A whale in a fish tank

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A whale in a fish tank

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The rumor started to spread last month. Something was going on at NHN, the company that operates Naver. Employees were working overtime, and the company stopped the shuttle bus service to discourage employees from going home sharply after working hours were over. On Monday, an article in the Korea Economic Daily featured a lecture Lee Hae-jin gave to employees last month.

The NHN founder and chief strategy officer said, “I was devastated when I read a posting on our intranet that someone chose NHN over Samsung because the work would be less stressful. Some people seem to think working at NHN is like joining a soccer club as a hobby.” He said that the workday begins at 10 a.m. because many people worked very late the night before and the company installed a high-tech ventilation system and expensive chairs to accommodate that. However, many employees still leave work at the regular time. He emphasized that the company could decline if people start slipping.

Naver is the clear leader in the Internet search engine industry in Korea, but it is not dominant in the mobile industry. It is overpowered by Google, Daum and Kakao Talk. Naver is busy keeping up with services provided by rivals. After the lecture, Lee attracted intense criticism. Former NHN employee Kim Hyeong-jun started the offensive. He published a blog entry after reading the article, and it went viral on SNS. “NHN is already a major corporation, but the founder demands entrepreneurial spirit from the employees,” he wrote. “The engineers will dance when they are given ownership of projects, not expensive chairs.”

The IT industry insiders have similar opinions. One said, “Lee Hae-jin is a great man, but regrettably, neither the founder nor the company is getting due respect.” A few years ago, Web start-ups were nearly killed because no matter what they came up with, Naver would copy it. Naver was expected to thrive in the mobile environment as well, but it was slow to adapt . Now smaller start-ups finally have a chance.

So outsiders are observing the internal strife of NHN without compassion. What made Google and Apple so successful is the industrial eco-system they established. However, NHN is a whale in a fish tank. Yet, in a way, the controversy may be positive. If the management uses the discord as a chance to communicate with the employees and industry, NHN will be able to achieve a new level of development.

The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Lee Na-ree

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