With the death of Steve Jobs last week came an incredible outpouring of support and remembrance from around the world. From my perspective, a surprising amount of this came from South Korea, a place where the man’s products were late to the game and recently have had an increasingly contentious relationship with Korea’s flagship company. I can understand this, however, as even though I’ve never been an Apple person, I can recognize Jobs as a true innovator and the driving force behind game-changing products that have helped define both modern markets and our modern lives. In addition to honoring and memorializing the departed, many of the words spoken and written have had a decidedly introspective tone:
Is Chris Bangle Samsung’s Steve Jobs? (WSJ Korea Real Time 10/7)
‘Innovation’ had been a key word amongst Korean businesses for a while now, but is reaching fevered pitch these days. The common meme being that Korea needs to foster creative people and organizations to remain relevant in the future. While this theme is certainly not unique in international business, the notable rigid Korean organizational structure makes the comparisons particularly stark here. In my business English classes, it is a frequent point of discussion as “how” Korean companies can make this transition. Most, if not all, of the classes are able to recite off the usual business buzz phrases considered solutions, such as going “outside the box”, having “horizontal integration”, etc. However, when I ask for detail and explanation into these ideas the room tends to go silent. It seems that while the buzz has entrenched itself here, the processes (and problems of integrating these ‘Western’ thoughts into ‘Eastern’ organizations) seem out of reach. While I can’t claim to have the perfect solutions, it’s still important to ask the questions and start the conversation. Namely, how can Korea start the process of nurturing innovative organizations? Also, and perhaps more importantly, is doing so really necessary (or advisable) for Korean businesses?
Beginning at the beginning
First and foremost, organizations are made of people and people tend to be a reflection of the culture and society they grew in. A primary reason for why innovation seems so far out of reach for Korean organizations could be because the traits necessary for it (i.e. creativity, free-thought, experimentation) aren’t strongly developed in the young. To visualize this, I simply look to the education system (note: my personal experiences working within the Korean public education system leaves me with a tendency to rant on the subject, so I’ll try to control that). While there is plenty to like about education here, mostly the work ethic of its students, without question the unforgiving, test-focused measurements impedes growth in more subjective areas. This is not to say there are no creative, innovative Korean people, as there most certainly are, but rather they were created more in spite of the culture than with its support and many cite outside influences as key to their development.
A common attribute of those considered ‘great minds’ such as jobs (or historical figures like Einstein and Edison), is that they failed, a lot. Their path to success tended to be littered with false starts, bad ideas and poor decisions. For every light bulb there were plenty of kenetophones, or in modern terms, for every iPad there were plenty of NeXTcubes.
I have not failed, I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work. Thomas Edison.
In the West, stories of monumental failure leading to ultimate success are common. They are told to children to encourage the “get back on the horse” mentality that is common to the culture. This stands in contrast to what exists in Korea, something cultural anthropologists call a “shame society”. In short, such cultures use shame and the threat of being ostracized as a form of social control. While the real existence of this in Eastern cultures is argued, there certainly are plenty of evidence to suggest its existence in Korea (such as the high suicide rate discussed before). As to how such a societal structure affects business innovation, I personally can see two major obstacles. First, shame or “saving face” adds additional costs to failure and therefor encourages playing it safe and not taking risks. Second, by placing such high value on belonging and acceptance, standing out (especially in non-academic ways) is a scary prospect, as even elevation in status separates you from the whole.
To recap far too many words, it’s probably suffice just to say to become ‘innovative’, Korea (as a society) would require great amounts of cultural change going far beyond the board room, but into the classroom and the home. I’m sorry for you readers who read through everything else just to get to this point, especially because it’s likely not the most important question. As stated way back at the beginning, that question is this really necessary (or advisable) for Korean businesses?
