hand with partners, learn with them and grow with them. The key to successful digital transformation lies in collaboration and DBS is working to build a digital ecosystem.

One of the great example partners is Microsoft. DBS leadership asked this partner for help on the digital transformation journey and embracing digital tools. The bank could not be successful without collaborating with Microsoft. Being a traditional bank, they were nervous move to the cloud. In the old model, banks would probably be only looking for an exclusive vendor and asked them to follow what they said.

However, the paradigm has shifted, the bank was not only looking into the product, but also the people and the partner’s practices. They have been investing in the right process and in the right people, creating good synergy between both companies, breaking silos and learning from each other, both team benefit and got lifted by sharing. It’s not about services, but also about the people. Working with a good partner, not only vendors, is the key to success.

This paradigm has significant changes in DBS from a bilateral relationship with customers to a partner organisation. Today, DBS is always open to partners and has partnerships with all kinds of people. It has partnerships for customer acquisition, credit underwriting and creating new value propositions.

When launching and expanding business in a new market, such as Indonesia and India, DBS was actively looking for partnerships, such as telco and large taxi companies, and making the value exchange works between partners. In Singapore, DBS launched a property marketplace, and electricity marketplace and partnered with existing so players so that they do not have to re-create stuff. They can have decent value exchange and actively work with all kinds of partners. Through collaboration through innovative partnerships and a thriving ecosystem, DBS continue to move forward in the digital transformation journey.

Firms of the future

DBS’s future has to be built on a solid foundation, they have to be digital to the core and have a rock-solid foundation of core systems that it could build on. They invested a lot in the first phase of the digital transformation journey to get the basic IT infrastructure ready. This good infrastructure allows the bank to move fast in the future, as they stand on a firm foundation. And the stable platform accelerates its speed to market.

Just like digitisation is a good stepping stone towards digital transformation, re-architecture the backend is a necessary step to move forward. This goes beyond putting on “digital lipstick”, it had to become digital to the core, changes from the backend to middleware to the frontend. The bank was not looking for instant success, but to spend time building the infrastructure. It makes IT not the impediment but it enables the bank.

The firm has transformed itself into a software company and becoming more and more digital by moving their product and services digitally. The bank partner with other software companies, such as pivotal, engage them and learn the way how they build software, such as pair programming and test drive development methodology.

They were adopting the partner software into their infrastructure. It enables the bank to have a new capability, saving time on non-functional requirements, such as autoscaling and auto-healing, and it empowers DBS’s developers. A good infrastructure is an enabler for firms of the future. The bank can trust what it’s standing. Firms of the future are building in a way that has a solid foundation.

As DBS Bank’s previous Chief Information Officer, David Gledhill once said, “If we want to be digital to the core and act like a technology company, it’s best we learn from the technology greats, figure out how they do it and see if we can’t bring in some of those things internally”. He was learning from Jeff Bezos and DBS continues to operate like a technology organisation.

Customer of the future

Customers’ behaviour has been changing rapidly and moving into the digital world. Customers of the future do not pay for products, they pay for value. And value is created when they pay for service. As DBS is not just a bank and were being a technology company, they need to communicate its values, such that the market can give the valuation reflects on what they do.

DBS are adopting design thinking on the customer journey and delivering value via digital banking. It embeds itself in the customer journey and pushes customer-journey thinking throughout the organisation. They use design thinking for the customer journey and provide new products and services that could not be done before without technology. Smartphones with location data and utilising big data could make a more joyful banking experience in order to stay relevant in the market and win the competition.

Besides, DBS has to listen to feedback from customers, even though customers may not be always right. They have to listen because customers who complain are the ones who would want to come back. The customer only complains if they come back again and want to see the bank improvement. To be successful, they must be open to learning, accepting that there could be some failures, be quick to learn from them and continuously improve.

Digitalisation is more than just technology, it is about solving business problems — identifying customer frustrations and friction points and asking how technology can help drive the business forward to better serve customers of the future.

