WHOLESALE BANKING | Sandra Sendingan, Singapore

How ING Singapore is leading 600-strong staff against disruption

Its wholesale banking unit is ditching the pyramid structure in favour of self-steering teams.

When Catherine Low assumed leadership of the Singapore operations of ING, she took the chance to realise her vision of what the bank of the future will look like by reshaping how the bank works - literally. Doing away with the pyramid-shaped hierarchical structure, ING Singapore adopted an approach that groups 600 employees across its wholesale banking business into self-steering teams that can be mobilised to quickly respond to disruptive threats.

Catherine spearheads this bottom-up approach at ING Singapore. An industry veteran with over 20 years of experience working with Fortis, BNP Paribas and Standard Chartered, Catherine rose through the corporate ladder at ING to run its trade and commodity finance division and now its entire business in the city state.

In an exclusive interview with Asian Banking & Finance, Catherine shares how ING is laying down the building blocks for the bank of the future and the fuel that powers this push.

What changes are you introducing to the banking culture and working processes at ING that you believe will ensure its sustainability and what specific initiatives do you have around future-proofing your workforce?
ING is one of the first banks to adopt the Agile way of working. We are now implementing this throughout the bank globally. Employees are now grouped into self-steering teams, and the ability to influence outcomes and make decisions is distributed to team members. Through Agile, we hope to respond faster to changing customer requirements, break down organisational silos, facilitate greater collaboration and cross-fertilisation of ideas, and be better able to retain and engage talent.

Besides the Agile way of working, equipping employees with the necessary skills or knowledge for the future is another key thrust. In addition to training and workshops for targeted employees, we have general bank-wide workshops to increase the understanding of topics such as distributed ledger technology, Artificial Intelligence (AI), Robotics and Advanced Analytics (AA).

To accelerate the pace of innovation, we have also started ING Labs in five locations world- wide, including one in Singapore. At the ING Labs we seek to build mutually beneficial partnerships, for example, with start-ups and researchers to turn ideas into scalable solutions. Our Singapore lab will focus on global trade. Advances such as the Internet of Things and distributed ledger technologies are promoting greater efficiency within the supply chain and disrupting trading and trade financing as we know it. We see a lot of potential in this space because trade and logistics is a major industry in Singapore.

To embed an innovative and collaborative culture, we have also changed our performance management framework. All our employees are evaluated not only on their performance in the day-to-day job, but also on collaborative behaviours that are aligned with our forward-thinking strategy, as well as the effort and contribution in taking on projects or targets that are not part of their job description.

What are the challenges of this plan?
As with all big organisational transformations, it takes time and effort to get everyone on board. People can be naturally resistant to change, and it takes a while to adopt a new mind-set. For example, we have programmes to promote innovation but getting colleagues to devote time and effort to develop new, out-of-the-box ideas on top of their current daily workload is a big ask.

Transformational changes that start with the right mindset and culture require well-thought out changes in the way the organisation is designed, ranging from the small things such as the office environment or even the dress code, to processes and hiring practices, performance management systems and management structures.

We need to have appropriate and enough resources and talent to take innovation forward within the bank. The exponential growth in demand today for expertise in AI, AA, data to customer experience, cyber security, etc. means that we are competing with other organisations – both within and outside banking - for the same pool of talent.

Can you help us go through what the customer journey looks like under ING’s bank of the future?
Platforms are at the epicentre of the current transformation in banking and ING is seriously investing in it. Today’s customers are increasingly digital and spend most of their time on platforms like Wechat, Facebook and so on. So a huge part of tomorrow’s success would involve being on these platforms, and we believe our future depends on becoming a platform ourselves or building independent ones.

Customers are looking for greater convenience and a one-stop solutions provider. So we see the future of banking in platforms that are scalable, borderless, data-driven and open.

Customers would not just be offered ING products, but also related services they would likely need, which may be provided by third-party suppliers. An exporter who comes to our platform would not just be getting a choice of ING’s trade financing and banking services, but can also find different freight and warehousing solutions.

Besides innovation, is sustainability of growing importance to ING and your operations?
Sustainability is coming of age in Asia. There is a clear attitude shift among different stakeholders - governments, corporates, investors and consumers. Developing a forward- thinking business agenda based on sustainability is increasingly becoming a priority for companies in Asia, not merely a marketing exercise.

As a bank, we are aiming to become a leader in facilitating and financing society’s shift to sustainability. We pride ourselves on being one of the forerunners in sustainability, and have taken a differentiated approach by mainstreaming sustainability across all our financial products from lending to strategic advisory and debt capital markets. For instance, we brought the concept of sustainability-linked loans to Asia, and partnered Wilmar International Limited on its first sustainability-linked loan in November 2017.

In the past year, we have played a role in ten sustainable finance deals in Asia Pacific across various sectors including financial institutions, agri-business, real estate, renewables and with a government body. The products range from green loans and bonds, to sustainability improvement loans, as well as social bonds.

ING recently became the first global bank to use a science-based approach to steer its business strategy towards meeting the climate targets set by the Paris Climate Agreement. Under this Terra Approach, we will focus specifically on sectors that contribute more heavily to greenhouse gas emissions using a customised approach per sector in order to make the most impact. 

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