Tag Archives: culture

Larger Desk is Better

Larger Desk
Larger Desk is Better

We are starting up the R&D center in temporary offices inside of one of our factories, while waiting for the new building to be ready. Due to the expansion, we needed to set up some new cubicles etc, to pack as many as possible into the new space. One in my team was leading the layouting and communicating with the suppliers of cubicle furniture and office equipment, and I was following up regularly.

All of a sudden, the four-seat cubicle, where I had marked my desk as one of the twenty or so similar ones, was transformed into a larger three person cubicle, where two of the seats were traded in for a large woodden desk.

“This is better for us”, was the response. “Then the people from the other departments see who is the boss.” And the larger the desk, the more important the boss. And that makes many things easier for my team.

This is something I have to get used to…

Starting to Work in China

Shellshocked after two weeks of frenzy at the office and home I am now starting to get back on the ground. Fortunately I have two more experienced guys from the European organization in my team whom I can lean on when things get strange.

First thing that happened was that our office was full, so we need to move to another location in the same building. Fortunately, due to other circumstances, we could only start the moving after four weeks, so there was a few days of slack to do layouting of our new premises. We have a completely cubiclized floorplan, and I would take a seat like everybody else. However, all of a sudden, the proposed layout from the cubicle-carpenter’s side included a broad dark desk instead of a cubicle seat where I had indicated that I would sit, occupying at least two seats, maybe three.
As my Chinese colleagues put it: “Otherwise the people from the other departments do not know who is the boss. It is better this way.”

I trust them. They know what works and what does not here in the land of influence. The crab has his ways and the shrimp has his, as one of my colleagues put it, while explaining why a certain procedure did not work as expected. There is a positive and a negative side of this flexibility, I guess, but so far I have mainly seen the plus side.

There are lots of things to fix both at the office and at home, one thing at a time. Our hot water stinks, for instance. It smells of glue. There have been five people watching, checking, tasting, discussing and not doing anything. I need to find an expert, but it is not so easy. I am sure there are hundreds of qualified people who could fix it, but there are twenty five million other people in town who cannot. Fortunately, I often have good help from my local colleagues, among others to get supplies via Taobao, 360buy and Newegg. Mother’s Day is better with a new Saeco Espresso Machine, directly delivered to our home (Well, to be honest I ordered it late and it was not really on time…). I hope my colleagues can also find a suitable plumber to fix the hot water. In the meantime we smell of glue after every shower.

Book review: … business in China

How to Manage a Successful Business in China
by Johan Björksten and Anders Hägglund

Despite the pretentious title, this book is a well-researched low-key introduction to one way of building businesses in mainland China. Maybe it is the Swedish-Chinese way. Both the authors have first hand experience from what they are talking about, which they generously share through examples and anecdotes. Both of them have been very successful in building profitable organizations, one from scratch and one as a dependence of a multinational corporation.

One of the authors is a renowned expert on Chinese, and teaching Chinese to foreigners. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that one of the main recommendations is to learn Chinese if you want to be successful in China. Still today, most foreigners coming to work in China do not learn more than a handful phrases and a most basic vocabulary. Chinese is considered impossible to learn. On the other hand, imagine going to the US without speaking English – what is the probability of establishing a successful business? It is almost ridiculous.
I am sure that Chinese is a “learnable skill”.

The most startling part of the book talks about guanxi – “connections”. The authors demystify this concept and show the equivalent concepts in the Western business tradition. Sometimes the cultural differences are smaller than we imagine.

Another myth of the one-billion-customer-dream that is debunked by the authors is that China is one homogeneous market. It is not. The vast area, the poor communications and logistics and the cultural differences makes China a difficult terrain to conquer. In many ways, China is like the European Union, with the same legal basis but different consumer preferences and with bureaucratic and practical problems for each sub-market to penetrate. Shanghai is as different from Kashgar as Paris is different from Vilnius.

The book is written in a classic schoolbook manner, which makes it slow to read and slightly boring at times. Nevertheless, it is a good counterweight to the abundant extatic China Fever literature.

After a Beijing brunch with one of the authors, I start to get the feeling that China is not so easy to describe in a book because of all the paradoxes. Speed is one example; some things are extremely fast in China, but other things are excruciatingly slow. They can build a house in a week, but it can take months to get the right stamp. How can I ever “understand” this? Maybe it is like quantum physics – you can never understand, only “get used to” how things work.

China is a worthy challenge!