Wanted: A managerial culture that embraces cultural differences

By Frank-Jürgen Richter

Business Times, March 12, 2015

As Asian firms search for “global” managers to expand operations overseas, they should consider those who grew up abroad who surely are well attuned to cross-culture ventures.

Can innovators become transnational managers? Obviously the answer is yes – we have only to look at the examples: Bill Gates (Microsoft), Jack Ma (Alibaba) or Wang Jianlin (Dalian Wanda). They have developed from small beginnings to be global forces. Or the many automotive managers who have transformed local into global operations. Yet these guys are few in number if one considers all the highly innovative, often backyard, firms in the world. Their owners, with their friends, often work hard on an idea only to find eventually that it will not sell. Most innovations fail (many rightly so), but there are others that deserve to succeed locally and, perhaps, transnationally. How can we achieve a higher effective transition rate from backyard to commercial success?

The answers lie in several directions. Some would say that we need more venture or angel capitalists to provide seeding finance to bring the young product to commercial success. But even a vibrant capitalist marketplace such as the US has failed in recent years due to the economic slowdown after 2008, and not all nations have such a liquid capital market.

There is also a global lowering of trust. Innovators worry about intellectual property theft, capitalists worry about payback, and potential customers reject the weasel-words of marketing gurus. Research by Deborah Dougherty as long ago as 1992 showed that the styles used by people in organising their thinking and actions about innovation, which she called “interpretive schema”, are major barriers to linking and collaboration. Overcoming these barriers requires cultural solutions, not just structural ones.

Some would suggest an answer should come from business schools that re-educate specialists into business generalists able to see the big picture and, thus, able to aid highly focused innovators. This may be so in a few cases, but many MBA are employed within larger firms to make them more efficient: initially these guys don’t meet the innovators lost in the mire of commerce. By the time they might be deemed competent by their employer, they may have been converted to their firm’s own “interpretive schema” and so cannot discern the worth of a new invention. It is a tautological world sometimes.

Another answer, much more fundamental and probably more worthwhile, involves altering the mindset of children as they learn. This is given a new impetus as we become concerned about TCKs (third culture kids) who have grown up with parents moving around the globe. Their children have suffered or benefited from frequent changes in their learning environments as they grow up. They fashion relationships within the cultures, but don’t have full ownership in any. In effect, we return to the ideas of MsDougherty . . . the successful children have created a uniquely personal ability to absorb their surroundings, merging historical differences with new learning situations. Many of them flew before they could walk; or if asked a question, absentmindedly respond in a different language! Researchers are now questioning if older cohorts will be the new source of expatriate managers. These are the ATCKs – adult third culture kids – now grown up.

Developing nations should not have the millstone of legacy education methods, but many do not ensure their children benefit from their school years. Too often, poorly educated educators use old teaching technologies. All children should be guided by well-educated teachers able to present exciting learning so they learn to the best of their abilities. I am not saying all children will become brilliant, but good teachers will ensure the brightest of kids will not be hindered. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development(OECD), through its education testing Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), presents comparative global results that indicate Asian children outperforming the rest. But looking more carefully at the sampling process, we find populous nations represented by few data points – one school here or there. We ought to see widespread testing, the results of which will reassure policymakers that their pressure to provide good teachers has paid off. From a platform of increased ability, we ought then to find that innovators become more numerous across all sectors and they ought to attract better financing to develop their novelty into a commercial product to benefit society.

I am sure that better teaching – the sort that is desired by expatriates to educate their TCKs – will stimulate relatively immobile local children to accept other viewpoints: certainly Singapore’s educationalists think so. The OECD/PISA educators hope that students are taught to “think about their thinking”: to improve their understanding of know-what (the theorems) and the know-how (the procedures to solve different types of problems).

They should ask four types of questions when solving a problem – comprehension questions (What is the problem about?); connection questions (How does this problem relate to problems I have already solved?); strategic questions (What kinds of strategies are appropriate for solving the problem, and why?); and reflection questions (Does the solution make sense? Can the problem be solved in a different way?). These questions and their related cognitive processes gradually become a habit of mind, and perhaps, have become the routines subconsciously used by TCKs to stabilize their own learning platforms as they move between different cultures.

Chinese planners say most young children will be in pre-school education by 2020. But it will take a further 20 to 30 years before these kids are ready for international management positions. This is the stance across Asia as all firms search for “global” managers to expand operations abroad. Maybe the human resources departments or the heads of family businesses should be more willing to accept the ATCKs who surely are well attuned to cross-culture ventures?

There is no instant solution that will assure a rapid transition of innovator to manager. We need a new managerial culture that will embrace cultural differences that may be organisational, as well as national. Perhaps we ought to allow innovators to do more of the work they are good at rather than suggesting they must become managers – there are others, such as the ATCKs, who might be more fitting for this task – if we learn to trust them.

The writer is founder and chairman of Horasis, a global visions community.