Swell 2019: How DBS Group Transformed Into a 20,000+ Person Startup Company


During a time of increased competition from within the banking sector and fintech startups, DBS Group CEO and Director Piyush Gupta helped to usher in a period of digital transformation—bringing the financial institution to the forefront of global banking leadership. At Swell 2019, Gupta shared how a company with over 20,000 employees transformed to operate with the speed and efficiency of a startup and what lies ahead in digital banking. 

Gupta opened his discussion with a bold question, “How do you compete in a new world, where every tech company is going to be able to operate in your space and, frankly, do a much better job than you traditionally do?”

The answer lies in two key insights, according to Gupta. One, embrace the notion that every company has to be a tech company. Two, create a company culture that supports risk-taking. 

Contrary to the common narrative, it is possible for legacy companies to adhere to these insights and make a difference, Gupta explained. “Conventional wisdom, even now received wisdom, is that big legacy companies like us find it very hard to change. We heard that you cannot be DBS and drive change. So, we decided to be contrarian. We figured that in our personal lives, we are all changing, so why do we think that companies can’t change?”

During a visit to New Delhi to see his 80 year-old parents, Gupta saw this personal digital change first-hand through his father who was now banking, paying bills and shopping for clothes all online. This was a reflective moment for Gupta. He explained that changing a company is less about changing the people, and more about transforming the environment to enable change and risk taking. So how do you take these insights and implement innovation?

After meeting with several of the major global tech giants, Gupta walked away with five customer-focused aspects of the company that would require digital transformation and enable the financial institution to operate with the speed and efficiency of a tech company: acquire customers online, transact in real-time, drive sticky customer behaviors, move ecosystems from pipelines to platforms and instill the mindset that “data is the new air.” 

By prioritizing the customer journey in these five ways, Gupta helped DBS implement one of the world’s most comprehensive bank programs—encompassing a complete company culture shift and a measurement framework to quantify the impact of their digital transformation. 

“If you want to really create differentiated change, you’ve got to embrace customer thinking in an extreme way. This requires a rethinking of what the job is and what needs to be done.”

Continuing with the mindset of running DBS like a technology startup company, today the bank applies emerging technologies like blockchain, artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning to meet changing customer demands for faster, more accessible financial services. What technology trends does Gupta see changing the future of digital banking in the coming decade?

“I think we’ve just started scratching the surface of blockchain technology and particularly tokenization. I believe you’ll see the opportunity for larger digital exchanges,” said Gupta. 

He further remarked, “I think blockchain will drive much more process efficiency in supply chain management, for example. We’re already doing that today.”  

We’ll continue to update Insights with more recaps from Swell. Be sure to join the conversation with us on Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook.

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