Global Business

Photo: 999 glass fishes at the Oceans Financial Centre Singapore.The work holds a message about strength from community and collaboration.

Technology alone likely won’t deliver the uplift in performance that organizations seek.

There are three reasons to value human capital:

– People are the creators of technology – it does not create itself.

– People are the stewards of technology – they cannot control it but they can shape it and are less effective without it.

– People are the champions of technology.

Companies such as Airbnb and Uber, optimise technology but also have huge teams of people to service their customers. Humans know best how to partner with technology.

“What gets in the way is that there is an insufficient understanding of disruption, there is pressure from stakeholders and the strategy for human capital is not aligned with the strategic goals of the organisation.

Smartphones, data-collecting industrial parts and other innovations of the Digital Age are amazing, but none of them pack the productivity-boosting power of the lightbulb or the telephone. Indeed, apart from a short burst between 1996 and 2004, the digital technology revolution actually hasn’t boosted overall productivity.

Airbnb offers a strong example of what can happen when people are enabled rather than replaced by technology. The firm might have fewer than 3,000 people on the payroll, but it depends on tens of thousands of creative, ambitious and talented human hosts to supply those 2 million rooms worldwide. Technology may connect hosts to potential guests, but Airbnb has no business without the hosts.

The “Talent Trumps Tech” idea applies to the executive suites, too. Yes, the boss likely will be able to use technology to instantly get real-time data about the firm’s pipeline of sales, cash flows, threats from competitors, even the value of individual customers …. At the same time, it will be easier for CEOs to get concrete business options from intel- ligent software. These AI-infused programs can use current data and past experiences to identify trouble spots or opportunities and make recommendations to improve the business.

Making the call
However, no app or robot is going to make the final decision on what business strategy to pursue, or whether to open a new office in Austin or Amsterdam, or whether to merge with a rival firm. “I’ll never say never, but I can’t imagine CEOs giving up those decisions,” says Nels Olson, vice chairman and co-leader of Korn Ferry’s Board & CEO Services practice. “Artificial intelligence will be there to provide input.”

Excerpts from 2030: The Very Human Future Of Work by Hazel Euan-Smith & Russell Pearlman & Karen Kane in the series on “The Future of Work is Human”
– KornFerry Institute



The Japanese are masters in creativity. Here leveraging on tradition of Kabuki tradition, entertainment for common folk and make performance as part of your beauty care. Beauty face masks with Japanese stage makeup printed.

Kumadori is the stage makeup worn by Kabuki actors. Its designed to reveal the personality of a character at a glance. Red depicts a good character, those coloured blue, black and brown are wicked.

Himself gifted me this pack wrapped origami style with the wrapper doubling up as information pamphlet that is at once informative as well as functional and great marketing. No doubt a winner of a Tokyo Midtown Award.

To lend credibility, a Kabuki actor born into a family of Kabuki actors served as Pack supervisors.

Marketing as play. Get into character with a Kabuki Face Pack and transform your mood with a special play time.

I love to hear stories.

Before the arrival of Marvel comics, as children we read stories of “1001 nights” or Stories from Ancient China or Japan.

Hero with a thousand faces


Source of photo: Facebook of another George K.

This Year of the Monkey, the TV is replaying movies of our beloved Chinese mythology Journey to the West, starring the most famous Chinese monkey – Sunwukong. It is about a Chinese monk’s quest for wisdom to collect some sacred texts from India. To protect him on this perilous journey, are three protectors who agree to help him as an atonement for their sins. These disciples are Sun Wukong, Zhu Wuneng and Sha Wujing, together with a dragon prince who acts as Xuanzang’s steed, a white horse.

Along the way they met many trials but eventually obtained the texts and these disciples rewarded for their actions.

Consider another beloved Japanese tale. Momotarō who came to Earth inside a giant peach, was found floating down a river by an old, childless woman. The couple named him Momotarō, from momo (peach) and tarō(eldest son in the family).

