Be cautious when East meets West

A short while back, I spent two years in China as an HR director for a
telecoms start-up. I had a very bright woman on my team, Alice Wang.

After spending time in my team, Alice went on to take HR roles at Ford
China, a Chinese and an Intel joint venture. This has culminated in her
role as HR director for the AOL/Legend Computer JV in Beijing.

She is one of the many Chinese HR professionals introducing western-style HR
functions to the country.

On a recent visit to Washington DC, we talked about the state of
western-style HR in China. There are, of course, clear differences in how we
approach our HRM practices compared to how the Chinese do. It’s not that
Chinese HR practices are wrong. Rather, it’s the whole ‘think local, act local’

Western ’empowerment culture’ is quite alien to those raised in the
traditional, rule-driven Chinese business culture. The view of people as costs
to be controlled versus assets to be nurtured, plus Chinese staff’s readiness
(after decades of a centrally planned economy) to deal with a
"hands-off" management style, are also very different.

Unfortunately, many companies venture into China and other emerging markets
hell-bent on ‘improving and upgrading’ the local policies, practices and

With China’s WTO accession and the 2008 Olympics being held in Beijing,
herds of western businesses are trying to find their way into China. I get
calls from people, ready to impose their company and country-specific cultures
on their new employees, partners and vendors. Granted, it certainly makes life
simple to have cookie-cutter operations outside your home country – but that
doesn’t mean it’s the right thing to do.

Among the challenges of globalisation is the inevitable question: do we
behave like us or like them? I believe there is more to globalisation than
Americanisation (or Britification) of our offshore ventures.

Just as our enterprises study local markets and consumer behaviours before
launching bespoke products into a new marketplace, shouldn’t we engage in
similar due diligence before we inflict our HR practices? Shouldn’t there be
scrutiny on whether our people management practices will help or hinder us?

My point is not to drill into obvious differences between cultures, but
rather suggest that as western businesses set sail for China (or other far
corners), that we must be careful when we bring along our business cultures,
our discipline models and our work ethics.

The real hallmark of well thought out globalisation has to be sustained
success defined not just by immediately delivering margin, but also by how you
got there. In the deployment of HRM models in new markets, local relevancy must
be top of mind. One size does not fit all.

By Lance Richards, member of the board of directors for SHRM Global Forum
and the Editorial Advisory Board of Personnel Today’s sister publication

Comments are closed.