Monday, November 17, 2014

Korea Perspective: Chapter 4 Short on Feedback

Chapter 4
Short on Feedback

Sharing their feedback from a request for comments, a client noted:  My experiences on major projects have been frustrating at times as HQ’s review process is much too long, bureaucratic & short on feedback..."

The most common frustration in the overseas workplace is tied to communications between the Korean HQ and local operations. In the best cases, teams in local offices feel somewhat disconnected; in the worst cases they feel information is being deliberately withheld.

What may be a surprise for overseas teams is that even the Korean staff must make an effort to stay informed. As one entry-level employee of a major Korean group lamented,  “If I did not spend an hour daily networking with fellow workers, I would be in the dark on issues major and minor that could have significant impact on projects.”   For my own client work with Korea companies, nightly chats via phone and frequent emails and texts are required or I, too, would be ill informed and “in the dark.”

That said, for most Korea facing international operations, the communication channel between the Korean HQ and local subsidiary is through expatriates (ju jae won) who are often referred to as “Coordinators.” In the larger overseas subsidiaries, these Korean expats are assigned to the major departments.

In many, if not most, circumstances the expats are not assigned managerial roles but instead operate as a “shadow management” with considerable oversight of local operations.  Roles vary with each company, but frequently a coordinator’s primary role is to be liaison between Korea and the local subsidiary.  Frankly, some expats are more open to sharing information than others. Regardless, I feel this is less a deliberate withholding of news than a “filtering” -- that is, a review of communications from the mother company and then a doling out of that which the coordinator considers   appropriate.  Filtering becomes an issue when the expat withholds information until the last moment to avoid confrontation or to address a delicate situation.  Delaying communication often forces local operations to drop everything and deal with an issue that would have been less demanding and disruptive for the teams if conveyed in a timely manner.

In other situations, I have found expats “filtering” information until they are 100% certain of an outcome or upcoming event.  Activities, events, travel and schedules are continually changing.  So instead of constantly having to return to the local team to shift plans, the expats stay quiet until the last moment. What appears to be a holding back on news is actually an attempt based on their years of experience working with the mother company to spare local teams of concerns that could and probably would change over time. 

Part 2 of Chapter 4 will highlight 2 scenarios and my suggested countermeasures.


Copyright BCW 2014

Monday, November 10, 2014

Korea Perspective: Chapter 3, Part 2

Another preview of the new "work in progress."  Questions and comments welcome.

Chapter 3  Place, or  no two equal

Part 2

Two Scenarios
Hierarchical status driven interactions, communication norms, and the day to day situations that surface can dramatically impact the overseas’ workplace.  On a number of occasions I have been tasked to assist clients in overcoming impasses. Most often I see a common thread--one rooted in a mismatch in status, title and position.

For example, a major American brand was negotiating with a large Korea retail group interested in a licensing arrangement.  Time had passed with little progress to the dismay of the American CFO/ COO who had felt initial talks with the Korean company’s CEO would lead to a solid agreement. When I quizzed the American executive on the negotiation channel for the potential partnership, he indicated that all communication was with a Ms. Shin. The US executive quickly added he had never personally met Ms. Shin and that all interactions were via email. He also pointed out that she was very professional and capable.

After some further questions, the CFO/ COO mentioned he had Ms. Shin’s contact information. Upon review, I determined the Korea team member’s rank and position—daeri or Assistant Manager to the American executive’s surprise.  He had assumed he was dealing were with a more senior level manager.  My follow up was that we needed to ask Ms. Shin to kindly arrange a meeting between the American CFO and the Korean Group’s CEO to rekindle the negotiations and resolve issues that appear to have stalled the talks.

In a second example an American company was supplying product to a Korean manufacturer.  The American plant manager who oversaw a division of the company was frustrated in dealing with ongoing supply issues and follow-up. Although he saw the Korean team overseeing day-to-day operations as cordial, little was ever resolved.  Because of these unresolved issues the American company was now considering dropping the account, although it was a major revenue stream.

Again my approach was to determine the title and position of the Korean teams directly involved.  They were in fact chajang (Deputy General Managers)—and from what I could determine oversaw all the day-to-day operations at the Korean manufacturing plant. Meeting with the American executive, I noted the   position title on his business card was General Manager (GM). Quizzing him on the title, he explained that within his manufacturing sector a GM was commonly responsible for overall plant leadership. That said, in Korea a General Manager is seen as a highly respected member of the team but a tier below leadership positions. In turn a plant manager in Korea would hold a Managing Director or Vice President level ranking.

