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FINANCIAL SERVICES | Staff Reporter, Singapore
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Singapore's largest commercial banks in 2017

From HR mobile apps to online payroll, banks are in a digital arms race.

In June, OCBC Bank was the next to land a blow that would likely leave its rivals reeling: the fifth largest bank in Singapore launched a human resources (HR) mobile application, the first in the country powered by artificial intelligence (AI) and designed to take staff productivity to new heights. The mobile app was also the latest in a growing armoury of digital initiatives forged by Singapore’s biggest banks to garner stakeholder applause and amass glorious profits. Go big or go home appears to be the battle cry of Singapore banks that want to prevail in the digital banking arena as they strive to build massive innovation spaces, advanced biometrics security features, and convenient online payroll systems.

OCBC’s freshest ace in this digital arms race is the HR mobile app, known as HR In Your Pocket. The app enables employees to receive immediate responses to HR-related questions through an AI-powered chatbot, file leave applications, track medical and lifestyle expense reimbursement claims, view internal job postings, and access a bank-wide people directory — and that is just the starting line up of features. For security, the app allows users to log in securely by using fingerprint recognition through OCBC OneTouch, which leverages on Apple’s Touch ID technology.

Productivity boost

The next phase of development will integrate HR In Your Pocket with the learning management system so employees can apply for courses and track their learning and development journey. The app will also roll out in OCBC Malaysia by the end of the year. “The app helps to boost productivity as it frees up resources and time that could be used for other purposes,” says Praveen Raina, senior vice president, group operations & technology at OCBC Bank. “We recognise that in this digital age, everyone has come to expect instant gratification — everything is just a click away. It is the same for this app. We made sure that it is comprehensive and user friendly so our colleagues have the HR information they need at their fingertips 24/7.”

“The internal feedback was that our apps for customers are innovative and useful, so we thought: ‘Why not channel our bank’s digital capabilities and technological expertise into developing intuitive and easy-to-use apps for our employees too?’,” says Jason Ho, head of group human resources at OCBC Bank. “This is all the more apt as mobile phones have become an indispensable gadget for everyone, and the HR app readily complements this modern lifestyle.”

Aside from HR In Your Pocket, OCBC Bank has birthed other digital offerings and apps, including an open Application Programming Interface (API) platform, voice biometrics authentication, and an enhanced OCBC Pay Anyone app, which enables Android and iOS smartphone users to pay merchants through QR codes and quickly transfer money.

Startup culture and mindset

For DBS Bank, which remains the largest bank in Singapore in 2017 with more than 10,000 employees, digitalisation is a ruthless trend that asks banks to choose: Innovate or perish. “Digital disruption continues to force rapid change upon businesses and whole industries, and banking is not immune to this,” says a spokesperson from DBS. “This year, we will further our digital agenda by continuing with the rollout of digibank — a mobile only bank — pressing ahead with customer journeys and becoming more data-driven.” DBS Bank has reason to be confident in its digital prowess with its robust line up of projects in implementation and in the pipeline. It has been aggressively incorporating digitalisation in its banking operations, leading Asian Banking and Finance to award it with the Digital Banking Initiative of the Year - Singapore distinction at the Retail Banking Awards 2017.

The bank is also investing heavily in skills training so its staff can flourish in the digital world. “On the people front, we are re-wiring the organisation to have a startup culture and mindset,” says a DBS spokesperson, pointing out that the bank has run over 1,000 experiments since 2015, and employees are nurtured to be ‘intrapreneurs.’ “With mentorship and funding from the bank, a number have established startups whilst pursuing their day jobs,” adds DBS’ spokesperson. “Our people, through a broad-based digital curriculum, hackathons, incubators and accelerators, and financial technology partnerships, have also embraced experimentation and innovation.”

DBS is also matching its intensive staff training with outsize infrastructure support. Last year the bank constructed the 16,000-sq. ft. DBS Asia X and filled it with project pods and coworking spaces to attract the best and brightest FinTech startups. In return, the bank forges close-knit collaborations with the startups that take residence not only in DBS Asia X but in other similar facilities across Asia.

Cutting-edge solutions

Not to be left behind, Citi Singapore launched the global competition known as the Tech for Integrity Challenge (T41) to partner with the future movers and shakers in digital and financial innovation. Citi Singapore, which remains the second-largest bank in the country this year, held the T41 Demo Day in June where technology innovators displayed their “cutting-edge solutions to promote integrity, accountability and transparency in the public sector and beyond,” says a Citi Singapore spokesman.

The event in Singapore gathered 17 FinTech developers from 8 countries, of which 5 were home-grown talent, and the teams presented their working prototypes to a panel of judges that included top executives from the Monetary Authority of Singapore, payments and technology multinationals, and multinational development organisations. Winners earned US$5.5m in kind and cash.

In addition, Citi pushed out the application programme interface (API) Developer Portal last year. This enables developers to rapidly connect with FinTech companies and consumer brands, and build innovative client solutions in collaboration with the bank. “The banking industry has seen a number of changes over the last 2 to 3 years particularly with the rapid advancement and adoption of digital technology, and Citi has been at the forefront of it,” says the spokesman.

“Citi has transformed itself both internally in how we operate as well as externally in how we serve our clients. We have also embarked on partnerships to remain relevant in key digital ecosystems where our clients are increasingly active,” the spokesman adds. Another notable digital innovation from Citi is its voice biometrics authentication. More than one million of Citi customers in Asia-Pacific, including Singapore where the feature was recently implemented, are using voice biometrics authentication.

A customer calls contact centres for identity verification instead of remembering passwords or answering multiple questions, reducing the average time spent verifying details to within 15 seconds, or a third of the roughly 45 seconds it previously took through the conventional way, according to the bank’s estimates.

Automation and convenience

Even relatively smaller banks, such as Malayan Banking (Maybank Singapore), which remains at 10th in this year’s rankings, is also embarking on a digital transformation and collaboration spree. To grow its retail Small and Medium Enterprises (RSME) business, Maybank tied up with Asian Business Software Solutions earlier this year to provide a more convenient online payroll service for customers The bank is faring quite well with a pre-tax profit increase of 43.5% year-on-year in the first quarter even amidst challenges in the Singapore economic outlook — and it reckons efficiency gains from streamlining and digital automation hold the key for growth. “Operating costs also projected to rise further against the backdrop of tightening regulatory requirements,” says a Maybank Singapore representative.“We have embarked on several initiatives to streamline and automate our processes.”

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