July Insight - Marco Polo’s Blackberry: Communicating with China in an Electronic Age

Years ago, a client informed me that their first office in China was established in 1890 by posting the first Chief Representative over with a bank draft and a letter of introduction. The same client 100 years later organized conference calls about what colour chairs in the newly established office that would lead the return to China should have.  

As modern communications evolve we are entering the era of Marco Polo’s Blackberry: international executives now often receive 3 phone calls at the same time on a land line, mobile and via Skype on their computer.

To add to the information flow, verbal communication is augmented with email, text messaging, Twitter, Facebook and WeChat.  Not to be forgotten, the hum of the fax still prints out the odd important document buried below the ads for printer cartridges that did not come by courier.

All of this is happening 24/7 with little respect for time zones and more and more in the form of written monologues via email rather than detailed exchanges of information that lead to actual decisions being made.

What impact does our preference for doing business by email have in China which is still a face to face business culture? It is still common in the domestic economy that critical issues are often only hashed out over dinner, foot massages or golf.

Part of the solution can be found in General Ulysses S. Grant’s cables during the Civil War that are studied at West Point. Grant, due to the imposition of the telegraph, wrote in a short but detailed style that communicated orders and also flexibility of decisions to his fellow officers in the field.  

Corporate executives in China should be granted bandwidths of authority and communication focused primarily on requests for decisions, budgets and approval of contracts.   If decision makers at headquarters are pushing business teams in China for better results with customers or investors then they should be prepared to come to China and stay long enough to secure both a signature a rapport with their Chinese business partner.  

It is common still to find that due to time zones expatriate executives are working three jobs. The one answering emails received over night at home before going to work, the one as a manager in the office during the day and the third one after dinner  so that they can keep up with conference calls with their off-shore counterparts.

Smart companies will work out viable schedules for teams or direct reporting lines that permit executives to be “plugged in and on” for no more than 12 hours a day, enjoy a real Friday night not over burdened with reporting so that they can earn their salary by being alert and full of energy during their real job managing in China.

Management in China must also examine how communications technology is impacting key areas of governance, marketing and sales and risk management internally.  Local staff must be empowered to take advantage of the value and efficiency of written communication but also coached, as is the case worldwide now, that sending and reading an email is not a solution.  

Marco Polo was lucky because he came to China for an extended stay and then wrote about it in a static communication medium-a book. The rest of us are asked to slice off a piece of an evolving matrix and report it in real time electronically around the world.  

A client once tried to reach my cellphone 8 times during my lunch with the Chinese Chairman he was doing business with. When we finally spoke he wanted to know why I could not answer during the lunch as he wanted to know what was going on.  When given the explanation that until lunch was over I did not know he sounded confused.

It goes without saying that I envy the man who was sent to Shanghai with a letter of credit and a letter of introduction. He was the first step in building to what by the end of World War II was one of the most successful international life insurance companies in China.

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