In the last couple of decades, we have lived through rapid technological transformation, this has been even more apparent for Bonnie Chan, Chief Operating Officer for IBM Hong Kong, writes Kate Whitehead
Photography by Calvin Sit
Prior to taking up the Chief Operating Officer role in 2017, Bonnie Chan had been chief financial officer for IBM Hong Kong since 2013.
When Bonnie Chan started out as a payroll accountant at IBM, spreadsheets were used to measure sales activity. Later, as an accounting manager and in a planning role, she used STAR, a system which, while still static, included information about business deal size and approvals. Now, with the sheer volume of raw data available, IBM’s collaborative sales application called SalesConnect is even able to deduce the win rate.
“We can use it to see which deals fall into the winning quartile, which will be medium and those that have a low chance to win. That helps us to make business decisions and decide what resources to put in. It’s moving to a very advanced level,” says Chan, now IBM’s Chief Operating Officer for Hong Kong, and a member of the Hong Kong Institute of CPAs.
Her professional success and transformation has mirrored that of IBM, one of the largest technology and consulting companies in the world, with more than 370,000 employees worldwide. “If I was in a static company and not promoting the transformation, I would stay the same as an accountant. But being at IBM, which embraces the transformation and reinvents itself on an everyday basis, employees engage with this company and you are pushed into a new world,” says Chan.
She speaks quickly and with passion. It’s obvious not simply that she enjoys her job, but that she is committed to IBM’s drive for innovation.
Chan went to secondary school in Australia and stayed on for further studies, earning a bachelor of commerce with a major in accounting and a minor in legal studies from the University of New South Wales. She did her CPA exams immediately after graduation, and is now a fellow member of the Institute. After a couple of years working as an auditor in Kwan Wong Tan & Fong and BDO, she joined IBM Hong Kong as an accountant and studied a distance learning master of business administration from the University of Southern Queensland at the same time.
Her move from a payroll accountant to an accounting manager coincided with IBM’s initiation of the concept of “centre of excellence,” (COE) which saw a streamlining of the accounting processes. “Having a COE meant we needed to standardize all the information. It was quite challenging, but lots of fun – we had to deal with all resources and think about timelines and processes,” says Chan.
“Continuous learning helps to open up the mind of the employees and then they are more engaged with the business.”
On both sides
What catapulted Chan’s career was gaining a strong understanding of business. The first opportunity for this came when she moved from being an accounting manager to a planning role for IBM’s Greater China hardware systems division.
“In accounting, it is more data processing and giving advice on the overall financial policies. But when you are actually managing the planning process, you are using the skills that you obtained in the accounting field and then you use that to progress in your commercial world,” says Chan. “Like helping the business drive for success by overseeing the cost of sale, how to allocate a discount and then what kind of things help you to close the deal in a win-win situation.”
As part of this role, she sometimes visited customers to better understand their needs and plan long term. From the Greater China group, she moved to overseeing Asia Pacific as a business partner manager, and enjoyed getting a wider view of how business practices differ in different countries and cultures. “I was able to get more experience to streamline the advantages that they have and I can come back to the Greater China group to contribute the things I’ve learned,” says Chan.
During this period, one of the key lessons she learned was the importance of good collaboration. Having spent time understanding the demands placed on the sales team and better understanding their mindset, she was well-positioned to serve as a bridge between finance and sale. “The finance side always thinks of rules and regulations and how to drive high gross profit or low cost – you live in a perfect world, but you detach it from reality. We were able to bridge the gap between the business needs and back-office planning targets and looked at the business as a portfolio instead of a single deal,” says Chan.
Such collaborations, she points out, are the high points of her career. A couple of years ago, she worked on a big deal for a visual analytics company over the Mid-Autumn Festival. It was a tricky deal, but because both the finance and business sides were determined to find a solution that would work for all, they succeeded. “Having a strong finance background, but also understanding what sales is thinking, helps us to close more winning deals,” she says.
