KFS (KM) in China:
VIII Telephone interview with Daniel Miller

Interviewee: Consultant at a US multinational IT company
Interviewer: Stefan Broda
Date: 21.2.2005

Topic: Knowledge Management in China, cultural perspectives

Author: What is your impression of knowledge work in China?

Oh, knowledge sharing is horrendous! In the West, it seems that the more you know the better but you have to share your knowledge so that other value you as an expert. In China, it seems that the less you share your knowledge, the more valuable it becomes! And in China, the strong resistance against foreign influence adds to the problem.

Author: Resistance against foreign influence. Very interesting! Could you talk more about that?

Sure, take the project we could have had with company ABC in Beijing. It was a billion dollar opportunity and they place a local kid on the job who didn't speak English and had no idea about the business. But this opportunity was declared top priority so AP managers got involved. These are really senior guys and come mostly from the US or Japan. On phone conferences, the Chinese account manager would just talk in Chinese and nobody would understand a thing, all information he gave us was Chinese as well. The AP guys were very frustrated and asked the China subsidiary to replace him but they just didn't do it. They said "Ok, we will improve the situation" but then didn't do anything, just ignored them. In the end, we lost the project. The resistance against Asia Pacific was immense.

Author: Are there other aspects you find are an obstacle for knowledge work?

We had a project with a telecom in Hong Kong for a enterprise restructuring. We won the project but then for the deliverable, the Chinese team just took a US deliverable which was similar and added some cosmetic changes. It did not fit at all to the background of the Chinese client. And they were not impressed at all. Reverse engineering was pervasive! It might work with a DVD player - you take one apart and build a model based on your findings, but it doesn't work in consulting due to the different backgrounds and situations of the client.

Author: The examples you give me sound pretty negative. Is it improvable?

It definitely is. Although their culture does sometimes hinder us to apply Western knowledge work styles, they are always willing to learn. I would say the younger the better. And you can implement new practices, even if it breaks traditions. For example, during an M&A project, I led a team and on the first meeting I told them that I would not chair the meeting every time. They looked at me pretty surprised. You know, in China, the chairman is called chairman because he is the only man who chairs. But I said that every time, there will be a secretary who takes the minutes and will be chairman next time. So he has to communicate the minutes afterwards and plan the agenda and coordinate it with the team members. After a while when everyone had been chairman and secretary, they were much better in meetings. They all knew what tough of a job it is. Sometimes I'm just surprised how little effort it takes to get such improvements!.

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