Weekend Journal: Working With China

This is simply an introductory post. I don’t have any experience working with China yet. There. That’s out of the way.

But my first impressions of working with China have already affected my decision making at work and what I say on my radio show. So I thought I’d put some up-front considerations on the screen (saying “down in ink” doesn’t really make sense these days anymore). And I realize it’s something that could change in either direction in the near future, so please take that into account before you start shouting at your screen.

Really, this all started with corporate training about working with China. Some of the material was over the top and a bit stereotypical. But from that first glance at the culture (or at least what I’ve been told about it), working with China seems like a horrible idea for business. Why?

  • Decision making can take a long time when dealing with Chinese partners. Everyone in the group must come to a consensus. And when the deadline is “right now”, as it sometimes is, the US counterpart can be the one left hanging.
  • The collective sharing mantra in the society, which puts less focus on Intellectual Property and trade secrets, or at least less pressure on those that share these secrets (though I’m sure some would point to my own love of Open Source Hardware (OSHW) and mention my hypocritical nature on this point).
  • Chinese companies may have a greater focus on hierarchy, which can lead to younger members of the company not voicing their minds, even if there are flaws in a plan or design.
  • There also may be more indirect dealing with co-workers and subordinates in a tense situation. Never calling someone out on a foolish idea or when they are doing something wrong. (i.e. doesn’t this encourage future behaviors that could be similarly bad?)
  • The restrictive policies of a communist government and the control exerted over the market by the government.

These are mostly cultural reasons. Should that be a limiting factor? Maybe, I’m not sure. I understand the need to understand cultural differences, at the very least, and I’m appreciative to receive (corporate) training on the differences to get a baseline of what to expect. And yet, after all of these points that I dislike, I realize there are some very good points of why to work with partners in China:

  • A government that encourages and invests in businesses (though there are obviously risks mentioned above), especially when the economy needs it.
  • A solid and growing workforce of excited young engineers. Even if the average quality of engineers graduating is lower than other parts of the world (not saying they are, just saying they could be), the sheer number of engineers graduating each year means that there will be some very highly talented workers to pair with (assuming you can find and retain that top tier talent).
  • An installed base of manufacturing (thanks to many years of exporting jobs) that now has set the groundwork for some serious infrastructure which you can take advantage of.
  • Price differentiation in the labor market which could lead to lower prices for your products (though my prediction is that in the metropolitan areas of China and the falling value of the dollar, this has a 10 year lifespan max).

I was talking with a co-worker from China who now has been living in the US for a few years and we reflected on the stated differences of culture and how they might affect business relationships. After a careful comparison of cultures, families, friends and traditions, we came to the following conclusion: people are just people. And what I mean by that is of course there are differences between me and an engineer in China. And of course he or she and I might not approach a situation similarly. But people have been working out conflicts and differences between cultures for many years, and that’s half the fun of working with people in different cultures/companies/parts of the world from yourself. And I’m always interested in meeting new people.

What about you? Have you interacted with co-workers in China? What about in other parts of the world? What kind of benefits or drawbacks have you seen in you business with them? Let us know in the comments!

Thanks to edans for the picture.

4 responses to “Weekend Journal: Working With China”

  1. John Boxall

    Read the book “Poorly Made in China” by Paul Midler – it sums things up very nicely.

  2. Puting Alexander Zamoronov

    Thanks for the post! I find it delightful to read!

    The renowned caltech engineer (RECALTEE) may share some stories here later on.

  3. Chris

    I worked with a Hong Kong-based electronics company with a factory in China. I learned a great deal about the culture and I too had the same frustrations about working with Chinese engineers. But what it came down to was this:

    I had my idea and wanted to outsource manufacturing. As far as I was concerned, I was taking care of everything this end, and the Chinese factory would make and ship my product. There were invisible to the end customer, and could have been any factory, anywhere in the world. What I actually found was the guys running (if not working) in the factory had a vested interest in my product being successful. As far as they were concerned, this was a joint-venture. They saw it that my success (or lack of it) reflected on them as a business, and on each individual as a person.

    Once I got my head around sharing my ideas and in effect sharing ownership of the project, albeit in just an idealistic way, I enjoyed the whole experience a lot more!

    Before making any decisions on China, good, bad or indifferent, it’s important to at least acknowledge – better understand – cultural differences, ideas of ownership and so on, and accept them. You may not agree with them, but if you can’t accept them, you’ll probably never have a good working relationship with a manufacturer in China!

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