FinTech Connects… with Paul Cobban, Chief Data and Transformation Officer, DBS Bank

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Paul Cobban needs little introduction, he has been at the centre of transforming DBS to a best in class digital giant. He will be delivering a keynote on December 3rd at FinTech Connect entitled ‘Driving digital transformation through cultural innovation’, definitely a session not to be missed! Hear some of his thoughts here on the future of the industry.


Paul, you’ve had an extensive career being at the heart of digital transformation. That is a term which has a lot of different meanings for a lot of people – how would you define it?

 DBS’ strategic vision today is anchored around three pillars – being digital to the core, being customer obsessed and having a start-up culture. We consistently benchmark ourselves against banks and other technology companies. Inspired by tech companies such as Google, Amazon, Netflix, Apple, LinkedIn, and Facebook, we created our GANDALF strategy where we want to be the ‘D’ in GANDALF. This moniker has been hugely successful in inspiring our people because in order to be digital to the core, we need to have a solid tech foundation and a start-up mindset and culture.  

Our people are the drivers of our transformation journey, and early on we made the conscious choice to bring the entire organisation with us instead of running our transformation through a small innovation group. We have empowered our people and fostered a culture of experimentation and innovation.

We identified five cultural characteristics to drive our digital agenda - agility, customer obsession, learning orientation, data-driven decision making, and experimentation.


What would you see as the state of the global fintech industry in 2019?

Fintechs today continue to attract sizeable investments and we see the emergence of collaboration between incumbent financial institutions and fintech start-ups. Take Singapore as an example – in the first nine months of this year, around SGD 1 billion has been invested into fintech-related deals. According to an Accenture report, this is nearly a 70% increase from the same period last year. These partnerships allow financial institutions to scale innovation by gaining access to the new capabilities and technologies that fintechs bring to the table.

Since its inception in November 2016, our innovation centre DBS Asia X (DAX) has been central to the collaborate with start-ups and the broader fintech community. We use this space to reimagine, inspire and create the future of innovation.

Our business-matching programme, Startup Xchange matches fintechs with teams within the bank as well as SME clients to co-create solutions and address business problems. Based on the bank’s research, 78 per cent of accelerators launched in Singapore over 2016 - 2017 are now defunct, as many start-ups failed without continued support from established sponsors and partners. A 2018 Ernst & Young ASEAN FinTech Census also revealed that less than 39% of fintech companies and start-ups benefitted from fixed tenures at accelerators. Startup Xchange effectively addresses these challenges to ensure sustained support from the collaborations in the programme.

We have collaborated with Singapore start-up to launch JIM our virtual recruiter. Jim reviews resumes, collects applicants’ responses for pre-screening questions, conducts psychometric profiling assessments, and answers questions. In doing so, Jim offers applicants a faster, more streamlined process, with real-time interaction available 24/7, while saving recruiters some 40 man-hours a month. With more time saved, recruiters can focus on other areas of their job, including sourcing for candidates and interviewing applicants. 97% of candidates’ questions can be answered by JIM.

We have also partnered with F&B outlets like Kopi Ong, where the DBS chatbot facilitates the ordering and paying for meals. Food Republic is another partner, DBS customers can use their credit card rewards points to redeem vouchers on the FR Rewards app. We partnered with US based start-up

Wonderful Minds to help our wealth managers build better relationships with their clients through dermatoglyphics neuro-mapping. Most recently, customers can link their DBS PayLah wallet to their palm scan and confirm payment at Octobox by scanning their palms.


Where do you see the innovation coming from? How do you see technology continue to change the way we bank?

AI and big data will continue to have the most profound impact in driving innovation as institutions compete to better align with customer needs and provide hyper-personalised products and services.

The other technology that has the potential to change our lives is blockchain. The de-centralised nature of blockchain and its impact on supply chain is poised to have deep implications on the choices that people, such as our customers, make about how they engage with the world. How they live, where they live and how they purchase goods and services would all change. Financial institutions will need to be prepared to adjust to that.

We also see great potential in innovations that will drive sustainability in the way products are designed to improve the way we live and consume. At DBS, our vision today is to be the Best Bank for a Better World. Our sustainability approach is based on three pillars- Responsible banking, Responsible business practices and Creating social impact. In 2018, we disbursed SGD 2.4 billion in green financing to companies that are innovating around UN SDGs.


What do you think of the recent announcements about Libra? Could this be a game changer?

The biggest challenge to privately backed cryptocurrencies is regulatory. Digital currencies challenge the accepted global structure around the flow of money today, and stoke fears around governance, global trade, money laundering, and so on. This makes it difficult for them to gain traction. However, this also increases the urgency for governments and central banks to get involved in this space and potentially issue digital currencies themselves in a regulated environment.


What is the relationship between challenger banks and the incumbents in the APAC market place?