Focus on your strengths, not your weaknesses
To give credit where its due, my inspiration for this post began with a discussion over on Korea Business Central, asking the question if Korea can design a brand that is “distinctly Korean”, (an extension of a Korea Herald interview with brand consultant Martin Lindstrum). Over there, I made the argument that Korea’s recent history and tremendous economic growth is strongly tied to its decades of authoritarian rule. The powers of this time pushed growth and quantity above all else, making fast and cheap the names of the game. While this time (for the most part) has passed thoughts and images still remain (anybody want a 1986 Hyundai Excel?).
While some of these ideas are no longer applicable, many have simply evolved with Korean society, such as it being better to copy rather than create. When I say “copy”, I don’t wish to compare Korea to the Chinese firm manufacturing $100 jPads, but rather note that, especially in recent times, their strength does not lie in taking the giant leaps, but rather in the little steps between. Put frankly, if all companies were innovators, we’d have a ton of fancy new products (that don’t quite work properly). While it’s commendable to be on the cutting edge, taking and improving on the ideas of others can be a very good recipe for success. While my Western perspective initially lead me to argue that Korea companies need to be more innovative and begin the cultural changes necessary, further discussion and reflection makes me realize that it’s not the only way. For an example, let’s look at K-Pop music.
While a lot of the national hype about its growth is just hype, it is very true that there is an emerging international interest and appeal far beyond the size of the country producing it. This interest likely isn’t due to the creativity or uniqueness of the product (as really, no pop music stone is left unturned in the industry, including disco), but rather that it takes what has been done before and presents it in a highly polished, easily digestible package for the masses. The boys and girls on stage are highly trained, hard working and incredibly talented, not in the sense of writing words and making music, but instead at making something the masses want to consume. More than music, K-pop is a product, an increasingly successful one, that proves it doesn’t have to be original if it good and easily accessible. Really, in the end, Korean companies can continue to follow this model, grow and continue to be successful, as it fits within the current structures of society, ones that would be very difficult, if not impossible, to change. Perhaps the “Korean Steve Jobs” will come, but they undoubtedly will be, and probably should be, the exception rather than the rule. So, at least for today, I have to leave it with the belief that for Korean business to keep moving forward, they’re best left following, but just doing it better than those in the lead.
In what seems to have become an annual rite these days, reports have named South Korea as having the leading suicide rate of all OECD nations. The latest data, taken from 2009, presents shocking numbers to those who haven’t heard them before. A total of 15,413 people died by their own hands in that year, an average of over 42 per day. According to the Ministry of Health and Welfare, suicide has now become the number one cause of death among those aged 10-40, beating out auto accidents, cancer and all other diseases. Among those in their 20’s, the suicide rate was nearly equal to all other deaths combined at a mind boggling 44.6% in 2009.
While the raw numbers always manage to surprise me, unfortunately they aren’t saying anything new and the calls for greater prevention and support with undoubtedly follow as well. The question is, will anything really happen? A look through blogs and news archives shows that the problem has been a part of the social consciousness for at least the past five years.
Suicide in South Korea Case of Too Little, Too Late (OhMyNews Feb. 2007)
Reading these and reports from other years, you can see how interchangeable they really are. Unfortunately, the only thing that is changing is the numbers (they are still going up). Additionally, the international media have began to take notice as well, focusing on the angle of high profile suicides among celebrities and as a cautionary social note in the backdrop of Korea’s meteoric rise.
Suicide in South Korea (The Economist July 2010)
What is perhaps the most troubling point of all is how incredibly recent this trend has began. In only about 20 years, South Korea went from having one of the lowest suicide rates of developed countries (7.9 per 100k in 1990, well below the OECD average of 13.9) to the by far and away highest (the 2009 rate nearly 10 suicides per 100k higher than Japan, the number two nation). So incredible is this increase, that in reporting the statistics for 1990-2006, the OECD had to insert a chart break in a graph expressing a general downward trend in OECD nation suicide rates. That number just seems so patently impossible, 172% increase in 16 years. Also note that the 2006 numbers showed a brief dip in the rate before beginning another upward trend. If we then take into account the 2009 numbers, we have a well over 200% change over two decades.
