Report from Tomorrow - Vol 37

1USD = S$1.68 (S$1 = 0.58USD)

Doing Business the Asian Way

The difference between our western culture and the Asian cultures you find here is vast. I've been warned by other ANG MOs (westerners) here and now I've been here long enough to witness some things too.

Working relationships here can be deceiving. In general, the world of programming is largely a meritocracy. At the techie level at least, the respect you get is based to a great extent on what you know and can do - and this is true here also, after a fashion. What follows are necessarily generalizations, and hence contain both partial truths and untruths.

The idea of "face" is really important here. You are not to put people in situations where they lose face with others. Don't ask hard direct questions in a group - something that is almost impossible to not do for westerners.

A major rule in this society is to not confront. Western "yelling", which we call being frank or direct, is not productive under any circumstances. If you yell (even being aggressive or loud), both of which are pretty impossible to control for westerners who are passionate about their work, you will simply be frozen out. They won't say anything, but they won't necessarily do what you want either. They won't involve you, will not participate.

I've seen a few cases where people were "reprimanded" by top management. They were devastated (so it was explained to me). I thought they just got asked an obvious question. I wonder how many times I've gotten in trouble and never knew it? :-) Fortunately, most people are very used to westerners and cut us some slack. But as much as they may consciously compensate, the emotional effect remains and can affect how people work (or don't work) with you.

Another aspect of this same topic is shown by the use of names in a meeting. For most of this year our manager meetings were run by westerners, so we had topics like "Phil's report" on the agenda. Now top level Chinese management has taken over the meetings and the same agenda item is now "SI Report" (where SI is the name of a group headed by Phil). When this was announced, I pointed out this was "another of those cultural things. We all know that nothing has changed, 'SI' is still 'Phil'", and all, including the Chinese managers, chuckled over it. But the agenda items were changed anyway. :-)

In this culture, one should never say "No". The answer is always "Yes", which might mean "Yes, I hear you", "Yes, I understand", "Yes, I agree" and even "Yes, I'm not going to do what you want". If you're lucky, someone else will translate for you. Drives you crazy sometimes.

Body language here is very misleading. ANG MOs are so much more expressive. If one agrees or not, his body language will tell you immediately. The Chinese are almost impossible for me to read. You make a point, and then a VP lowers his eyes and says "OK, lah". Is this good or bad? I don't know either.

At one vital meeting, the Chairman of the bank was being shown some new technology. After a bit, he said "OK" and got up and walked out. No one (including the Chinese managers) had a clue what he meant, but they did not want to ask. So an ANG MO called the Chairman directly on the phone (producing mild cardiac arrest in the Chinese managers) and asked what "OK" meant. He got a straight answer and the project was funded.

A Chinese business (as this bank is) is a very autocratic and hierarchical institution. It's very important to include the manager in everything. Of course, 90% of the time the manager is clueless and you really need the worker bee, but you better include his/her manager too. This is less true for the technical side of the world, but it remains a good generalization.

No Chinese employee would think of making a change without clearing it with his/her manager. In IBM-speak, they are not "enabled". Employees here do not feel they have the authority to make changes - and they are correct. This means changes are erratic, come from the top, and are necessarily arbitrary, being made by people so far from the problem, they cannot make informed decisions. I carefully told the Chairman of the bank that. Later it was explained to me, that this is precisely the way they want it. Efficiency and all the values ANG MOs hold dear, just don't count in this arena.

One way to get a decision made is to raise the issue peripherally in a meeting with a higher manager and get his answer noted in the minutes. For instance, if we need more money for hardware, my manager might make an "off hand" remark about how tough things are because we need faster machines. The Chairman, wanting to help, says something like "Money shouldn't be an issue". The minutes record that the chairman "approved the purchase of new machines". You then go to purchasing and show them the minutes and order your hardware. Not in your budget? Doesn't matter, cause it was approved by the Chairman. Geeez - what a way to run a business!

Because managers hold such power, you must be terribly careful around them in general. Watch out for "throw away lines" that we Westerners use so much, like "Exchange is such a piece of junk. We should be using Eudora" (meaning, "I'm frustrated with our mail system"). An executive VP might jump on this and make a policy decision like, "OK, remove Exchange from the bank" with zero consideration for the impact of this. Now he can't back down, cause that'd cause him to lose face.

In one case a Westerner for a bank vendor and an executive VP were negotiating on a price and the ANG MO said, "To be fair ...". The VP called the guy's manager and said the ANG MO had claimed the VP was not fair and he was never to call or set foot in the bank again. And he has not. Man, what a mine-field!

Me? I keep my head down and mouth shut (as much as I can)! It's curious, though, face-to-face, the same Chinese manager might act very western and respond to your "throw away line" very differently, but put them in a meeting and it's a different ball game.