Monday, October 27, 2014

Korea Perspective: Chapter 1-- Connected, Fluid and Conditional

an excerpt from my latest work in progress Korea Perspective 

Chapter 1 Connected, Fluid and Conditional

Perhaps the most enlightening experiences over my career as a business consultant has been managing Korea-based projects. As a result of years of study, research and coaching I developed a cognitive understanding into the Korean mindset. That said, nothing grounds one in reality as actually dealing with situations first hand.  What stands out from my Korea facing work (cognitive and real life) is the innerconnectiveness of their workplace. Author Richard Nisbett describes the concept well in The Geography of Thought:

To the Westerner, it makes sense to speak of a person as having attributes that are independent of circumstances or particular personal relations. 

This self— this bounded, impermeable free agent—can move from group to group and setting to setting without significant alteration. 

But for the Easterner (and for many other peoples to one degree or another), the person is connected, fluid, and conditional...    

The person participates in a set of relationships that make it possible to act and purely independent behavior is usually not possible or really even desirable.

Since all action is in concert with others, or at the very least affects others, harmony in relationships becomes a chief goal of social life.[1]

I interpret innerconnectiveness to mean the oneness of all things. A similar term, interdependence also applies to Korean workplace. Both terms refer to the idea that all things are of a single underlying substance and reality. More so, any separation is only at the superficial level. Drilling deeper, the core is the concept of universal oneness.

I find the concept of this oneness as overarching and the foundation for values often used to describe the cross-cultural differences between Western and Eastern nations. The most relevant values to the Korean workplace are collectivism, high power distance and low risk tolerance. As for collectivism, in Korea the group is the primary unit of reality and the ultimate standard of value.

In collectivistic societies, group goals take precedent over an individuals objectives. This view does not deny the reality of the individual, but ultimately collectivism holds that one's identity is determined by the group(s) with which one is affiliated. Essentially, one's identity is molded by relationships with others.

Collectivistic cultures also require that individuals fit into the group. The groups goals and needs supersede the individuals comfort and satisfaction.  Within the collectives, the group shares responsibility and accountability, while fostering harmony, cooperation and interdependence. Independence vs. interdependence is, of course, not an either/or matter. Every societyand every individualis a blend of both. [2]

I also see innerconnectiveness as an outcome of Korea and East Asias strong rooting in Taoist, Confucian and Buddhism. Again citing Nisbett:

Confucianism blended smoothly with Taoism. In particular, the deep appreciation of the contradictions and changes in human life, and the need to see things whole, that are integral to the notion of a yin-yang universe are also part of Confucian philosophy. [3]

In addition philosopher Donald Munro pointed out that East Asians understand themselves in
"their relation to the whole, such as the family, society, Tao Principle, or Pure Consciousness.” [4] 

I would include the workplace in Munro’s paradigm.

As for the influence of Buddhism, Pratītyasamutpāda is commonly translated as dependent origination or dependent arising. The term is used in the Buddhist teaching and refers to one of the central concepts in the Buddhist traditionthat all things arise in dependence upon multiple causes and conditions.

An Example
The Korean workplace is a complexity of interrelations. Decisions must consider relationships and the impact to the organization. To share an example from a project in which I was engaged, a meeting concluded following a high level presentation to division heads with the leadership pleased, but deferring decisions until they internally discussed.

To the dismay of the project leads, in the days following the presentation assignments for portions of the project were distributed to a number of departments. In private the project's lead team was not pleased but accepted the mandate. There was no recourse since the parceling came from leadership.  The team did not wish to create an issue despite knowing that the other teams were poorly equipped to handle the assignments. The lead team sought to maintain harmony above alleven knowing their project would suffer.

A Question
Pondering on the concept of the “ oneness of things”, this raises a question. Is considering actions that will impact a myriad of relationships more important than process, procedures and planning in the Korea workplace?  

[1] Richard Nisbett, The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently...and Why,,Free Press, 2003, pp.  50-51.

