How a Singapore bank stands out on the world stage with innovation

A chat with DBS Chief Innovation Officer Neal Cross

Conversations around banking and innovation these days hardly pass without a mention of DBS, the biggest bank in Singapore and South-east Asia.

The early results of its digital transformation – but one facet of innovation – already show massive promise. DBS has moved to the top of industry rankings for customer satisfaction scores today from being last in 2010, while profits have more than doubled over the same period to hit a record S$4.39 billion (US$3.2 billion) in 2017.

Since joining the bank in 2014, Chief Innovation Officer (CIO) Neal Cross has played an integral role in championing the innovation agenda, even earning the title of the world’s “Most Disruptive CIO”. He sat down in a fireside chat with EDB to talk about what it takes for a traditional financial services player to jump on the bandwagon of technology, digitalisation and change.


Q: One of the biggest challenges for many big firms is bringing experiments to scale. How do you align that with the leadership at DBS to make a dent in the core business?

A: We’re more innovation people than technologists.

We go to the business and ask what problems they are facing. Then we put together some programmes, get some of their staff involved and invite a few start-ups, and we coach them through creating their own solution. DBS’ Innovation Group is quite different from others. For one, we don’t invent any products or services, nor do we tell our colleagues what they should do. Instead, we teach them the lean methodology and how to work in an agile way so they create their own solutions. They end up with more ownership, and of course they’ll implement it because it’s theirs. Innovation is the job of all 26,000 people – all the staff at DBS.

If you were at DBS and said, “I am not doing innovation, this is a stupid idea,” it would affect your career. That’s the change we have made. The wind is only blowing one way, which means you must innovate.


Q: What was your biggest challenge in getting DBS to innovate?

A: The biggest thing was rebuilding the brand of the innovation group. The group did not have a leader for a long time after the last innovation leader left, so they were pretty uninspired, and not many people were interested in listening to what the innovation group had to say. The biggest thing was changing that perception. After doing an interview with our local paper The Straits Times, senior leaders started to approach my team and me to collaborate.

Many corporates are guilty of micromanaging, scolding their employees and bad leadership. So I do four things for my team, the most important of which is to provide protection – like a cultural bubble. If my team goes out and they start some fires, upset some people, I take the blame. If someone complains, I apologise. I’m the leader, it’s my fault, end of subject. My team gets protection.

Secondly, inspiration. From day one, I said we’re going to be the world’s most innovative bank. People used to laugh, but now they don’t. All I need is everyone in the bank to give their best work. I need them to realise we’re at a pivotal point in the finance industry, if you want to do innovation and finance, DBS is the place in the world at this moment to do that.

Third, education. There is a lot to learn in sales, and I teach my team how to sell, pitch, and influence people inside the organisation.

Fourth, freedom. I am the opposite of a micromanager. I’ve let smart people make mistakes, then come back for some coaching. Anyone in my team can also come up with an idea, a concept, and we can implement it as a programme.


Q: How has DBS redefined how it works with stakeholders and partners?

A: We have a lot more partners now and there’s a lot of co-innovation, which is a big change for us. It’s about getting the bank to realise that the services it provides is part of a broader ecosystem. Nobody wakes up and goes, “Ah, I really can’t wait to do that payment today.” They go, “I want to take my wife out for dinner because I’ve done something bad and I need to make up for it.” So taxi, restaurant bookings – with digibank you can do that. We’re part of an overall system that involves ecosystem partners.

Being the biggest in Singapore – a big fish in a small pond – is not that impressive. It’s good, but the trouble is when you think you’re big, that’s when you don’t innovate, and you set yourself up to be wiped out. Lots of external forces are at work, threatening finance in a new way. We used to compete with other banks, but now we have to compete against the likes of Grab, Alibaba, Tencent and others. We may be the biggest fish in this pond, but there are bigger ponds and bigger fishes – and they are jumping from pond to pond. So it’s good to have that underdog mindset – to always try to do things, be agile, be experimental, which is something we have moved towards over the years.


Q: What should Singapore’s policy posture be like in balancing innovation and protection?

A: There are always two sides to regulation: one to protect the customers, and the other to drive market development and innovation. One says yes and the other says no. It’s a tough challenge because regulators are trying to drive innovation and change, but the side that regulates and protects cannot move that fast.

Sometimes, the best thing for regulators to do is not get involved. That’s how London did so well with FinTech. Standing back and watching, letting people experiment, putting in place things like sandboxes is good.


Q: Everyone is talking about technology, but how fast are we really moving towards artificial intelligence (AI) eliminating jobs? What is hype and what is reality?

A: I’m of the optimistic view that AI will give us superpowers. We’ll all be super-humans. I don’t mean that we can fly, I just mean we would be 10 times more productive.

Here’s how it could work in five years. You enter the office, open up your laptop, and it goes:

“Hey Neal, you’ve got 10 emails. Eight of them are work emails, I’ve already answered them for you, and you’ve got one email from your wife. Just to remind you, her birthday is tomorrow. I saw you looking at this gift on Amazon, do you want me to buy that for you? This email is from your boss; he’s asking you to do a presentation on AI. I’ve gone to the websites you usually go to, and I’ve got a draft presentation for you ready. Also, you’ve got these Skype messages, I’ve answered most of them as well.”

About three quarters of the work is now done, and you can focus on starting other projects.

The foolish companies will be getting rid of staff, the smart ones will be getting great talent and turning them into super-productive staff. At DBS, a lot of people are being retrained as more stuff gets automated. People are doing more high-value jobs.

Machines should be there to augment, not replace us. I like what Jack Ma said on this: Why did we get a computer to beat us at Go? We love playing Go. Why did we ruin it? Computers should be doing stuff we can’t do. We should be putting AI on some real problems, like stopping deforestation, finding a cure for cancer – matters we cannot resolve at the moment.


Source: EDB