In 2013, Chan became the chief financial officer of IBM China/Hong Kong Limited, responsible for ensuring compliance with the United States and Hong Kong regulatory requirements and internal guidelines by implementing appropriate controls. Her focus was also on improving agility and streamlining processes. She already had some experience in this area, but the challenge now was even greater.
Keeping staff up to speed on IBM’s strategies has taken on an even greater significance in her latest role as COO, which she assumed in November last year. The push is on to transform IBM into a more cloud-based, cognitive company.
“Before, when we had a project, we needed to spend a long time planning before we could start. Our approach this time was to have a design thinking workshop,” says Chan, adding that design thinking is the process continuous conversations with clients and users to understand their needs.
“We treat everything like a prototype, an unfinished product that will always be iterated on and reinvented. Both leadership and working team are in the design thinking workshop. This will help us to face the real issues and keep on improving.
“We shared ideas and had continuous meetings to reassess and redesign – it helped us to streamline and have a faster approach. And this is the way we show employees how we are changing,” says Chan.
A key part of the company’s transformation is to ensure that employees understand the new technology. With this in mind, Chan and her team designed Think Academy, an app developed by IBM for employees to learn about topics ranging from the cloud and security to AI platforms as well as success stories that they can share. “It was one of my drives. I think continuous learning helps to open up the mind of the employees and then they are more engaged with the business,” says Chan.
“The AI world has shortened the time needed for learning because they have synchronized all the information in the data world. You have the information on hand to make a decision.”
Hands on AI
A hot topic not only among employees, but the wider world is artificial intelligence (AI). Chan notes that IBM is focused on providing high value to clients leveraging data and emerging technologies such as AI, blockchain and quantum computing. “We leverage cloud as a platform to deliver AI, blockchain, Internet-of-Things (IoT) and industry solutions such as Watson Health, Watson Financial Services and Watson IoT. Chan notes that the landscape has completely changed from when she started out and all accountants could do was try to streamline data for 10 years and try to predict the market. The explosion of big data has opened up many possibilities and Chan says IBM’s focus now is on collecting raw data – including “unstructured data” such as views expressed on social media platforms – from a multitude of channels and using AI to interpret it.
AI can be applied across industries. Chan gives the example of the health industry. Hundreds of medical reports are published in multiple journals around the world weekly, yet dedicated doctors only have time to read one or two reports a day. IBM Watson is a system that is able to read 30,000 words a second meaning that it can keep up-to-date with all medical reports, and includes a search engine that allows for easy access.
“If someone has symptoms of breast cancer, you can put in the terms and Watson is able to derive the three best treatments. And if person has a heart problem, it can give recommendations on which medicine to take or avoid. The AI world has shortened the time needed for learning because they have synchronized all the information in the data world. You have the information on hand to make a decision,” explains Chan.
Her current big project is an IBM Innovation Centre for Hong Kong, which is expected to open before the end of the year and will allow companies to see, in a hands-on way, how AI can support their business. “A lot of people know they need to utilize AI, we see a lot of people participating in AI workshops and forums, but they don’t know how to build that bridge to help them. The Innovation Centre will serve this purpose,” says Chan.
Deeply entrenched in the technological future, it’s no surprise that Chan’s advice to young accountants is to embrace technology. That’s not to say that the fundamentals of accounting are any less important – the accounting guidelines and rules are essential – but she wants accountants to broaden their scope. “For new accountants coming in, the world is entirely different. I think our role is not that academic. As an accountant we should have the responsibility to help companies to grow their business. I think we should advance ourselves to see what is new outside,” she says.
Succeeding in this new technological world also requires good interpersonal skills, so that accountants can better collaborate with their clients. “Printing out sheets of financial data is easy,” says Chan. “It’s this in-depth data that you need to be able to explain to your clients, to be able to look at the figures and tell your clients what it can bring to their business.”
This month, IBM agreed to spend US$34 billion on Red Hat, an American multinational software company. It is the largest software deal ever, and by far IBM’s biggest deal in its 107-year history.