[2] Ibid p. 67

[3] Ibid p. 16
[4] Donald J. Munro, Individualism and Holism: Studies in Confucian and Taoist Values, Center for Chinese Studies, University of Michigan, 1985. P. 17

Copyright 2014 BCW


Monday, October 20, 2014

Korea Facing 2014: the TF

As with the previous post, I highly encourage you to share your comments and feedback.
Questions? Comments? 
In this commentary which builds upon the previous Process articles, I would like point out that although the Korean model appears to move quickly, potential projects are, in fact, reviewed with a high level of scrutiny. 

Prior to the approval of any major initiative a “behind the scenes” dedicated task force (TF) is formed. The TF’s job is to research and benchmark the best practices of similar projects outside Korea. In many cases the team is cross-functional, comprised of staff from across the company—each member representing a department. Quite often the TF operates under a code name and work is kept confidential and private, even from most of their own organizations. Over the course of several months the team will compile a comprehensive report for leadership on which management can base a decision.  TF reports can vary from a PPT presentation to thick binders.

The preparation work by the TF can provide considerable data and establish timelines, benchmarks and a roadmap for the project. For the Korean market, with which Korean business is most familiar, there is little gap between this in-house planning and the start of implementation.

More significant gaps between planning and implementation occur when Korean firms expand globally and the TF are unfamiliar with the nuances of the local market. Plans crafted in Korea often have little relevance to the actual execution of an overseas project –the timelines, cost estimates and roadmaps requiring constant adjustment and revisions.  

As a solution, I suggest TFs solicit local support, and industry expertise--realizing that in many cases, especially in new global launches, there are no overseas operations yet to draw upon.  This means the TF not only benchmark best practices globally but also seek out common pitfalls, potential challenges and worst-case situations. 

In turn, local teams who will be required to implement need to realize and accept the Plan as more of a roadmap vs. a detailed blueprint.  Once leadership has approved the project, the teams assigned to the project are expected to make all efforts  to achieve  the milestones.  

Your Questions, Comments, Feedback?


Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Korea Facing 2014: Process—the Feedback

My commentary titled “Process” provided insights into the differences between western and Korean project with a focus on planning stage. To recap, Koreans tend to move fast and make necessary adjustments going forward. In contrast, the western and the Japanese process invests considerable time initially to explore all the potential pitfalls and plan accordingly prior to beginning the implemention. In most cases timelines for Korean projects are considerably truncated— a potentially year-long project might be reduced to 3-4 months.  A follow-up commentary to ‘Process’ is underway; in the meantime I’d like to share some reader comments:

Thanks for the discussion.  I loved the topic.

These comments are like gold!
The conflicts between Western and Korean styles are really quite confronting  (baffling to any new staff), and your comments and explanations are like little rays of sunshine breaking through the black clouds. Please keep them coming.

A great piece. Matches my experiences to a T and helps put them in a context that I can understand. Captures some very important ideas.

Great read – my concern is cut twice measure once is not necessarily a proven option.

Thanks Don – you’re spot on here.

I’d also like to share Dr. Jennie (Chunghea) Oliver’s insights. Her academic work at the moment is focusing on globalization and international business.  As in the past Jennie’s input on my writing on Korea business is very much appreciated.

Jennie notes…
Understanding the cultural background of a host country is critical for international firms.  Culture, as a powerful force pervasively embedded in human interactions and behaviors, helps one get a glimpse of how society is organized and how members of society play their roles.  The differences between monochronic culture and polychronic culture, which also show strong connections to individualism and collectivism, have been widely discussed.  For example, while a monochronic person takes a serious commitment towards following plans, a polychronic person is willing to change plans as needed.  Another example is that while a monochronic person tends to tackle tasks one at a time, a polychronic person tends to multitask.  Besides these two examples, orientations toward relationships, time commitments, privacy, punctuality, and private belongings are also included in the differences described by Edward Hall in his book "Understanding cultural Differences: Germans, French, and Americans." 

Agriculture was a major element of the Korean economy up until the early 1960s.  In an agricultural environment, farmers plan their activities around meteorological factors which are uncontrollable by man.  In this kind of environment, time is cyclical as things are done around seasonal requirements.  As such, people tend to change their activities and plans as they go depending on the external elements, namely the weather and the needs of others if cooperative farming is practiced.  While waiting for the right time for seeding, planting, weeding, and harvesting, farmers tackle various other tasks.  Korean meals eloquently describe this tendency.  Korean meals typically consist of a bowl of cooked rice, stew (or soup), and 3 or more side dishes all at once.  The person who prepares the meal basically multitasks in order to complete the preparations in a timely manner.  While cooking rice, the soup and side dishes are made simultaneously. 

