Monday, October 26, 2009

Work in Taiwan: Last days at MTI and thoughts on Taiwanese companies

My last department meeting at MTI went as expected.
Vivian, my new colleague responsible for market intelligence and research management was giving her proposal on setting up a database - She had found she didn’t have any budget to do research and that nobody had any interest in seeing it, so she had to think of something productive to do until she quit.
Ordinarily, she should just be using the database done by the last person and the person before…and so on...But she couldn’t because, as with all the others, the database had been lost.
She suggested we spend a few thousand dollars on some database software and Mickey wasn’t so happy.
“The license fee is very expense. What value is this?” queried Mickey.
“You will have a database of competitors, products, country profiles, consumer behaviour and market trend information for you engineers to make better marketing decisions,” she replied.
Mickey didn’t get the joke.
“We don’t really worry about what our competitors are doing – we just concentrate on being No.1,” continued Mickey. “If you can do it with Excel then go ahead. I don’t want to stop your creativeness, but make sure...”
Mickey then talked for half an hour about how about organization, but never organize anything. Talked about getting his staff to take responsibility, but never allowed anyone to make a decision. Asked his staff to be bold and give their ideas, but immediately knocked the idea down as stupid.
Last thoughts on time at MTI:
I was highly critical of Mickey, but not the VP or Chairman. These guys were tough, hardworking and prepared to make decisions.
It was interesting because every western business journalist had written off Taiwanese companies as destined to fail once they started competing with multinationals. It was always for these two reasons: they couldn’t brand and they were badly organized.
The first showed how much culture blinded us. Westerners were obsessed with branding, holding it as a sign of failure that you don’t have a brand.
If I had a pound for every time some foreigner I met in the bar complained that the end of the billion dollar Taiwanese company he worked for was imminent because they didn’t have a brand...And he had told them so...Anyway, it was clearly not the case because a simple fact remained: 80% of the world’s computer hardware was made by companies in Taiwan, that grew every year. These companies had made simple decisions that they didn’t brand very well so they would concentrate on research and development, design and manufacturing. We looked down on them because supposedly western companies outsource what they don’t want to do to them; they on the other hand look at it in the opposite way: they outsource their sales and marketing to the western companies.
It reminded me of my time at school, where we laughed at the Greek guys who worked in their father’s restaurants and hotels in the evening because it wasn’t glamorous, ignoring the fact that they drove to school in BMWs whereas we stood on bus stops in the cold. They understood life is about earning a living. Maybe, we have forgotten that in favor of life is about seeing our name in lights.
The business journalists would try to be balanced: recognize what the Taiwan companies did well, and speak of great lengths about how the Taiwanese companies had successfully built themselves up from nothing in a short time, but then let their brand bias show. Inevitably ending with a warning: ‘When the company reaches the stage where is has to brand...” What stage is that? Why is it inevitable?
The second point about organization inevitably led back to the old one about Taiwanese not being able to think for themselves. It was a classic surface observation from people who hadn’t spent long in Asia. Taiwanese existed in a very hierarchical structure meaning they choose when to express their opinion and when not – Just look at the way they talk to the guy they know is below them in the structure...Just look at the average boss...He is filled with opinions and attitude. The most telling example is that Taiwan has one of the highest percentage of small business ownership in the world. Why? Nobody likes to listen to the boss.
Even if you accept that there is some weight to the above argument, the system is far from doomed. The Taiwanese spent vast fortunes on foreign education - also backed up by statistics showing it to be one of the highest percentages in the world.
When I left MTI my department was filled with fifteen guys and girls who had MBAs from America. They could punch their weight in any company in the world – and most actually had previously. As long as they didn’t allow themselves to become corrupted or to forget these foreign born and educated MBA holding, mid-thirties Taiwanese - now languishing in the middle and lower management layers, frustrated by the upper layer of engineers with old-style management attitudes - eventually take over in the next 10 years Taiwanese companies will become extremely strong. And, anyway, anything they lacked they would make up with hard work. It was frightening stuff: they worked 15 hour days, they didn’t take holidays, and everything was put second place to work.
Would i recommend working for one? Hmm...

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