World Knowledge Forum

This post is based on Joseph’s 16 Octo­ber pre­sen­ta­tion to this major inter­na­tion­al con­fer­ence.

Asian man­age­ment think­ing should be mov­ing to the top of every­one’s mind. Again.

Back in the 1980s, I well recall all the atten­tion giv­en to the con­cepts of Qual­i­ty Cir­cles and “kaizen” (con­tin­u­ous improve­ment). Along with oth­er traits, peo­ple were dis­cussing the Japan­ese man­age­ment style ver­sus that of Europe and the Unit­ed States. Jump ahead 35 years, and the books you see are much more expan­sive. Just to name a few: the Hand­book of East Asian Entre­pre­neur­ship, edit­ed by Tony Fu-Lai Yu and Ho-Don Yan [link] is just about to be released; Jane Horan has an inter­est­ing study on How Asian Women Lead [link]; and, at the end of this month, you can check out The Chang­ing Role of the Human Resource Pro­fes­sion in the Asia Pacif­ic Region by Jayan­tee Mukher­jee Saha and Chris Row­ley [link].

While those in the West once focused only on Japan­ese man­age­ment style, now inter­est is clear­ly emerg­ing in how com­pa­nies are led and oper­ate, from India to the Philip­pines. (Did you know there is a Philip­pine Man­age­ment Review?).

Why might that be and why now? More than that, what does it mean for the rest of the world?

To start to answer these ques­tions, allow me to cite a pas­sage from Truong Quang and Nguyen Tai Vuong, who wrote “Man­age­ment Styles and Organ­i­sa­tion­al Effec­tive­ness in Viet­nam” (pub­lished in Research and Prac­tice in Human Resource Man­age­ment, vol. 10 no. 2, 36 – 55). Keep in mind, these com­ments were made in 2002 [link]:

It is impor­tant to iden­ti­fy the most suit­able style of man­age­ment to the spe­cif­ic oper­at­ing cir­cum­stances of an organ­i­sa­tion. There is a belief that man­age­ment styles are pro­found­ly influ­enced by the social cul­tures in which organ­i­sa­tions oper­ate. Thus, the Japan­ese have a dis­tinc­tive man­age­ment style, as have the Indi­ans, the Amer­i­cans, the British, the French and the Viet­namese. It is assert­ed that there is a ‘core style’ that reflects the val­ues and norms of a cul­ture and this is prac­ticed in every organ­i­sa­tion in that cul­ture, although with need­ed local vari­a­tions (Evans et al., 1989).

In real­i­ty, man­age­ment styles seem to vary sharply even in a giv­en cul­ture. For instance, in a study of 20 organ­i­sa­tions in Britain, two wide­ly con­trast­ing styles were iden­ti­fied (Burns and Stalk­er, 1961); in anoth­er study of 103 Cana­di­an com­pa­nies, sev­en dif­fer­ing styles were clas­si­fied (Khand­wal­la, 1977); and a sur­vey of 90 enter­pris­es in India led to the con­clu­sion that sig­nif­i­cant dif­fer­ences in man­age­ment styles were found not only between indus­tries, but also with­in each indus­try (Khand­wal­la, 1980).

Man­age­ment styles vary due to firm char­ac­ter­is­tics, such as organ­i­sa­tion type, busi­ness pur­pose, size, oper­at­ing envi­ron­ment, cor­po­rate cul­ture and her­itage. Giv­en this diver­si­ty, it seems impos­si­ble for all organ­i­sa­tions to be man­aged in the same way, even though in author­i­tar­i­an soci­eties attempts are often made to impose a uni­form man­age­ment style upon all organ­i­sa­tions belong­ing to the sys­tem. Based on prac­ti­cal obser­va­tions of 11 coun­tries of dif­fer­ent polit­i­cal and eco­nom­ic sys­tems, David­mann (1995) found that styles of man­age­ment depend to a con­sid­er­able extent on man­age­ment. In a small­er or medi­um size com­pa­ny, it is pos­si­ble for the own­er or the chief exec­u­tive to impress their own per­son­al style of man­age­ment on the rest of the organ­i­sa­tion.

In recent years, tremen­dous advances in the field of infor­ma­tion tech­nol­o­gy and com­mu­ni­ca­tion have had pro­found effects on the choice of a man­age­ment style for an organ­i­sa­tion. In many cas­es, the new devices and sys­tems (e.g. cel­lu­lar tele­phones and the Inter­net) can facil­i­tate the adop­tion of a par­tic­u­lar style, such as the quan­ti­ta­tive and sys­tems per­spec­tives (Lewis et al, 2001). How­ev­er, as warned by these authors, this would force the organ­i­sa­tion to under­go a change. From a more mar­ket-ori­ent­ed point of view, Dolan et al. (2002) argued that in an increas­ing­ly glob­al, com­plex, and pro­fes­sion­al­ly demand­ing world, which is con­stant­ly chang­ing and ori­ent­ed toward qual­i­ty and cus­tomer sat­is­fac­tion, a new mod­el is need­ed.

How insight­ful! Quang and Vuong’s cita­tion in the last quot­ed para­graph is even more rel­e­vant today than it was a dozen years ago. Glob­al busi­ness is even more inter­stitched than it ever was, dit­to mar­kets (finan­cial and oth­er­wise), dit­to gov­ern­ments. This leads me to state that the dis­tinc­tive­ness that I could cite for a gener­ic (if there could be such a thing) “Asian man­age­ment style” would most like­ly include these points:

  • Pro­duc­ing high­est qual­i­ty on a repeat­ed basis
  • Encour­ag­ing team­work with focus on work­er involve­ment
  • Think­ing strate­gi­cal­ly with a long-term view
  • Cre­at­ing sus­tain­able growth
  • Build­ing busi­ness and com­mu­ni­ty har­mo­ny

Yet, although such a list might have drawn a stark con­trast to West­ern organ­i­sa­tion­al cul­ture a few decades ago, aren’t many of the above bul­let points now high­ly aspired to by some West­ern com­pa­nies? The world of man­age­ment is shrink­ing. As Quang and Vuong said, “a new mod­el is need­ed.”

To my mind, that new mod­el will have many more peo­ple involved in strate­gic deci­sions affect­ing the firm, espe­cial­ly when it comes to deter­min­ing what should be “next” for an organ­i­sa­tion. Hereto­fore, in both the East and the West, the future of a com­pa­ny was decid­ed by a hand­ful of top-tier peo­ple (and per­haps a team of con­sul­tants). What’s wrong with that pic­ture? Most­ly this: the more nar­row the point of view of any com­pa­ny, the more prob­a­ble its sense of direc­tion is either lim­it­ed or warped.

Atten­tion lead­ers: your work­ers and man­agers come from many places, with many back­grounds, edu­ca­tions, expe­ri­ences, and many per­spec­tives on mar­ket­place trends. Lead­ers, you must go beyond involv­ing peo­ple only in today’s pri­or­i­ties. Make mul­ti­ple per­spec­tives a source of advan­tage. Think about the future from now on by think­ing from the cen­ter.

The nextsens­ing process has been refined to allow organ­i­sa­tions of all sizes to think much more col­lec­tive­ly — and crit­i­cal­ly. Nei­ther the East nor the West has tak­en that approach to the lev­el that the new process deserves. A new mod­el is here.

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