The Secret to Becoming the World’s Best Digital Bank

Enterprise Architecture (EA) has enabled DBS Bank, the world’s best digital bank, to overcome formidable challenges and stay the course of digital transformation. How do you re-architect one of the largest and safest banks in Southeast Asia to bring even greater value to its customers?

“There’s no silver bullet really,” declared Mr Saket Saith, DBS’ Enterprise Architect and Senior Vice President of Technology for Consumer Banking, at the start of the 15th Architecture Community of Practice Forum where he was invited to share his experience on re-architecting technology in DBS Bank. The Singapore bank was recently named the world’s best digital bank – the first Asian Bank to win in the heavily contested global category – by the prestigious Euromoney Awards for creating a truly digital financial institution.

Steeped in banking traditions, DBS Bank was as old school as financial institutions get. Yet, not only has it managed to stay afloat in the tumultuous digital economy, it has, in fact, thrived. How did it accomplish this herculean feat?

“More than three years ago, we have already noticed the digital shift with the widespread adoption of mobile devices and increased acceptance of online transactions. Customer behaviours and expectations were changing swiftly. Fintech was emerging and threatening to disrupt the traditional financial markets with peer-to-peer lending and other innovative business models. Financial standards and legislations, however, have failed to keep up with the new operating paradigm and many areas of fintech remained poorly regulated, even today,” said Saket.

These megatrends convinced DBS Bank that the banks of tomorrow would operate very differently from those today. Under the leadership of its CEO, Mr Piyush Gupta, the bank charted a fresh course with a new digital agenda to transform the entire organisation into a digital enterprise. 

The success of this digital transformation was apparent. In April 2016, DBS launched digibank, the first mobile-only bank in India. The paperless, signatureless and branchless digital bank leverages a wide range of technology including artificial intelligence and biometrics to transform customers’ banking experience. Numbers also went up significantly in other market segments as more retail, wealth and corporate customers started to convert to digital banking. 

“It was a pervasive effort on three fronts,” said Saket. “We began to change the culture and mindsets of our people, leverage on big data, biometrics and artificial intelligence to simplify banking services for customers, and re-architect the technology infrastructure.”

“We knew the world is rapidly changing and the pace will only accelerate,” he continued. “We knew also that EA can be an anchor to stabilise the organisation in the sea change. The important question is how to effectively make use of architecture to keep ourselves nimble and adaptive amid all the churns and turns.” 
Bringing the Architecture to Enterprise

The first step Saket and his team took was to re-introduce the concept of architecture to the enterprise. “We asked ourselves: What would be the right architecture to support the vision of a digital bank?” Saket recalled. “One of the challenges at that time was to convince management that we need to invest in modern technology to do, what would appear to them, basically the same thing.”

The best way, as Saket had discovered, was to stick with architecture principles, keep the projects simple and relatable to business outcomes and demonstrate the value in economic terms that the management can appreciate. “Show successes. Demonstrate the capabilities and benefits of the architecture regularly, even if the project was still work-in-progress,” he shared. “Be practical and be prepared to compromise so that you can maintain interest and momentum. And don’t sweat the small stuff.”

He cited the call centre as an example. By making the information more accessible and designing the interface to improve the efficiency of the call centre staff, the team was able to show the value proposition clearly in terms of short payback period, productivity gain, man-effort savings and greater customer satisfaction. 
“After we’ve secured the management’s attention, the next step was to ensure timely delivery of the projects and to keep them within budget and scope,” Saket said. He advised to engage the stakeholders frequently and where possible, to enrol them into the projects so that they too can promote and improve the architecture. 

“You know you are getting somewhere when your CEO starts to talk tech, and words like microservices, SOA and API appear in his speeches,” Saket said with a bright smile.

Step 2: Bringing the Enterprise to Architecture

Getting the enterprise to recognise architecture as an effective tool that could bring about new competitive advantage and business excellence was only half the battle won. The next step for Saket was to take the architecture from a project to an enterprise level. To do that, Saket felt that like safety and quality, digital had to become everyone’s business for the transformation to firmly take root and expand in the organisation. 
“Good architecture does not happen by coincidence. You need to work hard at it,” he said. “To successfully scale architecture across the enterprise, besides requiring a good-sized budget, you will need good people to grow capacity.”

DBS Bank had tried to do that by organising hackathons and other experiential learning programmes to promote a digital mindset among its workforce. Piyush himself had famously said that he wanted the 22,000 people in DBS Bank to eventually become 22,000 fintech start-ups.

As for Saket, he believes that the digital era would be characterised by Blue Ocean, blue sky and BHAG – big hairy audacious goals. More opportunities would present themselves as the organisation became savvier digitally. For instance, with architecture aligning the technology structure and processes, DBS Bank was the first Singapore bank to confidently pilot a cloud-based productivity software for its workforce this year. Saket encouraged architects to think big and radically, and to seize the digital opportunity to design technology that would bring real economic value to organisations.
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