Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Culture management

The Asian countries referenced below can represent the ‘before and after’ model of progressive undertakings. They are proud of their cultures and expect foreigners to respect them. But do they in fact recognize that there is ‘the common good’ in every undertaking – be it a nation or an enterprise? In Eastern Europe, to introduce a ‘teambuilding program,’ the writer had to bring it down to the heart of the business: ‘what are we here for?’ And he would stress that “we are no longer a local company – we are a global company and we have to give and take culture-wise!” “As the psychologist Jerome S. Bruner has observed, cultures do offer us templates, but even the simplest culture offers a variety of choices; culture does not determine us.” [Gish Jen, NY Times, 17th Feb]

The writer remembers his first trip to Thailand: the local HR person introduced him to an American who was the acknowledged expert in educating expatriates in the local culture. And in Malaysia, he was presented to a group of local businessmen while playing golf after hours. Malaysians love the game so much they would play even at night – with the golf course lit simulating daytime, but not exactly. And at the Royal Selangor Golf Club, the writer was initiated to the classic ‘nasi goring,’ becoming teary-eyed notwithstanding the intensely cold beer. Next was a South Indian cuisine, which meant using bare hands, eating lots of rice and spicy dishes on banana leaves. And then the night market, similar to Singapore’s. India was an altogether different experience – the Indian competing if not besting the Filipino in complex thinking?

But China would prove the most challenging – negotiating in a socialist-communist environment on top of the local culture made it truly daunting. But the writer had to trust his instincts while conscious of the fundamental rule, ‘everything is relationship.’ And that meant accepting that time is a negotiating tool, i.e., his American company cannot dictate the pace of the negotiations – but even major issues are resolved once relationships are established. And today still etched in the writer’s mind is how horrified he was when he first set foot on this Chinese facility. But how proud he would be when the joint-venture surpassed all performance standards – becoming truly world-class – after the partnership went on stream . . . having invested in technology and state-of-the-art facility, and innovation, and in talent, product and market development.

Compassion is as much a part of our culture and unsurprisingly we embrace one of the fundamental principles of Christianity, “The preferential option for the poor.” And our faith constantly reminds us of the question, ‘what are we here for?’ And so full of good intentions, we championed having the highest minimum wage in the region, celebrated overseas employment for 10 million OFWs, and advocated livelihood projects especially at the lowest levels, etc. But where are we? Simply, until we recognize the reality or the imperative of optimizing returns from our God-given resources and are focused on what will get us there, we are in fact living in ‘la-la land’?

And the challenge is magnified in a globalized and highly competitive economy. For example, China has its own dilemma following its ascent to being the second largest economy – and that is, to move from the ‘comparative advantage’ of low-labor cost to the ‘competitive advantage’ of innovation and higher value-creation (which the US also faces in a more profound way.) We must thus shift our mindset to the pursuit of ‘competitive advantage’ – which comes from investment, technology and innovation and talent, product and market development. They are the same imperatives foreign investors evaluate as they do their due diligence. And so the keenest investors could be turned off if we can't get our act together – better than we’ve demonstrated to date with NAIA 1&3, the PPP, power generation, mining, the auto industry, Northrail, declining agriculture output, etc. Absent a track record we must thus work doubly hard if we are to erase the laggard label. Because the algorithm like gravity will pull us down – as those who do and deliver, not just analyze, sales forecasts will attest.

Yet our neighbors were not determined by their cultures – and the past – and so Juan de la Cruz can't just be looking backward? And as even the writer's Western European friends would share, there is such a thing as creating the future – and thus we have our job cut out for us!

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