Thursday, October 25, 2012

Thinking outside the box

Beyond the fight against corruption – where we must remain vigilant – we’ve made progress in raising our competitiveness as reflected in the most recent global rankings. Yet given we are ways away from becoming a robust and a sustainably growing economy, like in the fight against corruption, we must step up our efforts in driving competitiveness. For example, we must develop the instinct to think outside the box.

Has our sheltered culture – to shelter us from the influence of the secular world, a carryover from the parochial and hierarchical structure of the church – tempered our inquisitiveness and expansiveness critical in the 21st century world? And it’s no different from what Rizal saw during his days – and so he took up the cudgels for the rest of us – and no different from the debate within the Vatican? And today our culture mirrors aspects of the church that we are in fact proud of – like our “opo” and “mano po?” My daughter with most of her grade school years done in Manila is profuse with her “opo” when with Filipino elders but on a dime, with non-Filipinos, turns into a western. Like me she grew up wanting to please her parents. But what does that really mean? Intuitively, as parents, we assume we must be obeyed? And so we take it for granted, for instance, that we can snap at our children – because parenthood gives us the rank and the privilege? That’s fine if in return we won’t mind our children snapping back at us? “Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger by the way you treat them . . .” [Ephesians 6:4]

Our hierarchical society has kept us behind the times. And it was refreshing that a cardinal (May he rest in peace!) would raise the issue with the church. While a priest-columnist recently discussed academic freedom; and hopefully we take it beyond lip service? As Steve Jobs would explain, it was California’s tolerance for the counter-cultural that opened his eyes to look and think outside the box – that is at the heart of the Apple brand. (And analysts estimate the record sales of iPhone 5 will buoy up US GDP this year.) Around the world and irrespective of culture, people are glued to their Apple gadgets whenever they need to shut the world out – in trains and boats and planes. My wife and I were recently on an 11-hour train trip from New York to Montreal and my Eastern European friends had access to me and vice versa.

Yes, every human idea has a downside and man can choose evil over good! And it’s easy to point at others – be it our notoriety in corruption or our being economic laggards? But where is our failure to innovate, for example, coming from? Do we instinctively see kids or subordinates as inferior? The boss has all the answers? And so in the 21st century we’re paying the price for missing the imperative of innovation, and thus have the least patents to show in the region? We have our “muchachas” and in the west they only have “cleaning ladies.” It is not the label that matters it is how they are perceived? In the Philippines I was called “sir” or “bossing.” In Eastern Europe early on I needed an assistant, a translator and a driver. And in the Philippine that would mean hiring a staff of three? But the incremental two jobs I would have created can’t compare with the multiplier effect of an efficiently functioning economic activity! Unfortunately, we could miss such a reality because of compassion – e.g., like our failed land reform program?

I hired one young college kid to be all three and he called me like my friends did. He kept normal working hours (being a working student) five days a week, beyond which my wife and I would have to make special arrangements. He would see his work from different perspectives: “I could see how the dots were connecting.” Beyond translating he found himself explaining in their language the nuances of discussions and decisions. “Tell me what you need and why and I will get you a user-friendly report in the intranet,” he once said to a senior manager. And our managers access our intranet constantly because it facilitates decision-making – even when on a train in North America.

Should we then be asking: Why haven’t we created a society that is progressive, that is forward-looking and an economy that is value-creating and robust and growing? No wonder a tycoon can put a gun to our head because we are hanging by a thread – with no track record in attracting investments?

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