How DBS' hackathons inspired its own HR team

It has been a full-circle moment for the Singapore bank's HR team, having first driven the staff hackathon initiative in 2015.

About the author

Boon Chong Na

Boon Chong Na, Senior Client Partner, Aon

Boon manages Aon's human capital consulting business in Southeast Asia, and has more than 25 years' experience consulting in Southeast Asia and Greater China on corporate governance, executive compensation, public sector pay, organisation transformation, post-merger integration and talent management. 

Digitisation has changed banking forever. Disruption is a norm, and organisations—both large incumbents and financial technology start-ups—are creating new markets and delivering new consumer experiences like never before.

For one Singaporean bank, the journey of digital transformation began several years ago. DBS, a prominent household name in Singapore and one of the leading financial services groups in Asia, has received widespread recognition for its commitment to digital strategy as well as its suite of supporting HR programmes that is designed to transform the 22,000-strong organisation into one that embraces a start-up culture centred on digitisation.

Though the recognition is recent, CEO Piyush Gupta said that the bank has been using data and analytics for 25 years in their credit card business and it took a lot of effort to get the whole organisation to take on a digital mind-set especially when classroom sessions were not delivering the desired results.

Three key HR focus areas

This was when the organisation knew that it had to focus its efforts on three pillars.

The first was to enable its people to live fulfilled by preparing them with the skills they need for the future of work—such as opportunities for experiential learning and experimentation as well as accelerator programmes with mentorship and funding that empower employees to develop business ideas and learn to think like digital natives.

Secondly, the bank had to refocus its HR practices to create impact by utilising human-centred design and digital solutions to deliver compelling experiences—including the digitisation of internal processes to increase employee engagement.

And finally, it dedicated its resources to supporting national priorities by promoting lifelong learning and transforming DBS into a digital workforce.

The "Hackathon" effect

This digital mind-set that now permeates the organisation took root in 2015, when DBS ran its first hackathon. Over a total of five days, 20 teams — each of which included seven or eight DBS employees and guests from start-up companies — devoted themselves to understanding technology and skills-building in human-centred design, then collaborating to code and create a mobile app. On the final day, these app prototypes were showcased to a panel of judges.

The latest hackathon in 2017 involved 51 teams and a total of 340 employees from 9 countries including Singapore, Indonesia, and Hong Kong. More than 200 ideas came out of this cross-capability collaboration, yet what was truly outstanding was the renewed confidence and self-belief among employees who realised that, when given the opportunity, they were capable of learning new things, doing things differently, and making a positive impact.

Inspired by the hackathon initiative, members of the HR team came together to create DBS Power Up — an employee-centric mobile app that provides information on-the-go, enables work on-the-go, and connects employees to one another wherever they are.

Just as in a start-up, the team worked on the product from end to end, from ideation, to UX design, technical implementation, and content management. Despite having no prior experience in rolling out a mobile application, they collaborated closely with the internal technology team, while picking up new skills along the way on coding, information security protection measures, toothbrush tests, and more.

The Power Up mobile app has grown essential to DBS employees across the bank and the team whose expertise used to reside only in talent management is now equipped to take on an even greater task — exploring other digitisation possibilities throughout the employee journey.

This is why the DBS approach of deep collaboration across the organisation is beneficial, not just to their organisation, but also to people practices in the banking industry as a whole.

The road ahead

In addition to investing S$20 million over five years in developing employees’ digital skills, DBS has also launched DBS Academy and DBS Asia X—innovative learning spaces that inspire ideation—as well as DBS Horizon, a new cloud-based learning management system that uses artificial intelligence to make personalised course recommendations that support employees’ career aspirations and passions, and help them collaborate, create communities of interest, and engage in mobile education 24/7, across the bank.

While the initiatives are fundamentally virtual, the results are real and already apparent in DBS Innovation Group, which has filled many positions that did not previously exist in the financial services sector—UX/UI designers, app developers, and data scientists, just to name a few.

At the same time, by equipping all its employees to be technologically savvy, DBS is preparing them with skills that are relevant not just now but in the future.

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