Undoubtedly, a number of social issues in modern Korea undoubtedly are playing a role in the staggering increases. Common themes include hyper-competitive education and job markets, increased emphasis on social status and appearance, the aforementioned (and constant) celebrity suicides and the break down of traditional support networks. While certainly steps can be taken to mitigate the effects of these phenomena, they will still be facts of modern Korean society and can’t be eliminated completely. Therefor, any solutions based solely around them will be fatally flawed. In my view, the key will be for Korea as a society to revise its view on mental health. The government has attempted to do its part by increasing the number of mental health care facilities available and according to a 2006 World Health organization report, adequate numbers of mental health specialists exist. The problem, then, seems to lie with the use of these resources, integration into general health care and (as mentioned before on this blog) largely negative public opinion towards mental health care. For those without “severe” mental health issues (such as those requiring hospitalization) care and treatment are incredibly limited, clustered only around major urban areas and (if made public) have strong stigmas of personal failure and severe deficiency for those who utilize them. This social stigma, perhaps more than anything else, may be what drives the rates so high, with death seeming to be a better option than living with the assumed shame of seeking help. When I literally look around the Korean landscape with my Western eyes, the complete invisibility of self-service mental health care (psychiatric offices, counseling centers, etc.) is clearly evident and while I feel countries like the US have become too reliant on “chemical care” for mental health, if the other option what we see in Korea, then bring on the pills. I do hope, though, that the future doesn’t lie in either of these extremes. In general, I greatly admire the Korean health care system, especially in how it blends modern Western techniques with Eastern practices and both well supported by the public. If similar systems can be found to treat the mind as well as the body, then perhaps the trends can be tamed and perhaps even reversed. Unquestionably, the first step in any solution will have to take place in the minds of the public. Not just to recognize the problem, as we can see that has already been done, but to accept and seek out the solutions, wherever they might be. Once this has been done, then perhaps the stories can be a bit different in the future.
On a side note, while researching this post and finding some historical sources, I can across this Time magazine piece from 1991.
South Korea: The Tale Behind a Suicide (Richard Hornik, June 1991)
It is a story that I highly recommend reading, looking at one of the well known cases of self-immolation martyrdom among Korean youth at the crucible time between South Korea’s totalitarian past and democratic future. While I personally disagree with suicide ever really being a best solution, I can understand the point that these young people died for something and the nation gained from their sacrifice. Perhaps here, we can see the roots of the social quasi-acceptance of suicide in the modern society. It is a grim irony that the timing of these deaths coincided with the start of the statistics named above, as perhaps we can see the small number of martyrs growing into an avalanche, the death by choice in common, but with purpose and principle lost.
The topic of multiculturalism in Korea has been on my mind for a while now, not to mention the topic of blog posts that have failed to materialize. I feel it’s a topic that has been well covered in the past by far more experienced and noteworthy than myself and are easily available via a quick google search. Regardless though, there is an article currently making the rounds of the bloggosphere entitled “Korea’s Multicultural Future” that caught my eye a little while back. It was written by Faustino John Lim and can be seen here at the New Leaders Forum of The Diplomat. Discussion on the article can be found a few places, so by all means read the full article (it’s a longy but a goody) and then the commentary at places such as Roboseyo and Gusts of Popular Feeling.
