Saturday, March 17, 2007

The "Culture" Myth

I can't say that I've ever been a fan of the idea that culture drives behaviour. In China, as with everywhere else in the world, people respond to incentives. As with work in Uganda, I've been suspicious of the argument that people there value family more, any more than relationships are so much more important here in China or anywhere else for that matter.

Beyond the (allegedly) bonding effects of offering free flowing booze and sex and the idea that by making a buyer/client your friend they'll be more inclined to buy from you, relationship building here I think takes on particular importance. It's the simple theory that you're less likely to be swindled by doing so and one just can't rely on such things as contract law or property law where such outlandish ideas (at least to communists) have only recently been codified/established. Yes, for communists in China, to be a capitalist is bizarrely glorious.

In some ways it seems stunning that it's not overwhelming for those in the two generations before me who have seen so much change. To hear what my parents went through, and their parents in turn, seems entirely foreign compared to the relatively stable existence in the West. From the cultural revolution and daughters forced to denounce their parents to avoid savage beatings (it's surreal to hear this stuff first hand) to my grandmother smuggling food into the country side in the dead of night to feed her nieces and nephews seems a world away from the rapid development and what might have only a few decades ago been denounced as the 'Western decadence', short term and seemingly money seeking China of today.

With a seemingly unenforceable legal system, a rapid level of development and so much money sloshing around, it's not surprising that there's also been so much temptation from many who would otherwise be farmers who come to cities with next to nothing in search of money. In the few years that I've worked here, I've seen any number of swindles that it's truly nerve racking and something I have to be cognizant of and concerned about. I think outsiders deal with it in different ways, I know of those who now don't bother trusting their China staff anymore treating them like children and taking away nearly all responsibility - and these are even guys from HK. On the other hand, I get the sense that so many of these people have only been trained with management techniques from the 60s and 70s (I'm told that local managers and Taiwanese managers are even worse).

My goal is to build a different kind of company - it's important for my staff to see working as more than just a paycheck. It's a bit ironic and perhaps hypocritical that I don't see culture as a good excuse for not getting things done but that I intend to use it as an enabler and a tool for self-enforcement in my own company. I know there are those out there who see this as hopelessly idealistic and I probably am, but I've decided that I want to at least try.

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