Years later, Momotarō left his parents to fight a band of demons on a distant island. En route, Momotarō met and befriended a talking dog, monkey and pheasant, who agreed to help him in his quest. At the island, Momotarō and his friends penetrated the demons’ fort and defeated the demons. Momotarō and his new friends returned home with the demons’ plundered treasure and lived comfortably thereafter. (Wiki)’s_journey.htm
Joseph Campbell, in his influential work, Hero with a thousand faces, noted that all myths seem to have a common structure. In his book, he describes a number of stages or steps along this journey. The hero starts in the ordinary world, and receives a call to enter an unusual world of strange powers and events (a call to adventure). If the hero accepts the call to enter this strange world, the hero must face tasks and trials (a road of trials), and may have to face these trials alone, or may have assistance. At its most intense, the hero must survive a severe challenge, often with help earned along the journey. If the hero survives, the hero may achieve a great gift (the goal or”boon”), which often results in the discovery of important self-knowledge. The hero must then decide whether to return with this boon (thereturn to the ordinary world), often facing challenges on the return journey. If the hero is successful in returning, the boon or gift may be used to improve the world (the application of the boon). Source: Wikipedia.

A fundamental difference then is who is responsible for the success? The hero individually or the group?

In collectivist cultures or group-focused cultures, people define themselves by affiliation with group, values and achievements. People look for consensus and group buy-in. The boy Momotarō succeeds, according to Solomon and Schell in their book “Managing across Cultures” , only with the help of the group. Not just his initiative or his ingenuity but his ability to enlist the community to cooperate in his success and the community’s well-being.

In collectivist cultures, seniority and years of experience are valued. Praising a young person in front of the rest will be the kiss of death as his/her in-group will surely put the person in place later.

I was told by a Japanese classmate from a top tier American management consulting firm, that Analysts, Associates and Partners carry different types of briefcases suitable for one’s rank even if the company policy is not to have the rank stated on the name card. Everyone knows their place and trained to detect the subtle nuances and signals.

Consider the Indian story of story of a group of blind men (or men in the dark) who touch an elephant to learn what it is like. Each one feels a different part, but only one part, such as the side or the tusk. They then compare notes and learn that they are in complete disagreement. (Wikipedia)

In his retelling of “The Elephant in the Dark”, Rumi uses this story as an example of the limits of individual perception. We need the wisdom of the collective.

In contrast, the stories from an individualist culture, where children are raised on stories of Superman and Spiderman where the hero acts independently, disregards the accepted way of doing things and saves people with his superhuman strength. What does he do when he’s low on energy or super stressed? Solomon and Schell pointedly noted that Superman goes off to his icy retreat where he’s isolated and gets strength by hiding away.

In individualistic culture, individual freedom and achievements are very important and rewarded. Does it influence hiring and reward practices? An individual is expected to state his or her own role and contributions.

Not surprisingly, then some cultures pay their CEO – superstar salary. The wisdom of one man can change the group’s performance. In the US for example, salary differences between the CEO and the lowest rank can be as high as 160 times. European cultures such as Nordic cultures surprisingly have less inequality and the difference in pay scale is about 50 to 10 times.

So you think that Hofstede’s Cultural dimensions shed some light on the different ways we make decisions and our hiring/ human resources practices?

Increasingly in some firms we see collaborative behavior being celebrated. In describing the platform put under his charge, New Google CEO Pichai said

“I have to think about building a platform and bringing as many people along on this journey and getting it right. I believe that ultimately, it’s a more powerful approach, but it’s a lot more stressful as well.”

Note that here I’m not trying to evaluate the benefit of group decision making over individual but to acknowledge the cultural difference. At times, collective decision making gives way to the danger of compromise and group think. Individual decision making can be divisive.

Before starting work in a new organisation or a new country, it’s interesting to note the national and organisational cultural differences in the way we tell the story of a hero’s journey.

Deal and Kennedy categorise 4 corporate cultures according to appetite for risk and speed of feedback:

  1. Tough Guy, Macho Culture

Individualists who frequently take high risks and receive quick feedback on the right or wrong of their actions. Financial stakes are high and focus on speed. The intense pressure and frenetic pace often results in early ‘burnout’. Internal competition and conflict are normal, stars are temperamental but tolerated. A high staff turnover can create difficulties in building a strong cohesive culture. Examples include trading floor, management consulting and the entertainment industry.

