Reinventing a 50-Year-Old Corporate Culture

Reinventing a 50-Year-Old Corporate Culture

A conversation with Su Shan Tan, Group Head of Institutional Banking, DBS

“Banking as we know it is dead,” Su Shan Tan, Group Head of Institutional Banking at DBS, told the audience during her TED Talk in 2013. “When’s the last time you went to a bank? Spoke to a bank manager? Signed a check?” Since then, Su Shan has been at the forefront of transforming DBS, the 53-year old, Singapore-based institution, into a digital bank. The transformation has included putting the customer at the center of the banking experience and making services so seamless and intuitive that they “disappear” into customers’ lives – from everyday tasks like paying for transportation and groceries to the big ones like digitizing trade documents during the pandemic. And the work appears to be paying off. In the past three years, DBS has been named “World’s Best Bank” by Euromoney, The Banker, and Global Finance. Scott Mullins, Managing Director of Worldwide Financial Business and Marketing Development at AWS, spoke with Su Shan about customer-centered innovation, changing a company’s culture, and celebrating failure.

Joyful banking is no longer an oxymoron

“Joyful banking” is no longer an oxymoron

Scott Mullins: How is DBS using digital innovation to improve the customer banking experience?

Su Shan Tan: In the past, people hated going to banks. It was painful, worse than going to the dentist. So, we started thinking, “How do we make that journey less painful?” That’s how we came up with the concept of joyful banking. We thought this might be an oxymoron, but it was really to bring the customer experience to the forefront and make it a happy one. When we started creating our digital platform, we set up the Human-Centered Design laboratory, where we had customers come in and play with our new apps. We watched to see if they could find stuff on the menu bar and whether they got upset if they couldn’t find what they wanted straight away. The key was figuring out what they wanted, so we could get the customer immersion right.

The secret to digital transformation? Think like the world’s best technology companies. DBS set out to:

  • Build bank technology using open source like Google
  • Run like Amazon (iterate in seconds)
  • Use automation like Netflix (be intuitive)
  • Design like Apple
  • Be a learning organization like LinkedIn
  • Connect like Facebook

From Su Shan Tan’s keynote at the Singapore FinTech Festival, September 2018

Creating a new meeting MOJO

Creating a new meeting MOJO

Scott Mullins: You’ve said the hardest part of DBS’s digital transformation has been changing the culture. How do you do that in a 53-year-old company with 29,000 employees?

Su Shan Tan: With a firm this old and this big, you have to create new rituals that anyone can follow. For example, we have meeting MOJOs. The “MO” is the meeting organizer, who is responsible for ensuring the meeting is a good one, and the “JO” is the joyful observer. That’s someone who looks around the meeting and says, “Hey, MO, you’ve been talking a lot, and I think you should open the floor to people who haven’t said anything yet.” Then we have the “WRECKOON,” which is someone who’s going to wreck an idea. So you say, “I’m going to be a WRECKOON here,” and we say, “Okay, here we go, wreck it!” This makes it okay to ask dumb questions, disagree with the boss, and experiment and fail. All these little rituals slowly but surely changed the bank culture by changing the way we think and work.

Scott Mullins: How did the changes in culture and push for greater experimentation help DBS respond to COVID-19?

Su Shan Tan: We were one of the first banks to have a COVID case in Singapore. The first step was to get everyone home and safe. Then we had to look after our customers. Our people and tech business partners went into overdrive and rolled out products, with support of the AWS cloud, in just six weeks that would have typically taken a year to develop. Things like trade documents, which have always been paper-based, were digitized in record time.

DBS’s 3 steps to digital transformation

  1. Restack the technology—move from monolithic legacy systems to microservices in the cloud.
  2. Put the customer at the center—use data and settings like DBS’s Human Centered Design laboratory to figure out what customers want.
  3. Create a start-up culture—use rituals to shake up company meetings, challenge ideas, and celebrate failure.

When China had issues with trade disruption, we were one of the first to bring in Optical Character Recognition (OCR) and digitize all the trade documents so medical supplies like personal protective equipment could get in and out. It was a quick pivot. But if you’re agile and open to experimentation, magic happens.


Safe experimentation and the upside of failure

Safe experimentation and the upside of failure

Scott Mullins: How do you make it safer to experiment and fail?

Su Shan Tan: In Singapore, we have a concept called kiasu, which means scared to fail. We thought about how we could overcome that deep cultural mindset and said, “Heck, why don’t we celebrate failure?” So we came up with the Dare to Fail and Dare to Ask for Money awards. When something failed spectacularly, we asked the team, “What did we learn from it? How can we get better next time?”

Scott Mullins: What are some things you’ve tried that didn’t work?

Su Shan Tan: In 2014, my team wanted to use artificial intelligence (AI) to create a recommendation engine for our wealth management clients. We experimented internally and with clients, but getting the machine to answer questions like, “Should I buy Tesla or Apple stock?” or “Where is the dollar going?” was difficult because the answers had to be contextual. It had to fit with what the customer wanted, and we didn’t know if the answers would be right or wrong. We didn’t roll it out to customers, but we allowed the experiment to happen because the team learned so much about machine learning and AI. That same team is now helping us apply machine learning to data analytics.

Watch Su Shan Tan TED Talk on the evolving nature of banking
 Watch Su Shan Tan’s TED Talk on the evolving nature of banking

Watch Su Shan Tan’s TED Talk on the evolving nature of banking

The courage to have career conversations

The courage to have career conversations

Scott Mullins: Throughout your career, you’ve been proactive about helping women succeed in the banking industry, including founding the Financial Women’s Association of Singapore in 2001. What advice would you give women aspiring to leadership?

Su Shan Tan: I would encourage women to manage their career trajectories more, to not be afraid to have conversations with their seniors like, “How am I doing? What do I need to do to get to the next level? How can I use the flexible work arrangements but stay on the career ladder?” My CEO and chairman are great advocates for women’s leadership. We have more women than men at DBS and a high share of women at the top. It’s making it easier for women to move up in their careers while balancing family commitments. So I’m lucky and grateful for that.


About our guests

Su Shan Tan
Group Head of Institutional Banking, DBS

Su Shan Tan is Group Head of Institutional Banking at DBS, where she also serves as President Commissioner for PT Bank DBS Indonesia. She previously led Consumer Banking and Wealth Management at DBS for nearly a decade. From 2012 to 2014, she also served as a member of Singapore’s Parliament. Prior to joining DBS, Su Shan was Morgan Stanley’s Head of Private Wealth Management for Southeast Asia. The Asset recently named Su Shan one of six women likely to shape Asia’s banking industry. She is also the founder president of the Financial Women’s Association in Singapore, a non-profit that helps develop and mentor women in banking.

Scott Mullins, Head of Worldwide Financial Services Business Development, AWS

Scott Mullins
Head of Worldwide Financial Services Business Development, AWS

Scott Mullins is the Head of Worldwide Financial Services Business Development at Amazon Web Services (AWS), where he is responsible for leading the development and execution of AWS’s strategic initiatives in the financial services industry around the world. Prior to joining AWS in 2014, Scott’s 20 year career in financial services included roles at JPMorgan Chase, Nasdaq, Merrill Lynch, and Penson Worldwide.

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