Workforce of the future

DBS has to stay nimble for the workforce of the future. At DBS, they think of themselves as a 22,000-person startup. They were changing the culture of the company to make it feel and operate like a start-up. They create a culture of a software company with a mindset of speed and agility.

The workspace of the future would be more flexible and focus on business. It would be able experient faster and be fluent with launching. They could release more frequently and deliver value faster to the customer. They have to fail fast, fail cheap and keep with the startup mentality. Test and learn, test and learn, test and learn was the only way they could get into a brand-new market with a product because they had simply no idea how it was going to operate when they launched it.

In the employee scorecards, other than the traditional financial metrics, customer metrics, shareholder values and revenue, there were 20% allocations to the core of the digital transformation, which is used to drive compensation. There are also 40% on driving strategic initiatives that need to get done. The scorecards make it clear for everyone in the workforce to know what the mission is.

The operating metrics have been able to translate into a valuation model, such that the banking analyst can understand the digital transformation effort. The shift of mindset and drive through the organization is what could set the workforce of the future apart from the competition.

The CEO handle organisation redesign

Piyush Gupta was serving as the chief executive officer of DBS. He implemented digital transformation with a top-down approach. From the top and making sure everyone below is thinking in the same way. He made direct reports to deliver the result with the leadership team in one team as digital thinking was embedded into the management fabric.

He made every top direct report on a customer journey and take end-to-end ownership. By embedding that digital DNA into the KPIs and scorecards that everybody’s measured by, he could drive results by making sure it’s continually reinforced by the CEO and the leadership team down. The KPI for all of his direct reports with about 300 people is that they must either own an employee journey or a customer journey.

Meanwhile, the leadership team size was kept to be a manageable size, otherwise more people could become non-functional. Piyush Gupta does not need to be an expert in the know-how of software development, instead, he was the architect of the organisation and handle organisation redesign. Without the CEO driven from the top down, the digital transformation would not have happened successfully.

He is the one who has the vision to act less like a bank and more like a tech company. To drive transformation at scale, he attacks the core and makes it mainstream. Even though it’s daunting, he was a firm believer that one needs to create change in the company-wide culture.

By shifting DBS culture, which has traditionally been highly hierarchical, he was able to build a start-up culture with comfort in sharing different points of view and the willingness to ask tough questions. In their transformation journey, this is something he wanted DBS employees to embrace. He was able to create psychological safety such that DBS employees would be comfortable with voicing dissent. He also encourages a culture of experimentation and risk-taking.

As a CEO, he would also be able to persuade the board and senior management to align around the new approach. He could find a balance between short-term results and investment in the long term, which may mean compromising short-term financials. However, the digital transformation effort was converted into a measurable and visible revenue impact in a positive way.

DBS has prepared itself for the future of banking

DBS has prepared itself by embarking on the digital transformation journey, which started in 2014. They are increasing think of themselves as a technology company offering financial services and less of a traditional bank. They have been hiring more engineers than bankers and shifted into a technology company.

Traditional banks tend to be not nimble, their technology tends to be backward and burdened by the legacy system. DBS has been working on those changes to address them. They are no longer limited by technology but are good enough with it. Even though it may still rely on the legacy core using mainframe technology, it’s good enough that let them win the best bank in the world award. They have been recognised as the world’s best digital bank by Euromoney in 2016, 2018 and 2021, because of the shift of their DNA.

“Our strategy of being digital to the core, embedding ourselves in the customer journey and operating with a start-up culture has transformed DBS into a force to be reckoned with in the technology arena,” says Jimmy Ng, group chief information officer and head of technology & operations, DBS.

The banks of tomorrow will be very different from the banks of today. The future could be branchless, paperless, and cashless. It could be tokenised asset using distributed ledger technology. There are also emerging fields such as artificial intelligence, 5G, the metaverse and digital twin technology. No matter what would be the emerging technology, DBS has prepared itself by shifting its DNA to embrace them. The bank spends the effort to build a robust and scalable foundation on infrastructure that has prepared itself, and it could harness emerging technologies to offer new banking solutions.

Originally published at https://victorleungtw.com on March 4, 2023.



Victor Leung

I write about business, technology and personal development