[Viewpoint] Can Korea become truly creative?

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[Viewpoint] Can Korea become truly creative?

With the passing of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, the matter of genuine creativity and vision has been revisited by countless commentators. But in Korea, this topic has been already debated given the legal battles between Samsung and Apple.

Reading and listening to this debate, I have noticed that the discussion often takes place on two levels.

On the Korean level, the discussion is focused on whether Apple is violating Samsung’s patents, or whether Apple - or anyone else - monopolized the basic form factors found in the iPhone and iPad.

From a Western perspective, the discussion sometimes takes on a higher and broader perspective. Creativity and vision are not narrowly defined as something that can be patented or as ways of doing something simply better. Rather, creative vision means radical transformation that will reshape a product category and perhaps an industry - and possibly even transform the way people interact with others and technology.

To put it another way, Korea may be a world leader in the filing of patents, but it has yet to come up with an iconic technology - even with one of the highest populations of engineers and scientists.

This point has not been lost on Korean government and business leaders, who have acknowledged this issue for several years. And some sincere efforts have been made to try to remedy the situation. We have seen attempts at education reform, including schools focusing on technical and artistic development for gifted young people. We have seen corporate leaders experiment with restructuring their companies and hiring talented foreign executives and managers with enviable track records.

But frankly speaking, nothing seems to work. The problem obviously does not lie with the Korean people. It is easy to come across brilliant and, yes, creative Koreans. But yet Korea remains stuck - stuck in its “silo innovations.”

Let me explain.

As a management consultant and having sold into major Korean corporations, I have noticed factors that tend to work against strategic, wide-ranging creativity.

For example, no matter how bright or creative a Korean manager may be, he or she faces a daunting career path of assuming greater responsibilities while expecting to find a reduction in available jobs. Ultimately, most middle managers are forced to retire before they hit age 55. Some corporations have an unwritten rule that requires a certain percentage (say, 10 percent) of all executive contracts not be renewed each January so as to allow a few of the best senior managers a chance to be promoted to the next, higher level. Since most corporate managers generally hope to work until age 65, termination coming in their early- to mid-50s is a traumatic event.

Given the overriding fear of early retirement, individual reputations become of paramount concern for department managers and their bosses. Interdepartmental cooperation is minimized, since to ask for advice and assistance outside of one’s work group or department is, in effect, to publicly admit to the rest of the company that there is some lack of expertise or knowledge within that department.

Middle managers and even executives will therefore go to great lengths not to ask for direct assistance from personnel outside of their departments, unless such a request is routinely expected without fear of loss of face or damage to one’s reputation. What may be considered a routine request by Western standards to someone outside of one’s department may be viewed in Korea as an admission of incompetence.

Within this kind of environment, it is just about impossible for any idea that may be truly groundbreaking to be developed into a reality. Such ideas and creations require early dynamic and interdepartmental review, development and support. But that is not likely to happen in Korean companies. Instead, creativity and innovation are restricted to departmental, vertical silos within the organizations. Hence, I call the phenomenon “silo innovation.”

Academics may reform the Korean education system and consultants may conduct creativity workshops for a thousand years. But none of these efforts will do much good for unleashing major Korean innovation until the general and human resource management schemes are fully renovated. Until that happens, Koreans will continue to contribute to human society with important innovations - but most often outside of Korea and away from Korean corporations.

Meanwhile, Korea has to worry about competition from all sides. Not only do Western competitors threaten to stunt Korean commerce initiatives, but the Chinese are no longer content with providing cheaper alternatives to Korean products. Truth be told, the Chinese consider the Koreans to be “small-minded people.” The Chinese claim they are able to embrace the big picture, and they may well be capable of outmaneuvering the Koreans given their neighbor’s self-imposed hobbling of idea sharing.

All of which brings us back to the late Steve Jobs, who once said, “Innovation distinguishes between a leader and a follower.” The ultimate question may well be whether Korean managers are willing to allow their talented employees to lead without fear.

*The writer is president of Soft Landing Consulting in Seoul.

By Tom Coyner
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