Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Asia – the next big MBA thing?

However "soft skills" forms the weak underbelly of most MBA graduates across the entire international spectrum, according to
MBA recruiters, and not just Asians. This includes important business skills such as interpersonal relationships, networking, aspects of motivation and leadership that western businesses very much require in order to continue their successful routes. The news, and this may be a surprise to some, is that the opposite is also true. With the rise and rise of the economies of Asia and the associated wealth, comfort of lifestyle and business opportunities that Asia offers, increasing numbers of western MBA graduates are heading east. Many are finding that their preconceptions of soft skills and interpersonal relationships do not prepare them for the reality of living in a new and different culture and that, sometimes, their
MBAs have not fully prepared them for the reality of living and working there. In Chinese culture particularly the concept of "face" is important. Losing, saving, gaining and even lending face are applicable to a deep level in the culture, on personal as well as business levels. According to John Fernandez, an American writer who lived in China for eight years, the closest synonym in English, would be "reputation". He writes, in The Concept of "Face" in Chinese Culture: "In Asian culture, if someone has face this means someone has a good reputation in front of one's peers. Interestingly, having good face is actually a "bankable" notion in Chinese culture. Having face in front of one's business colleagues or within a community is literally a statement of that person's value. If someone has good enough face, in some cases they can walk into a lending institution (such as smaller, privately operated banks), and take out a loan on their word only. People with good face are generally dependable, reliable, and safe to do business with. As we say in Western culture, "His word is as good as gold." This is essentially what good "face" means." Limei Liang, a marketing expert from China living in London, expands on this: "Chinese culture is very family- and friendship-oriented. Knowing someone with good face means being able to go to them, for example, to help you get a job. Their word means something to the person offering the job that may help the other person who wants that job." Across much of east Asia, the boundaries of business are breaking down rapidly and what used to be considered cultural boundaries are now something to bind together rather than divide business people. When deconstructing interpersonal relationships between potential business partners it seems that there are far more similarities than differences. Matthew Abrahams is President of International Trade and Management Ltd. in Tokyo. "Doing business in Japan is the same as doing business anywhere but requires a different cultural context of "soft skills". Operating here requires a different mindset though modern Japan has changed a lot recently. In business terms, the Japanese are becoming a lot more relaxed but behind it is a local, insular focus. I would say that when business people come here they face a hurdle of insularity that is unlike China or Korea; they make a greater effort to speak learn and communicate in English. In Japan the barriers are stronger." When doing business in Asia, the western business person needs to remember a few major differences that can cause immense frustration if not taken on board quickly. Negotiation skills are quite similar anywhere in the world. There are four steps: 1) Introduction. 2) Information exchange. 3) Negotiation. 4) Agreement. However, according to Abrahams, "Coming from Western culture to Asian culture one needs to understand the different stages and understand that the emphasis is different. In the west we tend to go through phases 1 & 2 really fast and spend 70% of our time on negotiation: "The reason you should choose us is...." In Japan the emphasis is maybe 70% on first 2 areas. "Also important is what's known as "nemawashi" (the roots of a tree). When you pick up a tree to move it you have to build consensus and teamwork so it roughly translates to "consensus building". At a negotiation, Japanese business people will not usually make a decision there and then but will take it back to the office environment to seek consensus on how to proceed. They will refer it back for consensus building and return back with a largely fixed position. When you go to a meeting with Japanese it's about information exchange not solution-making and meetings are for confirming facts and information exchange. This can be frustrating for westerners as people expect serious negotiation time, however often it's confirming previously agreed topics. It's important to get the agenda sorted in advance." Essentially, the soundest advice of all is not to typecast or stereotype anybody in any business situation. The cultures of Asia are not only different from those of the west but are extremely different from one another. Craig Coltrane, who lived in Asia for four years, says: "It sometimes annoys me when I hear people talk about "Asian culture." This is a huge continent with most of the world's population and hundreds of languages and culture. It's like saying "European culture" and lumping Greeks and Irish people in together." Matthew Abrahams concurs. It's very easy to typecast but you will fail to achieve success if you stereotype the individual. Get to know people on a one to one level or they will never relate to you and you'll never trigger successful business relationships. Look for similarities not differences. In that sense the process is exactly the same, though the triggers and stimuli are different."

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