New business practices create tension in the office

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New business practices create tension in the office

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Illustration by Lee Jin-gyu

For the design of an inaugural postage stamp of President Lee Myung-bak, Korea Post broke with convention.
Instead of a formal black suit and a conservative tie, President Lee is pictured on the stamp with his jacket off. He’s wearing a white shirt and a light blue tie ― the color of his political party ― and he’s sitting in front of a laptop.
The new look, which Lee’s transition team suggested to the stamp designers, gives the new president a self-consciously dynamic look ― the look of a CEO rather than a career politician.
The designers have also dropped patriotic symbols such as depictions of morning glories or Mount Paektu in the background, a favorite with past presidents. Instead, Lee’s stamp is draped with a Korean flag that merges with a world map. This marks the first time that a globalization theme has appeared on such a stamp.
The inherent message of the new stamp, which Korea Post issued to mark the inauguration of the new president, is clear: The new government wants to emphasize a global-friendly image and discard the dated bureaucratic image of presidents past.
“We were asked to base our designs on the concept of a ‘working’ president,” says Lee Han-jae, chief of the stamp department at Korea Post. “The [public] response was very enthusiastic. The edition was sold out in less than a week.”
The new stamp is a significant indicator of the direction Lee wishes to lead his new administration. Since he took office, the administration has worked hard dismantling the authoritarian image of the Korean presidency. Since the foundation of South Korea in 1948, the office of the president has been seen as a symbol of absolute power and charismatic leadership.
Other events further underscore this move from tradition. A government spokesman noted in a March 2 press release that Lee summoned key members of his secretariat to his office on the morning of March 1, Korea’s Independence Movement Day, to give them their official letters of appointment. State functions on national holidays are rare events in Korea.
Additionally, Lee reportedly told his chief authorities at a breakfast meeting that same day that the spouses of the secretaries-designate would accompany them on their appointment ceremonies.
The press release also relates how seats in a conference room were given to all comers at a recent state meeting led by Lee. There have even been reports of occasional bursts of laughter as presidential aides audaciously advised Lee to “take some vacation time.”
What’s interesting about Lee’s new administration is that his desire to create a new image for the presidency is not taking place in a vacuum.
Many experts say formality is no longer seen as a fashionable sign of power. They say companies today stress creativity as a key value and undertake bold public relations to soften their corporate image, either by investing in their employees’ welfare or making contributions to society.
The hygiene products maker Yuhan-Kimberly introduced “EAP,” a professional counseling service that offers employees help related to work and family issues. On the outskirts of Seoul, the company operates “weekend farms,” land that employees and their families can use to plant vegetables.
The drug company Pfizer recently asked an ergonomics consultant to visit its headquarters and assess the ergonomics of its employees’ work stations, in particular the position of computer monitors and chairs.
When it launched in Seoul last year, Google Korea acquired some games, such as a billiards table, a Nintendo video game console and some robots for its employees use.
This new trend is impacting on the organizational mindsets of many Koreans, according to some observers. One foreign company spokesman says the trend has helped modernize the way Koreans think, work and handle business situations that are “more nuanced and sophisticated,” especially in multinational environments.
“Many Koreans are adopting competitive, performance-minded working models, which is conflicting with other Korean employees who still value hierarchy, stability and seniority,” says Juma Wood, the CEO of R Global Net, a foreign-run corporate training company in Seoul.
Wood offers an example. A young, performance-minded employee at one of his client companies was promoted to a management position. This created tension in the office, as the new employee was considered too young for the job.
“His fellow managers subjected him to months of ridicule and demeaning behavior. They resented his rapid rise,” he says. “The company eventually had to take steps to protect him.”
Other experts and some foreigners who have worked in Korean companies in the past decade say conventional organizational structures are still popular in Korea.
“I can’t cite any concrete examples [of changes] beyond wearing jeans and sports shirts to work in some companies,” says Tom Coyner, president of Soft Landing Consulting Ltd., formerly Soft Landing Korea Ltd., who has worked extensively with Korean businesses.

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“Company executives [in Korea] need to be convinced that a freer exchange of opinions and ideas could make their companies more competitive. That means they’ll need to make continuous efforts to assure their subordinates that it is safe and preferable for the junior staff to be more openly opinionated,” Coyner says.
But even if senior Korean business executives go along with this approach, if they don’t repeat assurances and don’t take care to avoid jumping on “wrong” opinions, they aren’t likely to foster a more open corporate culture, Coyner adds.
“This is actually much more difficult to do than most people realize,” he says.
Others say the root of the issue goes beyond economic theory. Hong Won-shik, a philosophy professor at Keimyung University, says that the value system governing modern-day Korea is a classic struggle between Confucian traditions and the sudden rise of capitalism.
Hong sees problems behind this increasing need to break away from conventional values. He feels that the move to embrace new work protocols and start rejecting traditional conventions lacks substance. The perceived need for pragmatism is backlash against the leftist politics and ideology of the past decade.
“It’s more about language and gestures than a critical assessment of the value system itself,” Hong says. “It’s hard to call it a change, because it does not have any philosophical foundation or a serious need to challenge the root of the existing order.”
Change, though, is happening, and it’s happening very fast. The new value system will eventually impact on every facet of global standards, according to Kim Young-han, the author of “Follow Samsung-style Meetings.”
He says, “Four years ago when my book first came out, Samsung was about the only Korean company trying to use a global model for business communication and decision-making. There are now many others. The idea of matrix organization [a management structure meant to enhance communication and skill-sharing] is initiating a lot of paradigm shifts in Korean companies.”
However, older Koreans still feel that Western practices have complicated business practices rather than brought benefits.
“A Korean company was like one big family in the past,” says Lee Ki-dong, a veteran professor of Confucian philosophy at Sungkyunkwan University and the author of “A Nation where Bears Succeed.”
In his book, Lee argues that the notion of endurance and compliance embedded within Confucian-style management practices assists growth in the long run. He cites labor disputes as a failed example of Western-style management.
Lee feels that there is still some shame among Koreans attached to working just for the money. That’s because Confucian customs say a sincere compliment rather than financial reward is the best compensation.
“But things are quickly changing,” he says. “Korean companies are now creating less hierarchy between employees and management. You don’t find the same bonds and sense of loyalty between the two anymore.”


By Park Soo-mee Staff Reporter [myfeast@joongang.co.kr]
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