2. Work-hard/Play-hard Culture

Internal organisational environment characterised by fun and action, where employees take few risks, all with quick feedback. There is a high level of relatively low-risk activity.  Organisations tend to be highly dynamic and centers on customers needs. It is the team who produce the volume, and the culture encourages games, meetings, promotions and conventions to help maintain motivation. However, although a lot gets done, volume can be at the expense of quality. Examples include mass consumer companies such as McDonald’s and retail industry.

 3. Bet-your-company Culture

This type of culture sees large stake decisions with a high risk but slow feedback so that it may be years before employees know if decisions were successful. The focus is on the future and the importance of investing in it. There is a sense of deliberateness throughout the organisation typified by the ritual of the business meeting. There is a hierarchical system of authority with decision making from the top down. The culture leads to high-quality inventions and scientific breakthroughs, but moves only very slowly and is vulnerable to short-term fluctuations. Examples include oil companies, investment banks, architectural firms, and the military.

4. Process Culture

This is a low-risk, slow-feedback culture where employees find difficult in measuring what they do. The individual financial stakes are low and employees get very little feedback on their effectiveness. Their memos and reports seem to disappear into a void. Lack of feedback force employees to focus on how they do something, not what they do. People tend to develop a ‘cover-your-back’ mentality. Bureaucracy results with attention to trivial events, minor detail, formality and technical perfection. Process cultures can be effective when there is a need for order and predictability. Typical examples include banks, insurance companies, financial services, and the civil service.

Charles Handy uses another typology to describe culture.

  • Power Culture

Handy uses the analogy of a spider’s web to depict a power culture. It is typified by an absence of bureaucracy and few rules and procedures. Control is exercised from a central power base (the spider), radiating influence through key individuals. They are political organisations with decisions taken largely on the basis of influence.

  • Role Culture

Strong organisational “pillars” such as functions, specialisation, rules and procedures. The work of, and interaction between, the pillars is controlled by procedures and rules, and coordinated by a small band of managers. Role or job description is often more important than the individual and position is the main source of power.

  • Person Culture

Such cultures, viewed by Handy as clusters, focus on individuals. The organisation exists to serve the purposes of the individuals within it; the organisation itself is secondary to individual self-fulfilment. When a group of people decide that it is in their own interests to band together to do their own thing and share office space, equipment or support staff, then the resulting organisation would be a person culture.

Examples of person culture are groups of barristers, architects, doctors or consultants. Such a culture is attractive to many people who would like to operate as ‘free agents’ within the security of an organisation.

This is not always possible and conflict often arises when individuals attempt to operate according to a person culture within an organisation that is essentially a role culture. Such as an academic focusing on goaIs of personal research within a university, increasingly operating as a classic role culture.

Different people enjoy working in different types of organisation culture and they are more likely to be satisfied and happy at work if their attributes and personalities are consistent with the culture of that part of the organisation in which they are employed.


Today is the first day of Chinese New Year. I’ve just returned from paying respects to my mother in law. Later I’ll be visiting my mom with my siblings. Tomorrow I’ll be visiting her siblings. When my dad returns from Malaysia, we’ll be having another reunion dinner on the 7th day of CNY, and we will be having lion dance.  I’ve prepared red packets of money into pretty envelopes to be given to children and people who are working for us these years. For friends and colleagues, I have given them gifts of pineapple tarts and received similar food goodies in return.

What is the major festival you celebrate? How do you celebrate it? How do you give gifts? Chinese and Japanese give packets of money during new year. I know the Indians do too. I used to think this is such a practical and wise thing when I was a kid, because my mom would save the money for me and I get to spend it on something useful. Recently, at the celebration of my fifth year in the company, the university gave us money banked into our accounts instead of giving us a momento. Which I thought was so wise, until a fellow Irish lecturer sitting at the same dinner scoffed at the idea, thinking it so crass.  Its meaningless he said, and no one remembers money. Most western cultures would give a clock for long service award.  [Note: Giving clock is a “no-no” for Chinese, as it sounds like sending the person off to the other side of heaven.]


