Thursday, May 28, 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.