East/West enigmas

Management Worldwide - Asian Management Systems
April 5, 1996

Min Chen's Asian Management Systems describes differences between China, Japan and Korea, while drawing out commonalities. "Asian" studies is a questionable ontology for business students, since there is insufficient commonality between Muslim/ Hindu/Animist Indonesia, and Shinto/Buddhist/Confucian Japan for social studies to gain sufficiently by lumping them together. Min Chen is perhaps wise in choosing not to include other, more diverse cultures within his remit.

In Management Worldwide, however, D. J. Hickson and D. S. Pugh take on the daunting task of describing the effects of societal cultures on organisations worldwide. This, as the authors recognise, could generate a lifetime's work. Perhaps inevitably, they are more at home describing business in Europe and Latin America since this is less alien to them. It is natural that writers' own cultural backgrounds affect their work but perhaps these two competent authors could have offered a study less framed by Anglo-Saxon based concepts such as "management" or "organisational behaviour". Such concepts have a different place in Asian thinking, and Min Chen sees them more as tools for studying Asia than solid frameworks for thought.

While well-known Confucian influences in Asia are noted, a glaring gap in both works is the effect of Buddhism. Perceptions of time, self-development, judgementalism, social interactions such as mentoring and personal emotional factors, are heavily affected by Buddhism, which may be seen as an influence comparable to that of Judeo-Christianity in other cultures' business approaches. Personal relationships are at the heart of business interactions, so this omission is a weakness.

Asian Management Systems repeats long-running chestnuts, such as the simplistic "Japan Inc" concept. This, again, is criticism from a western view, ignoring the possibility that Asian business, government and administrate integration could constitute a valid alternative economic management system, with important ramifications for national prosperity and sustainable global development.

Japan's planning processes already show that the country is far ahead of western nations in devoting serious thought, money and research towards new forms of economic activity, and this is enabled by those very factors which the western viewpoint equates with unacceptably alien management practice and resistance to free trade - a questionable idea at the best of times.

Min Cheng suggests that when observing the strengths of Asian business the West could "borrow the strong points of the others to supplement one's own system, rather than to abandon one's own system and strive for full-scale 'Easternisation'". This is a lesson which Rover and a few other major organisations have learned through long and painful organisational change, thus reaching a more satisfactory synthesis of western culture with new Asian models. Min Chen does refer to the need for adaptation of Asian models before adoption by other cultures, but the book would have benefited from more consideration of this factor.

Hickson and Pugh, on the other hand, seem to favour convergence theory and expect to see a unitary form of management develop, synthesising best practice from around the world. They note that "the main weight of transfer will clearly be in this direction (from developed to less developed countries)". It is difficult to agree with a view so superficial and short term, and which includes very different nations such as Japan and America as "developed." Contradictory influences emanate from developed countries, and cultural perceptions make specific business models hard for some observers to adopt, as Arab/Islamic states illustrate in Hickson and Pugh's own work.

The notion of western predominant influence is essentially colonialist and rooted in the long-dismissed theory of unilinear cultural development. There is good reason to believe that Asian influences will be effective at a far deeper level than that of western business models, leading to substantial review and future rejection of many western concepts, together with fundamental shifts in the motivations and objectives of business. Indeed we may hope for this, since western-conceived business practice has devastated much of the globe.

Both volumes show too much of the superficiality which characterises Asian studies and results from the bias of western commentators. While the authors appear aware of such bias, they remain subject to it by too uncritically relying on the western academic interpretation methods of which both books cover well.

I also found Management Worldwide hard to read because of the boxed examples throughout the text. While they are illustrative, they break up the book's flow. This book is a useful primer, supported by chapter-end reading lists, rather than a handbook for the targeted business practitioner. Oversimplification and generalisation reduce credibility, although there is much to help newcomers to cross cultural activities. It might also prove valuable to those already experienced in international business, who want up-grading and revision of what they already understand.

Asian Management Systems is more readable, despite its greater depth, with valuable "Questions for discussion" at the end of each chapter. It is likely to prove more useful for both practitioners and students of business.

Walter Dean is associate fellow, Japan Business Policy Unit, University of Warwick.

Management Worldwide: The Impact of Societal Culture on Organisations around the Globe

Author - D.J. Hickson and D.S. Pugh
ISBN - 0 14 014981 3
Publisher - Penguin Books
Price - £8.99
Pages - 307

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