According to your comment about work process style, "measuring twice, cutting once" is standard in Western business practice (and Japanese) while Korean organizations seem to exhibit "measuring once, cutting twice" as their model.  These two perspectives show a stark difference in worldview.  Without understanding each other's work orientation and habits along with cultural background as described above, partnerships between Western companies and Korean companies is likely to encounter mistrust and dysfunction.  In this regard, there is a benefit of having outside consulting firms involved in partnership projects to help both parties meet their respective needs and expectations.

Working with others who do not share the same culture, language, and habitual norm is challenging for everyone and calls for a great deal of energy, patience, and strategic decision making.  There is no perfect business solution that works for all organizations.  Solutions that worked for some organizations may not have the same effect for others.  This thought also applies to work process style.  Some projects need a "measuring twice, cutting once" strategy while others need a "measuring once, cutting twice" strategy.  The local business environment contributes to this phenomenon.  Depending on how quickly the market moves, companies have to adjust their actions.  Nevertheless, there are business practices proven to be successful over time.  In this case, the best business practices are often taken into consideration for deciding on what kind of work process style is appropriate for a specific project.   

Jennie Oliver, EdD


Tuesday, October 07, 2014

Korea Facing 2014: Process

This is the first commentary in a new series on Korean global business. My hope is you respond in an email and share your thoughts and comments. 

Like with my previous works, I will edit the series into a new publication (yet to be titled) and incorporate the valued comments and input. 

Don Southerton, Author

Process: Cut Twice, Measure Once?

During a recent workshop I polled participants on the differences they experienced between the Korean and western workplaces.  One attendees comment centered on how the Korean planning and execution process differed from not only his previous western background but also the Japanese model. 

When asked to elaborate, the participant shared that Koreans tend to move fast and make necessary adjustments as needed going forward.  This was in sharp the contrast to his experience with the western and the Japanese process in which time is taken initially to explore all the potential pitfalls and plan accordingly before implementing.

Others in the group added that the ability to report that the project was underway seemed of utmost importance to theIr Korean colleagues. Additionally, in most cases timelines for projects were considerably truncated a potentially year-long project might be reduced to 3-4 months.

Reflecting on the group's comments, I recalled that a colleague once noted the Korean model might be seen described as cutting twice after measuring oncea variation to the adage measure twice, and cutting once.

From a cultural perspective, the Koreans approach to managing projects differs from the West. To better explain dynamics in the Korean workplace, we need to draw on two cross-cultural terms. The first is "mono-chronic" in which people proceed according to linear plans made well in advance of the project start and carry out tasks one at a time from start to finish. For many this is considered a very western approach. The second term is "polychronic" in which numerous tasks are addressed but not necessarily linear. Multiple issues can be dealt with simultaneously while other assignments can be put on hold or elevated in priority. In many cases, this is the Korean workplace.

A polychronic work style can result in negotiations, planning, and project activities proceeding at major levels with conversations jumping back to earlier discussed issues mixed with new issues. On the positive side, Korean organizations are flexible and teams are used to change. Frankly, however, this can conflict with a workplace culture of high risk-avoidance and limited risk taking.

All this said, I have some suggestions.  First, recognizing this is the Korean model and adapting accordingly will save considerable frustration and stress.  I have seen efforts by western firms working with their Korean partners to institute a structured project management process to align teams.  In some cases this means bringing in experts and outside consulting firms to put in place a western project control system. Although the Korean teams are open to the training and cognitively agree in the value of the procedures, they rely on their own time-proven systems and defer to their own methods, especially when under a deadline. This can apply in U.S., global and Korea-based projects.

And, a final thought to consider.  Recently, I have found that Korean companies expanding internationally may spend considerable time researching the new market but stop short of a detailed action plan. Probing deeper into this approach, they see these first ventures as a 'learn as you go' experience and are open to what works and what does not.  Lessons learned are then used as a foundation for future bolder market entry project efforts.


Comments requested :)