Corporate Cultural Imperialism — it’s a Good Thing

The usual advice for new managers coming to China has been to adapt, and to learn to do things the Chinese way. Don’t bring your expectations and standards to China, the old China hands say. The more time experts stay in China, the more likely they are to argue that China is a unique place, and managers need to understand Chinese cultural norms and mores in order to be effective.

I’ve always personally felt the opposite — that international management standards are international standards for a reason, and the more closely a manager adheres to principles used elsewhere, the better off he or she will be.

As far as I am concerned, local management practices are mostly irrelevant — unless it has to do with legal issues, such as labor contract law or government-mandated holidays.

I used to think I was alone. But now there’s new research to support my point of view.

According to a report released by the UK-based Economic and Social Research Council last week (Jan. 18), foreign multinational retailers entering the Chinese market should “keep largely to their own, time-tested management techniques.”

The researcher, University of London professor Jos Gamble, interviewed management and staff in eight Chinese cities, in both English and Chinese. His peer-reviewed study included more than 400 interviews with store workers and managers in 22 companies and 2,200 survey questionnaires.

Foreign organizations can provide workers with significant opportunities to prosper and improve their skills, he reported.

He offered the example of Japanese retailing firms, which are very prescriptive and detailed in the customer-relations training they provide to employees.
“The Japanese approach to customer service was particularly innovative in the Chinese context,” he said. “Whilst, initially, local customer response was quite negative, it rapidly achieved acceptance as a form of best practice.”
He also reported high levels of satisfaction about foreign retailers’ human resources methods, even when it came to staff employed in menial or dead-end jobs, he said. Workers reported that even these jobs provided learning opportunities.
“All the evidence suggests that, whilst it may be necessary to adapt to some extent to local conditions, time-tested management practices actually translate well across cultures,” he said.
I couldn’t agree more.

Many Chinese workers have told me that one reason that they want to work for a foreign company is to learn the international ways of doings things.

I don’t blame them. International companies are globally competitive. Compared to domestic firms in China — or anywhere else for that matter — they are more likely to encourage open discussion and internal criticism of plans, and hold people accountable to higher ethical and business standards. Good international firms reward people for ability and results, encourage risk-taking and innovation, and focus more on market performance than politics.

Back when I worked in Russia for an major international news organization, I heard from managers that they preferred to keep their bureau chiefs in country for nor more than a couple of years at a time — any longer, and the bureau chief would start to lose the connection to core corporate culture.

I’m not commenting on the Chinese media environment here, but in Russia in the mid-90s it was common for local journalists to copy information and quotes from local media and use the material verbatim, unattributed, in their reports. Journalists regularly received payments from sources for favorable publicity and ran articles favorable to local officials in order to ensure continued access.

News organizations have problems overseeing their foreign correspondents — editors in New York or Washington DC are unable to fact-check or manage these correspondents effectively. They rarely have the language skills or access to source materials that would enable them to catch plagiarism, or the contacts with sources that would ensure accurate reporting. They have to rely almost completely on what the foreign correspondents produce.

I knew a couple of foreign bureau chiefs who adapted remarkably well to local conditions. Lifting stories from local press meant shorter working hours. The lack of enterprise reporting was explained away by the fact that they were in Russia — and reporting was difficult and dangerous. Some of this was actually true — but managers back home had little way of differentiating laziness from actual problems on the ground.

As a general rule of thumb, the longer a journalist was on the ground, far from the competitive US journalism environment, the more their coverage suffered.

Now, I’m not going to speculate about whether this happens in China or not. As a matter of policy, our publication does not comment on media issues.

But I can say that the struggle against slipping standards is universal in all emerging economies — and, in fact, everywhere in the world. Whenever a company is best in class, its peers are going to be behind. And the weight of all those average companies will drag on the top performers.

In mathematics, this is known as “reverting to the mean.” In common terms, it’s simply, “that’s how everyone does it.”

Fighting against this tendency is a necessity for any high-performing company. When the prevailing practices are even farther behind, as in emerging economies, it only gets more difficult — but no less necessary.