By Dr. Edward Tse
A few weeks ago, I had a meeting with the APAC head of a major Fortune 500 company at his office in Shanghai. It was the first time we met and the meeting was very enjoyable. He told me that he had arrived in China around six months ago and was sent from headquarters to run their Asia business with a particular focus on China.
He said he thought he would come to China to “teach.” While he knew China was a fast-growing country economically (and that things in general were changing fast), he believed that China was still somewhat “backwards” in terms of corporate management know-how and lacked innovation. In fact, many people still perceive China as a “nation of copycats”.
Since landing in China, he confirmed the pace and intensity of change in China, of course. That was easy. However, he was struck by the speed and magnitude of innovations taking place in China. He cited the dock-less bike sharing phenomenon, where literally over night the streets of Shanghai became overrun with thousands of bikes. Critically, this turned out to be a product/service that people really embraced rapidly. The way that Chinese innovations are taking place, he concluded, is often quite different from what he knew back in the United States.
He concluded his story by saying, “I thought I would come to China to teach, but instead I found out that I am here to learn. Or, at least to both teach and learn.”
This kind of reflections is becoming more and more prevalent among expat executives in foreign multinational companies (MNCs) in China. In the older days, i.e., a couple of decades ago, the “I come to teach” mindset was very common. Sure enough, back then China was at the early stage of its economic and political reform and opening-up. It was still at the initial stage of its transition from a planned economy to a so-called market economy. State-owned enterprises (SOEs) were dominant and privately-owned enterprises (POEs) were only at their infancy.
Corporate management practices in the modern definition were just being picked up by the Chinese. Copycats (“Shanzhai companies”) were all over. MNC executives who came to China during this time appropriately felt the knowledge and experiential advantage. For those who were compelled, they felt they could teach the Chinese.
As China grew, things evolved rather quickly. While SOEs continued to dominate some sectors, POEs were growing much faster, especially in sectors that were not as regulated. With the increasing prevalence of technology, driven by wireless internet, the leading POEs turned out to be not only entrepreneurial but also very innovative. They identified market opportunities and swiftly created new business models, often enabled by technology, to address major market pain points. Some of them have grown extremely fast creating what we call “exponential organizations” and in the process their executives also picked up a great deal of knowledge and experience on how to better manage businesses.
Today, innovation and entrepreneurship continue to pick up steam in China. Entrepreneurs are getting younger. Many of them are “post-80s” and “post-90s”. They can be found not only in major hubs like Beijing, Hangzhou and Shenzhen, but also in many lower-tier cities. They are dabbling in all sorts of start-ups across many industry sectors. Even more established companies have found they needed to change and to re-invent themselves in order to capture the new opportunities or at least not be marginalized. Many Chinese business executives are looking for inspirations from the cutting-edge development in technology, strategy, business models, organizations, and processes. More of them have concluded that while they were trying to learn from (“benchmark”) the western best practices in business and management a decade or two ago, they are now less able to identify appropriate western benchmarks for their growth going forward. Many of them need to figure out their own ways.
Across many sectors, Chinese companies are becoming strong competitors to western MNCs in China. They are not only fast, agile and adaptable (“they do everything”), but also increasingly sophisticated and innovative. At least the leading ones are. Most people by now know the likes of Alibaba, Tencent and Baidu, as well as Didi and DJI, but there are lesser known entrepreneurial companies such as Liby (household cleaning products), Jovo (Chinese alcoholic beverages), Three Squirrels (nuts and snacks), Lepur (yogurt) and Hema (grocery retail) that are disrupting their respective verticals including the major foreign incumbents. Examples of such are numerous and the number is increasing every day.
While there are still plenty of copycat companies around, the front end of the curve is driven more and more by innovative companies. They generate new ways of doing businesses and the leaders of these businesses also tend to be good students. To this end, MNCs found that their original superior positions are no longer guaranteed. They must adapt their strategy, organization and business models to China (and increasingly transfer their learnings from China to the rest of the world). There is no doubt that in some areas MNC expat executives still have things to teach the locals. And many of the locals are still open to learn. However, the reverse is also becoming true. MNC expat executives are quickly finding that they can learn a great deal from the local businesses. “The Chinese Way” is no longer a universally negative notion but increasingly being appreciated as ingenious and value-adding.
The transition from “I come to teach” to “I come to both teach and learn” took place over a relatively short period of time. The role of China in global business has evolved significantly during this period and one would expect more to come, perhaps with even higher speed and stronger intensity.
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