Hofstede defined culture as “the collective programming of the mind which distinguishes the members of one human group from another”. Today, despite the convergence of culture as expected with availability of information technology (the “global village culture”), cultural differences are still significant today and diversity tends to increase.


He identified the following main dimensions of culture that affect work practices in different countries:

  1. Individualism versus collectivism – loyalty to self and family or to the wider group. The extent to which people are expected to take care of themselves and to choose their own affiliations as opposed to showing a preference for a closely bonded social framework where people look after each other and organisations protect their members’ interests.
  2. Power distance – Members of high power distance cultures such as Malaysia accept status differences and are expected to show proper respect to their superiors.  Low power distance cultures such as Denmark are less comfortable with differences in organizational rank or social class and are characterized by more participation in decision-making and a frequent disregard of hierarchical level
  3. Uncertainty avoidance – High uncertainty avoidance cultures have clearly delineated structures, many written rules even if they don’t work, standardized procedures, promotions based on seniority or age, lack of tolerance for deviants, strong need for consensus. Low uncertainty avoidance cultures prefer risk taking, have a tolerance of differing behaviors and opinions, more flexibile although the flip side is that some may not have a sense of urgency.
  4. Masculinity verses femininity – or quantity of life versus quality of life – relates to the degree to which a culture values assertiveness, competition, and materialism (stereotypically associated with masculinity) versus the degree to which people value relationships and show concern for others (stereotypically associated with femininity). It is unfortunate that Hofstede used such sexist connotations and some later writers prefer to substitute the terms quantity of life versus quality of life.
  5. Long Term Orientation – Why do Chinese give red packets of money for weddings/ new year/ birthdays or any celebrations instead of a gift-giving culture as the West. Hofstede added to his Dimensions approach with this last one that Chinese generally have a strong propensity to save and invest, thriftiness, and perseverance in achieving results and in the way they build networks and relationships, rather than short-term.


Today, with globalisation, joint ventures, mergers and acquisitions and foreign entry into new markets, the world is no longer a melting pot. Do you believe that the world is flat as Thomas Friedman sounded?  Or do cultural distances between countries still matter as argued by Ghemawat? [Both are great thinkers.]

What do you think?

In the meantime, wish you a blooming success and a swinging good time this Golden year of the Monkey. May you swing from height to height步步高升  (bubugaosheng).

While I go to my mom’s place and fill myself with more good luck and goodies.



Art connector, National Gallery, Singapore

We are people of tribes albeit moving in different costumes.  The size of our tribes differ. It can be huge, such as national level, right down to the family level. In the space of work, we behave as tribes in an organisational culture.

Every organisation has an internal environment, known as the personality of the organisation. A system of beliefs, norms, values and attitudes shared by members of an organisation – communicating to new members the correct ways to think and act;  “the way we do things around here”. Usually the unspoken is more powerful than the spoken. Much has been written about Enron’s cowboy and toxic culture, yet on its website its Vision and Values brazenly state that the company is about Respect, Integrity, Communication and Excellence.

For young careerist, its important to understand the organisation culture of the firm you’re entering. Factors such as management style, size, type of business, ownership, strategy, structure and technology influence a team’s culture.

Johnson uses a cultural web framework to observe a company’s culture. The cultural web is made up of:

Routine – the ways that members of the organisation behave towards each other and towards those outside the organisation and which make up how things are done or how things should happen.

Rituals – the special events through which the organisation emphasises what is particularly important and can include formal organisational processes and informal processes.

Stories/Heroes and Superstars – told by members of the organisation which embed the present and flag up important events and personalities, and typically have to do with successes, failures, heroes, villains and mavericks. Now older and wiser, I see that heroes in a particular culture somehow seem to possess certain characteristics and what is celebrated as success.

Symbols and language – such as logos, offices, cars, titles, type of language commonly used which become a shorthand representation of the nature of the organisation.

Power structures – the most powerful individuals or groups in the organisation which may be based on management position and seniority but in some organisations power can be lodged with other levels or functions. Microsoft employees for instance are known to be  competitive, self-assured. Yet possess an ability to switch sides. This is very unlike IBM’s cohesive, mutually supportive team structure.