Unlike Europe, where challenger banks have gathered strength over the past few years, Asia Pacific is still an emergent market. Progressive easing of regulations in Europe have made it easier for challenger banks to get licenses to operate and this has injected healthy competition into the market place. In Asia, we see digital licenses being issued in Singapore and Hong Kong, and we also see many incumbents establishing digital banks. DBS for instance, has digital banks in India and Indonesia. This trend is likely to continue, and we expect to see more competition in the financial space from non-bank entities.


DBS is internationally recognised as being at the vanguard of digital banking. In your role, you have been central to this; how did you make that shift from a traditional banking model?

When I first joined DBS around 10 years ago, a taxi driver I met referred to the bank as ‘damn bloody slow”! That pretty much encapsulated the view that people had about us then. We were even bottom of the customer satisfaction score. To turn the ship around, we launched a series of T-shaped transformations. The horizontal part of the ‘T’ is where we go broad in our transformation and encourage as many people as possible to participate.

This helped to create capability and confidence.  We rewarded people initially just for participating, not for success. So we knew that this would be a slower and more challenging approach. But this ensured that each change we introduced built on the learnings and success of the changes before.

Over the years we have created our transformation around three principles - having a vivid picture of the future, creating a climate for cultural and mindset change and empower our people to experiment and innovate. At the heart of it all, it is our commitment to customer obsession and fulfilled employees to make banking joyful for them.


What were the driving forces behind it? Did you set out a plan or has it been more reactive to the industry as a whole?

One of the key driving forces behind our transformation was an enlightened, supportive and engaged leadership. With our CEO Piyush Gupta leading the way, we had the permission and the space to experiment in order to drive innovation. As I alluded earlier, our decision to involve the entire organization in the transformation was critical to our success.

We started by trying to fix processes through PIEs (Process Improvement Events). With the initial success of those PIEs, we soon realized that we were onto something bigger. We had unleashed the potential of the company to be problem solvers and then amplified it through our various programs. We introduced a variety of ideas, methodologies and frameworks to instil a culture of continuous change.

As the world around us becomes increasingly digital, we have also evolved to a Platform Operating Model to change what we build and the way we work. In this construct, we fuse business and technology through joint KPIs to drive business outcomes. We also drive Agile behaviour and mindset through our platforms so we can be more responsive to our customer needs and drive products to market faster.

We are also leveraging AI and big data to rigorously instrument our systems and customer journeys at a very granular level, so that we can manage customer journeys in real-time. This is is something we call Customer Science and it allows us to anticipate and predict what customers will do next. This means that we are able to make timely interventions to resolve issues, sometimes even before they occur.


We’ve talked in the past about the cultural shift being at the core of everything you have achieved, how would you explain this?

It’s impossible to transform successfully and sustainably without first changing mindset of your employees. Hence, our early decision to involve the entire organization by unleashing curiosity, was pivotal.

We were stretching people’s minds and imagination through new ideas  like customer jobs to be done, or JTBD for short; immersing ourselves in the customers’ journeys and; developing an Agile mindset. Some other triggers for cultural change were not quite intuitive but ended up being magical in how they sparked people’s creativity.

Space was one of those. I had underestimated the extent of influence that space has in driving greater collaboration. If you think about it, your behaviour is heavily influenced by the space around you - you behave differently in a library than a supermarket. So, we started to use design of space as a “counter-measure” to some cultural blockers. The resulting space became known as Joyspace, as a nod to our vision of Making Banking Joyful. It is open plan with zones based on type of work, ranging from “The Library” to “The Pub”.

Another example is the power of rituals. Our meeting culture had been identified as one of the big blockers to a start-up culture. We introduced “Culture by Design” as a structured approach to identifying blockers and implementing countermeasures. MOJO was one such countermeasure for badly run meetings. MO (Meeting Owner) ensures punctuality and relevant agenda at meetings and JO ensures gives feedback on how the meeting has worked and ensures equal voice. The effect has been dramatic. Our meetings are now timely, efficient and provide a safe atmosphere for frank dialogue and feedback.


How far do you think we are off the perfect banking UX?

No one ever wakes up in the morning saying, “let’s go do some banking.” We believe banking should be invisible in our customers’ lives. Through immersing ourselves in our customers’ journeys, we know that customers want their transactions to be seamless and easy. Today, we are constantly improving our customers’ digital and branch interactions by exploring the use of AI, as well as establishing ecosystem partnerships such as DBS Car Mart and  DBS Property Marketplace to offer a more holistic experience. With customer science, we can predict problems and solve them before the customer encounters them. In its ideal form, the perfect banking experience would be so seamlessly embedded in our customers’ lives, that we become totally invisible.


We are very excited to host you in London in December to deliver one of the keynotes at Fintech Connect, who will you be looking to meet and hear from whilst at the event?

I am looking forward to hearing and learning from the impressive line-up of thought leaders at the conference.


Register for FinTech Connect on 3–4 December at ExCeL, London.