International issue: Working with the dragon

The once impenetrable door to China is now swinging wide open. Recent events, such as the latest partnership between global employment services experts Manpower and the Chinese government to improve the skills of the Chinese people, show the enthusiasm of this rapidly-expanding economy to embrace the best practices of international employment.

Manpower will be working with government agencies to develop human resource strategies and infrastructure to support the evolving requirements of China’s workforce.

Business pundits never cease to be excited by prospects in China, as Hugh Bucknall and Reiji Ohtaki point out in their new book, Mastering Business In Asia. It charts China’s transformation into one of the world’s powerhouses with, in turn, a market almost twice the size of the European Union’s and that of the US combined.

Chinese culture

Its authors see an increasing awareness among Chinese organisations of the need to implement new management processes, but also “a general view that you can’t adopt a ready Western model, but adapt one to suit the local culture and situation”.

But what is it like for the Western companies already based there? The UK’s Impact Development Training Group has been working in China for more than 10 years, and in 2003, it established an office in Shanghai. Its clients include major industrials.

“It is important to understand the Chinese culture – how they work and operate – before a western organisation can begin to be successful, and even then only if it is prepared to put in the investment,” says director of Impact China, Tony Ren.

He explains that there is no one overriding culture in such a vast landmass. “China used to be a collection of small countries that merged together,” he says. “Don’t think of it as a single country, but more like a European union. For example, Shanghai has a very open culture, but Beijing is the opposite.”

As international companies have found a firm foothold in China most of the middle management population is drawn from local people. And they are very keen to make their mark.

“For instance, these people tend to be quite individualised,” says Ren. “They want to be a star, not a team player – especially in Shanghai. They see being rich as a glorious thing.”

Long, outdoor team-building courses are not likely to go down well says Ren. “People prefer business-focused discussion and reviews.”

Western preconceptions

Senior managers in large private firms are more likely to be expatriates, and they often bring their Western preconceptions with them.

At diversity specialists Future Considerations, consultant Satu Kreula, believes that cultural considerations can help to avert disasters at work.

“Many of the communication breakdowns organisations face could be avoided if there was greater sensitivity to the role cultural difference plays in the working environment,” she says.

Kreula, whose consultancy also covers corporate social responsibility and leadership training, warns: “Attitudes and behaviours are influenced by cultural upbringing.

“Senior managers in any country need to be aware of how their assumptions of right or wrong affect how they perceive and judge the behaviours around them.”

Ren advises immersing senior managers in Chinese culture right from the start of their tenure. Impact runs a modular programme, which in-volves spending time in local and international businesses, living with a Chinese family and meeting local dignitaries. It also has close links with representatives of the Chinese government who make presentations about the economy, joint ventures and approach to market.

Mastering Business in Asia series, published by Wiley,

Top tips for teambuilding in china

Learning, not playing

Chinese delegates expect the training programme to have business-focused sessions rather than adventurous content. Chinese clients want value for business, not just to have fun.

Be aware of the Chinese way

Western teambuilding programmes expect delegates to share ideas, take risks and give open feedback. Chinese delegates tend to avoid being wrong, and shy away from disharmony. Gaining and saving face are especially important to the Chinese. Trainers should consider which activities and training styles are perceived to be effective by Chinese delegates.


Chinese managers cannot be spared from their desks for too long. Training programmes that are four to five days in length are normally considered over the top. Two-day programmes are the most acceptable.

Reconcile cultural differences

A large percentage of teambuilding programmes in China have a mixed group of foreign expats and Chinese staff. Such programmes cannot be effective without considering differences in culture and language. A good programme should be bilingual, and the trainer should have a background in both Chinese and foreign business.

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