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DBS Bank CIO axes legacy infrastructure in favor of APIs

David Gledhill, global CIO at DBS Bank in Singapore and the winner of this year's MIT Sloan CIO Leadership Award, said the company's digital business mission is simple: Make banking joyful.

To get there, Gledhill tore down the bank's legacy infrastructure for components that are flexible and enhance customer experience. And he helped usher in a change in culture that included unique approaches to get leaders to think differently -- and digitally.

In this SearchCIO video interview, filmed at the recent MIT Sloan CIO Symposium in Cambridge, Mass., Gledhill talks about how digital business transformation has required an overhaul to legacy infrastructure and how hackathons have replaced the more traditional leadership training modules at DBS Bank. Below are some interview highlights; click on the player to see the interview in its entirety.

What does digital mean to DBS Bank?

David Gledhill: We started to look at all of the great technology companies that deliver an experience to the iPhone through an app or whatever else. And we said the essence of that is it's really experiences that you enjoy -- joyful experiences. And that's where we came up with this idea of how can we make banking joyful and create these joyful experiences delivered digitally. So, really, it's more about the experience than the technology.

And all of our thinking and all of our new digital properties are heavily influenced by human-centered design and customer-journey thinking and immersing ourselves into the customer. So, we've stopped thinking about banking as a set of products, but more as a set of experiences.

How have you been able to map your legacy infrastructure to this reimagined customer journey?

Gledhill: The question is how do we create joyful experiences with what most banks have, which is this legacy platform and things that are hard to move and shift? A few years back, we said, 'We're going to digitize to the core.' What that means is we're going to take all of these systems, replace them, rewire them, build APIs and connectors to them so that when we start to layer on this experience layer, it's very easy to get at and plug into the base platforms. So, we've created hundreds of these APIs. It took a lot of money to do it, but we no longer have such a big legacy issue.

Did you have to invest in new skills to get there?

Gledhill: Many organizations choose to go out and hire a bunch of new people because the traditional bankers just aren't going to be able to do it. We believe firmly that we could take everybody with us. A big part of what we did was to transform the culture and the mindset of the organization. We've been doing that for many years now. We've described it as trying to create this 22,000-person startup with the people we already have at the bank.

That means driving a whole lot of culture changes, putting a whole lot of training in, making people think completely differently, retraining skill sets. And so we have many programs around this. Let me describe just one program we're using to retrain the mindset of people: We have leadership programs, like many organizations. And with those programs, normally, you have people in training programs, leadership skills, presentation skills, that kind of stuff.

We scrapped all of that a couple of years ago. Instead, the leadership training was to work in a hackathon. We brought senior leaders from the bank together with people from startups, research and universities, and mashed them together for a week to give them a set of goals around how to create digital products. The idea was not to create anything good at the end. It was to make people rethink who they were and how they operate in the organization.

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