Probing deeper I asked if the American plant manager had ever met his customer’s leadership.  He noted they had met briefly years earlier, but on his 2-3 trips to the Korea each year the meetings were with the chajang Deputy General Managers and limited in scope to day-to-day operations.  What became clear was that issues were not being resolved in part because they never moved beyond the working team level. What should have been reconciled between the leadership of the two firms was never elevated within the Korea company because the Korea team viewed the American executive as their peer with senior manager rank versus a Managing Director or Vice President.

My coaching was to reposition the American plant manager as leadership with a Vice President rank.  Meetings were then arranged with Korean senior management to tackle the outstanding issues.

A better approach
In short, determine titles and positions early in the relationship.  Also, request an organizational chart and provide one to the Korean team.  In some cases adjust American rank designations to better align with the Korean organization. 

Remember titles and position are based on time and seniority with one’s age matching the position. With age in most cases tied to rank in the Korea workplace, norms dictate entry-level staffing are in their early to mid 20s, middle management those in their 30s and leadership individuals in the 40s and 50s.  


Tuesday, November 04, 2014

Korea Perspective: Chapter 3 Place, no two equal

Before sharing a sneak peak of Chapter 3 Place, no two equalsome recent feedback on last week’s posting. 

Hi Don,

This is very fascinating.

In my personal studies with Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese Zen Buddhist monk, he often uses the term “inter-being” to highlight our collective interconnection with everything.

In my workplace and personal interactions with both Eastern and Western cultures, I have also witnessed the inherent conflict between collectivism and independence. There are quite a few jokes in Western circles around the “efficiency” of committees. In fact, most of the stated perspective about collaborative decisions is one of weakness and delay.
I wonder, then, how these different perspectives have been able to inter-operate as well as they have.
Will (or does?) your book include examples of successful inter-actions?


Chapter 3   Place, or  no two equal

As noted in Chapter 1, innerconnectiveness or oneness is foundational and overarching in the Korean workplace. Norms and practices that may appear as routine and day-to-day are rooted in the concept. This chapter looks at “Place” within the social matrix. Introduction “meet and greets,” the sharing of business cards and a person’s company title are visible examples of Place in the workplace.

Broadly speaking, within the Korea workplace and society everyone occupies a position—a few individuals at the top, some in the middle and others in bottom tier.  No two individuals ever share the same status within this social stratification.

Within this paradigm and from a cross-cultural perspective Korea is seen as a high Power Distance society. This means there are substantial gaps between those in middle and lower ranks and those at the top. Still in contrast to the West’s “Us and Them,” in Korea all are seen inclusive and part of the same connected framework.

Introductions, business cards and company titles serve as useful tools in better determining and fine tuning place in the matrix for Koreans who share a common culture and heritage. For example, when two Koreans meet for the first time a polite greeting is followed by the exchange of business cards. The role of the business card is to provide the person’s title as well their company affiliations—again as with individuals, no two companies ranked the same. That said, considerable significance is given to Fortune 500 firms and/ or global brands, such as Apple, Cisco, Samsung, or Hyundai. For academics, public sector officials and professionals the business card provides the same function by highlighting if the person is a Ph.D., Consular General, MD or graduate student.  Additionally, the business card provides information about associations with a well-known university, government agency or hospital. Together the company or institutional affiliation and title provide a means of positioning a person within a workplace hierarchy.

Next both parties in an introduction commonly face a litany of questions beginning with the middle and high schools they attended their college education, marital status, number of children along with other inquiries that a Westerner may consider personal, such as church or religious affiliations. If a third party is present for the introductions, that person, too, might add to this conversation, embellishing each person’s life accomplishments and status whenever possible. 

Combined with non-verbal clues, dress and appearance, one’s employment, title and education, all come into play in internalizing the placement of that person within society—again, while still considering each individual as a part of the greater whole. Once this place is determined, the new acquaintances will also then follow norms for interacting and communicating in business and day-to-day matters.

“Part 2” of this article will look at these hierarchical and status driven interactions and communication norms, a number of which differ from the West and can dramatically impact the overseas workplace.


BCW 2014

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