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.