Team Management Systems

Unity, Diversity and Team Management in the Asian Crisis

By Rod Davies
Copyright © Orient Pacific Century. All rights reserved.

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As fast as the so-called 'Asian crisis' descended on us, it is now threatening to dissipate just as fast. To paraphrase Queen Victoria or Oscar Wilde (or whoever you attribute the original).."...Rumors of the death of the Asian economies have been highly exaggerated..."

But while foreign and local investors may now be sporting a wide smile on their face, it is more debatable whether any real changes have occurred in management in Asia. As the colorful Prime Minister of Malaysia Mahathir has insisted throughout, the fall of Asian stock markets was the work of 'Foreign Devils'. It's an argument that is getting good support throughout Malaysia and Thailand. And encourages a view that management practices in Asia are not broke so why fix them?

In Indonesia, South Korea, Singapore, Japan and China, there are more substantive changes being made in management and government practices.

So where does team management as embodied by Team Management Systems (TMS) principles fit in?

First of all, it is a fallacy to say that team management does not exist throughout Asia. In fact teambuilding and management is central to the way management and business has been done in Asia for countless years... well before Belbin, Margerison-McCann and others made it popular in the West.

However the team management as practiced north of Australian shores is very different from the Western model. While TMS has as its starting point harnessing the power of the individual and building a winning team not in spite of, but indeed because of diversity, the oriental form of team management is predicated on conformism and sublimating individual differences for the good of the group.

The 'Overseas Chinese' dominate business in South East Asia, and with it have introduced the Confucian principle of communalism. A form of this is also practiced in Japan, and of course in China itself.

The Asian crisis has been confronted by different methods by different countries. Some countries, like South Korea, Thailand, Singapore and Indonesia in particular and Japan but less so, have gone down the 'reform' and 'openness' path. While others like Malaysia and Vietnam have tried to build their recovery by reinforcing the traditional 'Asian values' style of subservience to authority, paternalism, unifying by creating a common enemy, and via forms of xenophobic nationalism. Other countries, notably the People's Republic of China, seem almost schizophrenic, with major reforms being made at the same time as using traditional thought control to guard against the tensions fast reforms are causing.

Of course using this country split grossly simplifies the changes in Asia, as different industries, regions within countries, and companies have also followed either model independent of nation state. Nevertheless it is in government-led national policy that the split between the old Asia and the new Asia is most striking. And both models of responding to the crisis have brought some least in the short term.

In Indonesia, where increased poverty, massive currency devaluation, the exposure of 30 years of corruption and loss of international business confidence has resulted in violence and in some regions' anarchy, the downside of the Asian model of politics and teams has been most evident. This is best summed up by Mochtar Buchori of the opposition Indonesian Democratic Party- Struggle (PDI-P) who stated...

"We put too much emphasis on unity and none on diversity".

Indonesia, which could be viewed as the biggest most diverse team in the world in terms of ethnicity, language and cultural origins is a classic case of the communalism approach to team building going tragically awry. Suharto, who thinks of himself as a Javanese King, tried to inculcate his particular regional form of Javanese culture on to the whole country, regardless of whether his 'subjects' were Sumatran, Balinese, Sudanese, or indeed any of the other over 200 ethnic groups in Indonesia. His court style of power (indeed he was AsiaWeeks Most Powerful Man in Asia in 1977), aped the Chinese educated-elite Emperor's court. This was his approach to team management, instilled by a need to quickly unite the most diverse nation on earth. It was the simplest way, though history will record that it was ultimately not the most successful way, of uniting a team.

Sublimating individual differences only put the lid on a seething, boiling pot of diversity, only for it to boil over when the boss could no longer afford to buy team members loyalty through unsustainable increases in the levels of living standards and material well being. In such a society corruption, cronyism and elitism found a fertile ground in which to grow.

Further North, Malaysia had experienced its own riots and dislocation more than 20 years ago when racial riots threatened to pull apart the newly independent Malaysia. Through over 20 years of stewardship by Prime Minister Dr Mahathir, multicultural and multi-religious Malaysia could well and truly be described as a model of good team management, recognizing the individuality of different individuals, managing them individually, and creating a 'winning team'. The tenets of Chinese Buddhism and Malay Islam are in many ways diametrically opposed. The entrepreneurial Chinese settlers had quickly become the economic powerhouse of Malaysia, while the more laid-back and less ambitious Malays saw their own earth being taken away from them. That Mahathir managed to unite this powder keg of diversity has become one of the miracles of modern Asian history. However when the heat in the kitchen got too much, the Malaysian elite reverted back to the old ways. The press is stymied, and the nation is still in 'blame other's' mode, having created unity by a common enemy in the US and international investors. Local opposition is regularly denounced as being 'anti-Malaysia' and 'Western lackeys'. Ironically, the seeds of a present day Indonesia have been sown in Malaysia now during the present crisis.

Further North again, a noted Thai sage commented in the Bangkok Post on the current trend in Thailand for those who expressed a different view to be labeled as 'un-Thai'. And those who support the present government as 'Thai'. It is just the same mechanism that created the Indonesia of 1997-9 and threatens the development of other neighboring countries.

The latest World Competitiveness Report shows many Asian nations falling dramatically in their ranking as competitive nations, though that may not last for long with foreign investment set to pour back in.

The Asia Pacific Management Forum's survey on factors in Asian recovery shows that there is some opinion that those economies that will recover the first are outward rather than inward looking. Singapore, who has embraced globalization and internationalism, was seen by most respondents as being the country to recover the first. In fact this tiny island state of just over 3,000,000, is looking very likely to be the country which has learned the most from the crisis, and taken advantage of it to become even stronger. Is this a reflection on most of our TMS activity in Asia being carried out in Singapore? ..Well it would be nice to think so anyway!

Was the Asian crisis caused, at least in part, by political, organizational and business cultures that focused on control by an elite, thereby stultifying the free debate that so often results in forward thinking strategies? Has old money strangled the very competitiveness of Asian nations? If you're looking for an answer here don't look any further... there is no easy answer.

We DO know however, that teams in a crisis revert to more direct control and the sublimation of individual desires for the 'greater good'. Yet a team that has been developed to respect diversity, even in a crisis, emerges even stronger from a crisis for the good times later.

Present day Asia provides a living example of the struggle between two forms of team management. Unity OR diversity .... OR unity AND diversity. The latter of course is the ideal, but it is certainly not an easy road....

Copyright © Orient Pacific Century. All rights reserved.

Rod Davies was the first Director of the Institute of Team Management Studies and was involved in the earliest applications of TMS. More background to the above ideas can be found in the archives of the daily Chao Phraya River Rat's Asia Pacific Management News and the results of the Asian Prospects survey, both available at

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