Control systems – performance measurement and reward systems on what is important  – for example, stewardship of funds or quality of service.

Organisation structure –  power structures and decision-making

Paradigm – of the organisation which encapsulates and reinforces the behaviours observed in other elements of the cultural web.

Organisation cultures affect how decisions are made, rewards are dished out, resources shared and relationships are forged.

There are several useful frameworks to examine the cultures of organisation such as Handy’s 4 types of Culture, Deal and Handy, as well as Peters and Waterman Framework among others.

1. Monkey Business by John Rolfe and Peter Troob
2. The Vogue Factor: Inside Story by Kirstie Clements

Enron: Smartest guys in the room
Barbarians at the Gate (Fall of RJR Nabisco)


I’ve heard them say that Chang’an seems like in a game of chess,
A hundred years of world events have caused unbearable pain.
The palaces of the noblemen all have their new masters,
Civil and military dress and caps are not like those before.

Du Fu, Tang Dynasty poet




Spaghetti with seaweed, ume plum sauce and sesame seasoning Japanese style

My 10 year old nephew was recently in Japan, and to distract him from fighting with his sister, I asked him what the difference was, between Seoul and Tokyo.  His first response was that they don’t use spoons in Japan. How true. Even when drinking soup. They suck with loud air. The louder the sound, the more delicious. Don’t try this at home.

Even among Asian countries, we have cultural differences.

What is culture?  Culture comprises both national culture and organsational culture.

We can say that culture is the shared knowledge, beliefs and values, as well as common styles of behaviour and ways of thinking. Factors affecting national culture can include: language, traditions, religion, the legal and political systems, education, values, social organisation, tastes in food and entertainment, etc. It has becoming increasingly important to understand different cultures. Developments in international communication have given us all more exposure to the differences in attitudes and behaviours of other cultures. Due to the development of the global market there is an increase in international trade and workers are much more likely to work in different countries.


No eating while walking

National culture can affect: the organisation of the business, types of products, ways of promoting products, ways of doing business, the business mission, motivations to work and management style.  It can also affect what is known as etiquette, ethics and even organisational culture and values.

(i) Organisation of business – different countries traditionally organise their businesses in different ways, for example in some countries, small family operations may be more common e.g. Germany, in others, business growth to corporate level may be the accepted goal e.g. US

(ii) Types of products – traditions, religion and legal systems may restrict or encourage production of certain types of products, e.g. production of alcohol is rare where a dominant religion (Muslim) prohibits drinking it. In India, cow is considered holy and eating beef is taboo. McDonalds succeeded in adapting their menu to local tastes, introducing even vegetarian burgers and non-beef items into their menu.

(iii) Ways of promoting products – marketing managers need to consider what is appealing and what is not, to avoid causing offence.   A story goes about Chinese selling poker cards, which in Chinese pinyin is spelt “pu-ke”.  But when written in English and sold in Mexico, it read as puke.

(iv) Ways of doing business – different traditions for making deals or for communicating with each other, which could involve following certain protocols or rituals like using lawyers to come up with contracts vs spending time to build trust, making small talk or giving gifts which may be considered unethical in other cultures.

(v) Business Mission – culture may influence what a business is expected to do, particularly in relations to its social responsibilities. Some cultures e.g. individualist may expect businesses to focus on making profits, whereas others may expect businesses to provide employment for family members (e.g.India) or to improve the community (Germany and France) for the good of all.

(vi) Motivation to work – some cultures value loyalty and commitment to the employers (e.g. collectivist such as Japan) whereas others could approach work as just a means to enjoy other areas of life but not to gain status.

(vii) Management Style – style of management can be influenced by the motivation of employees and expectations placed on the business and cultural traditions regarding systems of authority. E.g. cultures with high uncertainty avoidance would result in a bureaucratic style of leadership. A dictatorial style of leadership would work in cultures with high power distance whereas one with low power distance would prefer participatory or democratic style of leadership.

So what are some ways which culture influence the way you think about success, life and work?