Sunday, May 18, 2008

Special Commentary: Korea May 2008

Point One

Spending a week in Seoul gives me the opportunity to observe, listen, reflect, and comment. On this trip I worked with a diverse non-Korean team, helping them to better understand Koreans, Korean management style and business culture. This team was very global, having worked for a diverse group of companies. In the past, my Korean client had offered these employees a rather generic cross-cultural program where the trainer taught about the general differences between cultures, not the specifics the teams needed to successfully interact with the Korean management assigned to their home countries.

This year I suggested a different approach with training that centered on the specifics of Korean business including workplace and management style. My reasoning is simple—the participants are mid-level management with previous careers that had them working for a number of global firms. They didn’t need cross-cultural understanding or some generic details on Korea—they needed additional understanding of their Korea based company and the skills to work closely with their Korean partners.

Comment One
Do not seek out training firms, consultants, management teams, or vendors to provide services unless they have a deep knowledge of Korean business, specifically knowledge of your Korean-based firm. Seek an expert who knows the company, its leadership style, and its global operations in 2008. Also, make sure the training meets the needs of the participants.

Point Two
During my week in Korea I met and observed several non-Koreans visiting Seoul. Some were there as suppliers and vendors to the local firms. Many were there to work on projects, providing services and expertise to Korean businesses.

In conversations, I found that some non-Koreans, although savvy and experienced business people, lacked a real understanding of the working norms and expectations of Korean business and their client. Most often those new to Korea acknowledged their inexperience, while “veterans” actions showed a gap in understanding.

These cultural gaps are deeper than issues of where to eat, find lodging, shopping, or even business card protocol. They include the dynamics of meetings and the discussion of sensitive issues. In Korea some issues will never be discussed in a formal meeting. It is also a good idea to allow Korean partners to preview and analyze discussion topics prior to the meeting. Finally, Korean’s prefer quiet and reserved interactions to loud boisterous conversation.

Solution Two, part 1
Before sending a team member, client, associate, future vendor, etc. to Korea for the first time, provide them with training. More specifically, go beyond the details of the project and ensure they have the skills and understanding of the Korean partner’s company culture. For example, Samsung is very different from Hyundai, which is different from Lotte. Norms even vary within the segments of the larger firms—some are more global while others are more rigid and traditional. Each requires a unique understanding.

Solution Two, part 2
Korean culture training within your organization should be a constant and never ending process. In addition to providing new team members with awareness and skills, provide all team members and key management with coaching and ongoing training. In other words, just because a team member has worked in Korea, for a Korean-based firm, or on a Korean-based project they can still benefit from training.

As always, BCW is dedicated to supporting you and your team. I hope my insights and commentary stimulate and provoke though, which leads to positive change and progress.

Questions? Comments? Please feel free to contact BCW at 1-310-866-3777 or email

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