Friday, 29 May 2009

Five things China can learn from India - 3. Innovation

Innovation is not the greatest of strengths in China. China is disciplined, but that is a strength as well as a weakness. Innovation, and even entrepreneurship, is not on the same page as in India. That’s a difficult lesson for China to learn.

In the last post, I argued that Chinese are disciplined in their work. I said “In the BPO business that I was involved in, you could rely on the team in China not to deviate from the standard process”. That’s also a weakness.

The average Chinese employee is uncomfortable in an unstructured situation. “Tell us what to do and we’ll do it well” is a mindset that’s common. “You’re the boss, why are you asking us ?” is another phrase , which is often unsaid, but meant many times. Hierarchy counts for a lot here. When I ask colleagues to challenge the process, innovate, rationalize, argue, and fight, there’s fidgeting and discomfort. It doesn’t come naturally to them.

Indians, by nature, are an argumentative lot. Challenge comes naturally to them. Its difficult to keep a process straight – somebody is always tinkering with it, trying to change it, trying to tweak it. When I ask a bunch of colleagues to challenge the process, innovate, etc, they take to it with gusto. They would rather innovate, than do a set process properly ! The cauldron of India is chaotic, but it does promote innovation.

Without constant innovation and improvement, there’s only obsolescence down the road. Its not a sustainable model to let somebody else do the innovation and copy it effectively. To be able to compete effectively in the world, you have to be an innovative culture. The current set of competitive advantages that China has , will erode over time. New advantages will come only from innovation; not from conformity.

Its not difficult to see why this is so in China. Chinese , are by nature actually entrepreneurial. But in an organisational setting they lose that instinct. They have chosen a political and social system that is tilted much too much towards discipline and conformity. Dissent is not encouraged. Outside influences are moderated – witness the blocking of Wikipedia, Blogspot , YouTube, Wordpress, et al. Media and reporting is sterile. People are encouraged to look up to an authority for answers. This is not fertile ground for an innovative culture. China has chosen a certain to road, which has lots of advantages, but equally has some disadvantages.

As I observed before, this is a difficult lesson for China to learn. But learn it must, in due course. Sometimes the chaos and indiscipline in India can be an advantage.

9 comments:

  1. Sometimes being too 'bookish' is also not a good thing, to be able to step out of ur comfort zone, take those calculated risks are what result in sustainability. In the 2 organisations I worked in previously, to constantly innovate was the key,it was encouraged even at the grass root levels. To constantly better the as is process to something that would reduce time lines (cost effective) and that would in no way alter the final product (if not better it) was the mantra. It really helped and kept employees motivated (as they had this feeling that they were adding value)..there was alwaya a method in the madness..nice post as always

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  2. @ AJCL - Yes it fun if you can innovate. Lucky to be able to work in such organisations - all companies say this, but few really practice it.

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  3. kiwibloke29/5/09

    Contrarian again - adaptable yes, innovative? may be not. There is this great Indian rope trick called Jugaad - some how make do with what is available. Are we mistaking that attribute (which is indeed a great thing) for innovation. Going back to your earlier blog, the 'jugaad' aspect would not be needed if only we get some basics around planning, respecting other people's time, the discipline of the Chinese you mention in your blog now. Half of our innovation or Jugaad is in response to fundamentals not being in place - how many people spend time upfront on planning out a project?

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  4. I agree that China is not good at innovation. Look at the big name companies in China. Only Huawei is innovative! Huawei obtained a lot of patents last year. Unlike its US competitor Cisco, Huawei's revenue is still on the rise even in the current financial crisis.

    China need more innovative companies.

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  5. Very correctly siad that Indians are an argumentative lot. It so happened that in my previous client's location, whenever there was a meeting we would all come out red-faced coz we would have argued so much it just showed on our faces, so the management had to take a session on "Six Thinking Hats" for us to get level headed and go in one direction. If we did'nt argue maybe we would never had had the opportunity to get trained on something like that. Its always good to speak out rather than to look upto someone, in India this is encouraged a lot and if you don't speak up you are almost boycotted and considered wierd.

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  6. @kiwi - Love your being contrarian, although you aren't really violently disagreeing !! Yes adaptability is also seen for the reasons you mention, but I mean more here, the cultural willingness to question, debate, change ...Keep the disagreements coming and maybe in more flowery language !!

    @Hang - I think the reason is a bit cultural and wil be tough to change

    @rads - Yes, there's merit in this streak of arguing, for that's how new ideas come.

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  7. Brain storming is essential...it brings out all perspectives in a scenario and it is fun...everyone is involved.Cookie cutter is not the "in" thing anymore.As usual - great post Ramesh.

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  8. Anonymous31/5/09

    Having worked in CHina in the BPO space and with Ramesh as well, i am able to relate easily to his comments on the god work ethics and lack of an innotive mindset.
    I have experienced the same and agree with his comments. The punctuality, discipline and ability to do repeatable tasks for prolonged times are amazing. Chinese in general are great to work with, however it would be good if my Chinese colleagues were more flexible, open to change and innovative .... Vinod

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  9. Thanks for your comments Vinod.

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