Saturday, January 27, 2007

Seoul January 2007: Reflections, Ice Skating, and Shared Values

Good Morning,
This commentary comes from Starbucks Korea Sogong-dong, in the heart of Seoul. Reflective of globalization, the music playing as I sip my coffee is Marvin Gaye; the same music I’d heard last week in a La Jolla, California Starbucks.

Reflect and Observe
It has been nearly twenty years since I first visited Korea. This is my first trip for 2007. Each time, I reflect and observe the changes. One is the continued growth of western global franchises. Starbucks, Coffee Bean, Outback, and T.G.I. Friday’s stand out. Their signage showcases a strong presence in Korea. Subtler is the proliferation of foreign influence--Mug Hof, Tom N Toms Coffee, Cafe Les Jours, and Cafe Pascucci--—to list but a few. They are unfamiliar names to Americans, but they show the ever-expanding impact of the West on Korea.

Sadly, my taxi drive from Incheon International Airport was a night. I missed seeing a glimpse of traditional homes and farmlands on the ride into Seoul. As a historian who had written on Old Korea, the evening trip downtown failed to pass any sites of Korea’s past such as the Namdaemun, the Great South Gate. Instead illuminated bridges crossing the Han River, huge housing complexes like Lotte Castle, and the well-lit Soul of Asia ice skating ring at Seoul City Hall stood out. Perhaps I long for the past, a century ago I would have taken the 26-mile train from Chemulp’o (Incheon) to Seoul. Then, I would have jumped aboard the Seoul Electric Trolley, passed through the Great South Gate, and on to the foreign enclave; —just down the street from where I stay at the Lotte Hotel.

Incidentally, the first western style ice skating party in Seoul was sponsored by Queen Min. In 1894, the Queen curious of western customs asked the American Protestant missionaries in Seoul to hold a skating party in the Kyongbok Palace complex. The Queen and Royal Court watched as Anglos warmed their hands around a bonfire and skated on the Palace’s frozen pond. Hosted by Lillias Horton Underwood, the event was well received and seen as a sign that the Royal family was growing receptive to western culture.

Shared Values
Turning to the present, a focus of this trip, outside addressing the needs of my clients, is a continuing mission to observe, study, and interpret the Korean workplace, corporate cultures, and norms. As Korean global business expands, local teams whether they are in North America, the Middle East, or Europe need a strong understanding of company practices, core corporate culture, and universal expectations. Successful global firms share and instill the corporate vision and core values across their organizations. This is easier said, then done! In turn, global firms need to localize according to their respective markets. My work is bridging cultural gaps within organizations--—a worthy challenge. By the way, I’ve found that nothing compares with spending a day or two at a corporate headquarters working with teams. I look forward to sharing my insights.


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