Saturday, January 10, 2015

Overcoming cultures: East versus West

“Tagaytay City: Sad example in nation-building,” Former Philippine President Fidel V. Ramos, Manila Bulletin, 3rd Jan 2015. Instead of improving for the better, however, Tagaytay’s deterioration accelerated – in fact, nose-dived – as reflected in FVR’s follow-up article four years ago . . . President Aquino III’s appointment of former Tagaytay Mayor Francis Tolentino as MMDA chairman created waves of protests . . . It will be recalled that Francis Tolentino and his successor – brother Abraham, together with father Isaac Tolentino – have been among the most durable, authoritarian political dynasties in a major Philippine city, lasting some 40 years to-date.”

“Complaints against Chairman Tolentino and family have been exposed in various broadsheets . . . [T]he two Tolentino brothers… ‘Allegedly amassed some P500 million in ill-gotten wealth by way of unabated graft and corruption, abuse of power and authority in the form of real estate properties, businesses, vehicles, bank deposits, and other assets, which in no way can be justified as having been acquired legally through their earnings as public officials or even their private business ventures.’”

That is stretching “kaibigan, kaklase, kabarilan” one step too many? Or is that Pinoy culture as we call it, i.e., we can’t turn our back on family or friends? Yet, while leaders must have a heart, leadership demands much more. And fairness is one as opposed to nepotism or political patronage; that is, if we believe in freedom and equality and democracy being the path to the common good? And that was why Rizal made reference to the Age of Enlightenment – i.e., he saw that Padre Damaso had emasculated Juan de la Cruz?

“As today’s emerging giants face the challenge of moving beyond their home markets, they have much to learn from the path-breaking experience of South Korea’s Samsung Group, arguably the most successful globalizer of the previous generation.” [The Globe: The Paradox of Samsung’s Rise, Tarun Khanna, Jaeyong Song, Kyungmook Lee, Harvard Business Review, July 2011]

“Twenty years ago, few people would have predicted that Samsung could transform itself from a low-cost original equipment manufacturer to a world leader in R&D, marketing, and design, with a brand more valuable than Pepsi, Nike, or American Express. Fewer still would have predicted the success of the path it has taken. For two decades now, Samsung has been grafting Western business practices onto its essentially Japanese system, combining its traditional low-cost manufacturing prowess with an ability to bring high-quality, high-margin branded products swiftly to market.”

“The two sets of business practices could not have seemed more incompatible. Into an organization focused on continuous process improvement, Samsung introduced a focus on innovation. Into a homogeneous workforce, Samsung introduced outsiders who could not speak the language and were unfamiliar with the company’s culture. Into a Confucian tradition of reverence for elders, Samsung introduced merit pay and promotion, putting some young people in positions of authority over their elders. It has been a path marked by both disorienting disequilibrium and intense exhilaration.”

And thus this blog often talks about my Eastern European friends. They were once a tiny enterprise, and every now and again I would see snacks laid out by the pantry with a little sign that always made me curious. And it is to share one’s joy – which is inherent in the culture. It could be one’s birthday or there’s a new born or a promotion or one getting a new car. I had wondered how to embrace the culture since I’d be gone for stretches of time. Then I realized how they’d go for cheese and so finally whenever I was around, every Monday, I'd pick up some cheese and cold cuts. “It’s Monday, it’s a new week to celebrate.” But we have grown so much that today it’s no longer practical from the point of view of this foreigner. Still the locals keep to their culture, the idea is not to expect everyone to partake; it's the act of sharing one’s joy that matters.

In any case, we designed the offices to have many small meeting rooms and coffee-lounging areas for people to converge formally or informally and even watch important news or games on TV. And whenever I'd be “wandering around” it'd be easy to sense how passionate these little groups are in their pow-wows, if not take a pulse of the organization. For example, that these small teams – where plan execution occurs whether within a unit or across functions – are reflective of our GPS: where are we, where do we want to be, how will we get there. And it is an acquired culture, not one carried from the past.

How they’re adapting to different cultures and markets is amazing. When we sent two of them to Asia, first to Hong Kong and then to settle in Singapore, I had to share with them lots of do’s and don’ts. And in no time, from zero knowledge and instincts, they'd talk to me as though I was the non-Asian. And so we would very rapidly reward them “because it took you so much sooner to learn the ropes compared to how my old MNC company learned Asia.”

We Pinoys have had the benefit of access to the West just like our neighbors, if not ahead of them. Yet all of them have learned how to pick and choose what the West has to offer. While we’re still wedded to the past, if not our ideology – without the strong conviction how to move PHL forward in today’s highly competitive and globalized world? We’re not in oligarchic Russia, an underdeveloped economy, and a government for the few . . . cronies?

We can do better than that? First we must believe that we can be as good as anybody else? And we don’t have to forget about the past! I re-introduced my Eastern European friends to Leonardo da Vinci and the techniques of visualization and the concept (which is also not new) behind the modern GPS, including innovation and product-architecture modeling. And they have become part of the company's culture. [Yet we also have to disabuse their minds. That when all is said and done, it goes back to keeping it simple. As Steve Jobs would define “creativity, it is simply connecting the dots.”]

And America, the land of immigrants, has kept the efforts despite streaks of racism to embrace hundreds of cultures. In my old MNC headquarters, one would think they’re at the United Nations building because we represented every major market we catered to. And I remember a group of Koreans that had attended a course at Cornell and a professor-friend called with a request (because he knew how open, transparent and diverse our culture was) to show them our technology center. And as they bade goodbye, the head of the group gave a dig to the professor, “The few hours we spent at this technology center makes the period we spent in the classroom look shallow.” He was Asian and was, of course, grinning from ear-to-ear.

South Korea has shown the way. Beyond leadership, Juan de la Cruz must decide whether we shall remain wedded to the past? The Age of Enlightenment has been around, it’s from the past that we can embrace, but not those that hold us back? If FVR armed with evidence says Tolentino is a bad apple, President Aquino better dig deep into our way of life? And worst of all is finding excuses for our shortcomings? No wonder Pope Francis keeps hammering the Vatican, try self-criticism?

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