A 48-year-old company with 21,000 employees wants to be a startup. Why? How?

By November 25, 2016Current

TL;DR – Can a dinosaur innovate? 

Image from DBS

Image from DBS

Say startup and most people will think of a small company, probably of fewer than 10 people, that just came into existence within the last few years. Most people will think that the people in this company are young, idealistic (some would say naive) people. I doubt many people, if any, would consider a company that’s been around since 1968, with about 21,000 employees, that operates in over 50 cities, to be a startup.

But that’s exactly what DBS is trying to be.


Mr Piyush Gupta, CEO of DBS Group, speaking at U Future Leaders Summit 2016 (via Smithankyou.com)

Mr Piyush Gupta, CEO of DBS Group, speaking at U Future Leaders Summit 2016 (via Smithankyou.com)

Mr Piyush Gupta gave an in depth explanation when he spoke at NTUC’s U Future Leaders’ Summit. He started off by telling the seminar a story about an ant. Wait. What does an ant have to do with banking? Everything. That is if that ant is Ant Financial, the world’s largest FinTech company that is valued at roughly USD60billion.

And who’s behind Ant Financial?


Mr Gupta explained that Ant Financial and Alibaba have disrupted the world of banking and financial services. He recounted an encounter with some Chinese officials. He asked them why Ant Financial isn’t regulated like other banks. The officials said,

“At first they were too small. But now, they are too big.”

So true and apt that the hall of attendees broke into instantaneous laughter at that.

Because of Ant Financial, banks cannot act as if it’s business as usual. They have to innovate in response if they are to continue to thrive. That’s why Mr Gupta is leading DBS to be a startup and reimagine the journey that their customers have with them. But it’s not just about technology. Instead, it is about re-imagining the work that has to be done.

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To explain what he meant, Mr Gupta used the hotel and taxi industry. Hotels and taxi companies had been using technology even before AirBnB and Uber came about. So how did AirBnB and Uber disrupt them? Because AirBnB and Uber understood the work that their customers was trying to get done through them. With that understanding, they reimagined the customer journey with them.

And that’s what DBS has started to do. DBS customers can order food on DBS’ mobile banking app. Because that’s one of the work that customers want done with mobile banking. That’s just one example, and it works! We know because some of us actually use the app to pre-order our Kopi-C at Old Tea Hut so that we can cut the queue and just pick up and go!

DBS hopes to do more. But to drive the innovation and transformation process, Mr Gupta understands that people in DBS needs to be trained and mindsets need to be changed. At DBS, they believe that innovation is everyone’s job.

piyush gupta DBS


How does DBS go about training its staff and changing mindsets? Mr Gupta realised that adults learn quite differently from children and teenagers. He realised that adults learn best when doing rather than just sitting in classrooms. That’s why Mr Gupta got DBS to run their now famed hackathons.

Mr Gupta brought in people with different skills to teach groups of DBS staff skills such as coding, and social media marketing. The participants are then set various problems to solve. Mr Gupta found that the staff involved learnt tremendously through such a process. This process didn’t just work with DBS’ younger employees. DBS had a hackathon where all the participants are above the age of 40. Mr Gupta was gushing with pride talking about the outcome of that hackathon. You can read more about their hackathons here.

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Reducing the cost of taking risks

In addition to running hackathons, Mr Gupta wants to create an environment in DBS where its employees are more willing to take risks. He knows that Singaporeans are generally risk averse. Singaporeans think  the consequences of making mistakes and failing at work are too costly. Mr Gupta wants to change this in DBS. That’s why he has openly told his staff that he wants DBS to run 1,000 experiments. He hopes that doing so will signal to DBS employees that it’s OK to take risks and make mistakes.

To create a conducive environment for innovation, DBS has even created a physical space dedicated to innovation. Recently, DBS opened an innovation facility at called DBS Asia X.

Inside DBS Asia X. Image via TechInAsia

Inside DBS Asia X. Image via TechInAsia

The facility brings together startups, students, strategists, and DBS staff to help fulfil DBS’ ambition to be a 22,000-strong startup. This allows DBS to foster collaboration between these different groups it brings and the formation of agile project squads. DBS hopes that this will help it innovate and re-imagine banking.

Innovating to thrive amidst disruption

Established companies (e.g. DBS) have been compared to dinosaurs. And we all know what happened to dinosaurs. DBS has taken active steps to ensure it doesn’t go the way of the dinosaurs. For its efforts, it has been named the Worlds’ Best Digital Bank at the Euromoney Awards. It goes to show that innovation is the way to go.

Hopefully, other companies will follow suit. If this happens, then Singapore will be able to thrive amidst the disruption and have a bright future ahead.

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About U Future Leaders Programme

The U Future Leaders Programme by NTUC, comprising the U Future Leaders Summit, Series and Mentorship sessions, have benefitted over 22,000 Singaporeans from our NTUC members and networks since its inception in 2013. The Programme aims to empower the professionals, managers and executives (PMEs) with a future-ready edge, equipping them with bridging competencies and mastery to compete globally. Catered for PMEs across a variety of sectors, U Future Leaders provides a diverse range of programme and events for the PMEs’ learning and development.

The four-stage programme – Summit, Series, Mentorship and Innovation Exchange – imparts critical workplace survival skills, cross-disciplinary insights and an upskilling edge to our PMEs, to assist in tackling complex challenges within the workplace and in their careers. The Programme also incorporates an integration of both physical and digital platforms as modes of learning delivery.

Sign up here.


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Jake Koh

Author Jake Koh

Recovering sushi addict, I'm a man of mystery and power, whose power is exceeded only by his mystery.

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