With all the words and discussion already out there on the subject, really there is just one simple question: Is Korea becoming a multicultural society? If want to know my opinion (and you came to my blog, so I will just assume you do) then my short answer is No. The current conditions and direction of Korea do not put it on course to be a multicultural society. To explain this further, we need to answer just what multiculturalism is, because having a variety of skin colors is not enough. Now I am not a sociologist, and if I am ignorantly stealing any well-known theories out there I apologize, but in my definition a multicultural society is one where the structures and foundations are woven together from the varying backgrounds of multiple culturally distinct groups making up its population. Additionally, it is one where the society can be adapted to new and emerging groups. In my estimation, there really can’t be that many truly multicultural societies out there and the only country (rather than single population center) that meets the criteria is the USA. This is because, with all due respect to the Native American cultures, for the most part the “American Society” had to be built from scratch on borrowed parts from more established cultures. Additionally, as diverse numbers continue to grow within the US, it is a society that is constantly evolving and adapting (although not without its share of growing pains. I have no illusion of America being the perfect multicultural society). It is here we can also see the force that creates a multicultural society. It is not programs put in place by politicians nor media attention, it is numbers pure and simple. If there are enough people separate from the current fabric of society, but existing within it, then (if allowed) that fabric will naturally change. Despite all the attention given to the growing amount of foreigners in Korea, the number is still only about 2% of the population and therefor not enough to really force societal change. Add to the point that to really be a multicultural society I believe you need several distinct groups large enough to affect the structures of society and you realize why I don’t feel Korea can truly become one. Now I’d like to take the chance to throw in a very important point, this lack of a multicultural society is not necessarily a bad thing. It isn’t “not a bad thing” because I believe in blood purity, separatism or any similar wrong-headed notions, but simply because it’s not something Korea can create rather it just has to happen and the conditions probably exist here anytime in the near future. Can Korea become more culturally sensitive? Of course. Can it be more accepting and accommodating of non-Koreans? Sure (especially of the foreign workers listed in the Lim piece). Should Korea become a more connected, involved party in the international community? Yes and I see it happening. But none of these things make a multicultural society and Korea doesn’t need to be a multicultural society to accomplish any of those goals.
So Korea is not a multicultural society, nor does it need to be one. Additionally, it is obviously no longer a hermit kingdom, shielded off from the outside world. These things accepted, then exactly what is Korea and what is it growing to be? In my view, this country is on the path of becoming a multi-ethnic society and that’s exactly where it should be. This is nothing ground breaking that hasn’t been said before, so kudos to those who promote the idea and probably planted it in my head. To mirror the definition of a multicultural society from above, a multi-ethnic society is one which the structures and foundations of it accept those from cultural distinct groups, however the onus is on those people to adapt and accommodate the existing society. To use an old idiom to put it simply “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.” Those of us who have lived in Korea for a while (and I know, I barely can consider myself part of that group after only a few years) know that if you don’t adapt to Korean culture then you won’t have a very good experience. This leads to a lot of accusation of racism, nationalism and just general bitching and moaning about Korea being so different, and while a few of these cases can be justified, for the most part these people failed to grasp that they entered into an established societal framework and it’s on them to follow it.
So then just what is Korea doing with all this promotion of “Multicultural Korea”? I would argue that they are simply using the wrong term, maybe “Multi-ethnic Korea” doesn’t have the same marketing ring to it. While one can certainly debate whether or not Korea is yet truly accepting of outsiders, I believe they tentatively are, you can see examples everywhere of the attempts to integrate and indoctrinate Korean culture once they are here. As many readers within Korea probably initially came here as English teachers, think back to your orientation. Did you play learn Arirang? Did you do some sort of traditional arts in crafts? If you took a trip, was it to different cultural and historic locations of significance to Koreans? I know this may be a flawed argument as you were simply being introduced to Korea, but additionally go and look at a newspaper or watch television. When you see a foreigner, are they shown acting within their cultural norms or are they shown interacting with Korean culture? Think to all the times you’ve seen foreigners shown in Hanboks, shown eating Korean food, or learning a Korean bow as we see in the photo above. Don’t Koreans in general seem a little too over-impressed by your ability to use chopsticks or butcher a few phrases in Korean? This is all because they are very proud of their culture and therefor appreciative of you trying to be a part of it, even in some small way. While it may not always be ideal, in general Korea is a society that is, or at least becoming, accepting of outsiders and has a desire to integrate them into the society. As this grows further in the future, well beyond the 2%, I believe this will continue to be the case making Korea a truly multi-ethnic society.