Elaine Chan is the Head of Data Science of AXA Hong Kong. In this role, Elaine leads the various data science initiatives including Big Data Analytics, Machine Learning, and A.I. innovation for AXA Hong Kong to deliver cutting-edge data science technology for bringing high values to customer experience as well as top-notch technology support to insurance agents’ business growth.
What attracted you to join AXA and how has your journey been with them so far?
Most companies out there are either pioneers in data science adoption or have a sizeable market share, rarely both. As an industry leader who has high demands in data, both in acquiring the data and in turning them into valuable actions, AXA is one of the few exceptions, and I’m happy to work for them as there’s a lot that I can do.
We began as the customer and business analytics team. As we improved and evolved, we recruited new talent in fields like machine learning and NLP and became the more technical data science team that we are today. For everything that we do, we don’t do it for the technology glamour but instead think about how we can translate it into something commercial and meaningful to the customers and the company. That’s why we try a lot of different things and have been awarded for some of our innovations, which I am very proud of.
Can you talk a bit more about the journey of the data science team as a whole?
It’s been an evolution for everyone. We work and we learn, to keep ourselves up-to-date and to find the most advanced algorithm out there and see how our programs fare up.
Nowadays, most things data science are open source, it’s almost like we have an explosion of resources on the internet. Take NLP as an example, with many open source libraries available out there, how you decide what would best fit your use case then becomes a long process of trial and error, one where experience comes in handy. Experienced NLP developers would be able to tell which algorithm is better based on their experience and save a lot of time. With new libraries and updates coming almost every day, selecting the ones that are most suitable for your case has now become a form of art, to be able to analyse the situation and find the best match, not just in terms of accuracy, but also in consideration of time, quality of data on hand, etc. I’m happy that our team members can do this kind of assessment for us, leveraging their experience and finding the best solutions to our problems.
Having worked in both Korea and Hong Kong, have you noticed any differences in terms of culture and how it’s affected your management style?
In Korea, especially the more traditional companies, they’re more hierarchical and tend to put females in supportive roles rather than leading ones. I also find in them a strong sense of solidarity, where everyone would quickly band together when problems arise and focus on getting them fixed. As for Hong Kong, diversity is generally valued where people are more comfortable expressing their individual opinions. People have more acceptance of unique differences as compared to the united spirit I witnessed in Korea. While there are pros and cons to each side, I don’t see one being better than the other.
When I manage a team, I prefer to use a hybrid model, one that incorporates the best of both worlds. For example, I would like my teams in Hong Kong to retain the creativity and freedom to speak up, but also to adopt the close bonding which I experienced in Korea. In some sense, that means fostering communications and facilitating team bonding outside of the work environment, so that it feels more like a family than just a team of colleagues. This is what I’m trying to do, to strike a balance between the two.
What one factor has helped you the most throughout your career?
I’d say self-reflection. Every day, I take some time to reflect on the things I did that day and ask myself if I’d do it differently if given the chance. If so, that’d be the first thing I focus on when I wake up, to improve on my mistakes from the day before. I’ve always believed in making the best out of my days, so even if I just make one small step each day, it would contribute to a much bigger one in the future.
Self-reflection has also helped me stay humble in learning from others. It helped me understand that while I’m good at data, I’m not as knowledgeable in other things like branding, among other key functions of the business. When working with other teams, it’s important to not just consider things from your perspective but the others’ as well, and suggest possible solutions in consideration of both sides. I’m very happy to have received positive feedback from my previous colleagues, which further validated my actions and my belief in the importance of self-reflection.
As a mentor, what advice would you give to your mentees?
In general, I’m a mentor to my team. I also act as a mentor during events like the AI hackathon co-organised by AXA and Microsoft. The one piece of advice I always give is to stay curious. If someone isn’t curious about things, they will be stuck in their comfort zone forever. I remember this one time when I was having my vacation in Japan, I was curious as to why the Japanese language has some Chinese characters, so I did a little digging and found out the historical reasons behind it. My point is, you need to stay curious because that curiosity would prompt you to find out more, which are opportunities to learn something new. With today’s technology, you can simply Google everything instead of having to go through the encyclopaedia or old newspapers like in the old days! Especially for youngsters, it’s important to be passionate about learning while also rightfully challenging the information that you get, as there’s a lot of false information out there. Therefore, when being presented with information, you’ll need to have a clear mind on how to differentiate the right source from the incorrect ones and seek further validation if needed.
Is there a Women in Leadership program at your organisation?
We are very supportive to the Women in Leadership agenda and have organised different events as part of our diversity & inclusion program. We have recently invited a guest speaker, who is an author, TEDx speaker and former Financial Times Executive, to talk about reassessing priorities and striking a balance between being a 10/10 parent and a star employee. Apart from that, we have also launched the AXA HK Maternity Info Toolkit for soon-to-be parents and their managers.
In your experience, what are the benefits of diverse teams and diverse organisations?
People generally believe that they’re right, so if your team is made up of similar people, what you’ll have is everyone agreeing with each other. But what if there are blind spots to that one view shared by everyone? If you have a diverse team with people who have a different mindset than yours, you’ll be able to identify blind spots you weren’t originally aware of. A diverse team can bring different perspectives, expertise, experience, views, and values, so we can create meaningful solutions.
And sometimes we’ll have disagreements, which means one side would have to convince and persuade the other on their belief. It’s a good chance to help you review your arguments and views, to further improve them and present them in a clear way that other people can easily understand. On the flip side, if your approach is good, the validation process will begin and it’ll reinforce your stance and show that you’ve made the right decision.
I’m happy to see that my current team has such a high level of diversity, with people of different backgrounds coming from countries like New Zealand, South Africa, Mainland China, Hong Kong, the US and India; when we have discussions, we’ll have to persuade each other, consolidate our thinking and make a sensible decision.
What advice would you give leaders who want to create a more diverse and inclusive culture?
Leaders need to talk about it openly with the whole company. This is an important message that needs a human touch, so I’d suggest discussing it in real conversations with real stories instead of doing it through emails or posters.
It’s also important to walk the talk: setting up environments which allow staff to better understand and participate. For example, you can have a diversity & inclusion fair day, where you invite speakers to talk about different themes, why we should have them, and what are the benefits of having them. It’s also important to bear in mind that diversity & inclusion isn’t just about gender, but also things like disability, LGBT, race, etc. Some might not be familiar with this concept because they weren’t surrounded by this environment; if they were surrounded by this environment, the experience would be more memorable and embraceable.
To sum it up, as leaders you should openly talk about it, create the environment, walk the talk, encourage your staff to participate and experience it, then they will understand why you’re doing it.Posted over 1 year ago