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Robin Speculand

Bridges Business Consultancy Int, Singapore

Global Pioneer and Specialist in Strategy and Digital Implementation

Read more from Robin Speculand

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Creating a learning culture for the digital age

Digital transformation isn’t just about the technology – it’s about getting your people on board.

DBS Bank successfully transformed itself from a traditional organisation to the world's best bank by leveraging digitisation over just four years. This amazing transformation focused on three strategic principles:

  1. Become digital to the core
  2. Embed ourselves in the customer journey
  3. Culture by design and think like a start-up

A central theme of their success was the CEO, Piyush Gupta’s, identification at the start that digital transformation is not only about technology – it’s also about people transformation. Both require hard work, and the bank had to consider elements such as its customer experience, its organisational culture and its desired way of working. Today, balancing the hardware and the software is a recognised transformation success factor, but in 2014, it was not.

I was given exclusive access over two years to research and write the book World’s Best Bank - A Strategic Guide to Digital Transformation. This allowed me to identify ten best practices to become a learning organisation in a digital world. An important distinction is that it's not about having a ‘digital strategy’ but rather having a strategy for the digital world.

1. No manager’s approval requirement for training

Early on, the leadership decided to eliminate the need for a manager’s approval for taking a training course that cost less than £250 to empower employees to upgrade their skills. This resulted in a higher engagement with learning among employees, and encouraged them to adopt an individual growth mindset.

There was one condition, though. After taking the training, every employee had to teach colleagues what they had learned. Today, an employee at DBS can select from over 6,000 different courses.

2. Back to school

Digital transformation meant reinventing the bank. For employees, that translated into a need to learn new jobs, which required a learning culture. The result was a ‘back to school’ initiative. Inspired by Google’s ‘g2g’ (Googler-to-Googler) teaching network, employees dedicated a portion of their time to helping their peers learn essential skills.

3. Learn by doing

Learning makes up only 10% of a person’s transformation – doing makes up the rest. The term ‘learn by doing’ was adopted early in the transformation after it became clear that teaching people to be technology literate in a classroom didn’t work.

'Learn by doing' encouraged employees to participate in customer journeys, design thinking, agile, hackathons, and other activities. The bank focused on creating an environment in which it was safe to experiment and fail. It even gave awards for failing and for daring to ask for money.

4. Adopting hackathons

Introduced into the bank in 2015, hackathons have supported the belief that people learn from doing. They help build transformation success by providing a platform for employees to do just that. Employees could observe what was possible when they applied digitisation and saw how quickly new solutions could be created and implemented.

Hackathons have also been tremendously successful in challenging leaders’ beliefs that these types of solutions required six months and millions of dollars to develop.

5. Over-40s hackathon

In the third hackathon the bank ever conducted, Piyush had only one rule: all DBS people on the teams had to be over age 40. This over-40 hackathon was conducted to eliminate the belief that digitalisation was only for younger employees and that older employees could not keep up. Once this was proven wrong, people started to believe in the older generation’s ability to change.

6. Global hackathon – a paradigm shift

In 2019, DBS invited more than 1,000 participants from 67 countries to compete for a total prize of US$100,000. This hackathon aimed to use a customer-centric approach to developing cutting-edge services through ideation, prototyping, and pitching to the bank. It was looking for innovative, future-forward solutions. Featured themes were hyper-personalisation, everyday insurance, AI in retail banking, and sustainability, among other topics.

More than 300 teams worked with 74 mentors from the bank and its partners. At the end of the final 48-hour sprint, ‘We Shift Paradigm’, a team of three from Malaysia, edged out 11 other teams with its ideas for building a more inclusive banking system.

7. Pre-incubators

In another approach, the bank set up a pre-incubator to work with start-ups predominantly outside of fintech. At DBS, these pre-incubator projects are not investments; they are developmental opportunities.

8. Wreckoon – challenging the status quo

Wreckoon is the DBS learning organisation’s mascot. This self-service tool operated by always pushing boundaries to test the best ideas and assumptions. Taking a leaf out of the Netflix ‘chaos engineering’ playbook and building on it, DBS created Wreckoon as a self-service tool to test the resilience of applications in development. Using Wreckoon is a compulsory requirement in every meeting and presentation deck.

9. Adopting artificial intelligence and machine learning

To future-proof its employees, bank leaders collaborated with Amazon Web Services (AWS) to develop a critical mass of employees equipped with fundamental skills in AI and machine learning (ML). The aim was to accelerate the use of AI and ML across the bank.

Together, they launched the DBS x AWS DeepRacer League. DBS employees learned the basics of AI and ML by participating in a series of hands-on online tutorials.

Next, they put their new knowledge to the test by programming their own autonomous model racecar. These ML models were then uploaded onto a virtual racing environment. There, employees experimented and fine-tuned their models as they engaged in friendly competition.

About 3,000 employees, including the bank’s senior leadership, have participated in the DBS x AWS DeepRacer League.

10. Reskilling employees

By 2016, bank leaders had identified about 1,200 jobs (e.g. bank tellers, contact centre people, etc.) that would disappear over the next few years. They started an active rescaling programme that created a whole skills matrix for individual jobs. Specifically, they identified which current jobs could be translated into future jobs and what skills would be required.

To support the rescaling of employees, in 2017, the bank invested $20 million over five years in a programme to develop its workforce to function well in a digital world.

This project offers many lessons for larger organisations about how to mobilise your workforce to upskill and create a learning culture. Regardless of your size, however, what it shows is that success in the digital age is about balancing hardware and software – namely, your technology and your people.

Interested in this topic? Read Why a learning culture is inherently agile.

Author Profile Picture
Robin Speculand

Global Pioneer and Specialist in Strategy and Digital Implementation

Read more from Robin Speculand

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