Three Asian Dragons Innovate in Business Education

Hirokazu Kono, Professor and Dean of Japan’s leading business education institution Keio Business School, shares the story of the flagship China-Korea-Japan (CKJ) initiative that brings students and professors from three countries into contact with the Asian way of business and management.

From an interview with Dean Hirokazu Kono by Gaëlle Parrot and Tom Gamble. With thanks to Hiroshi Takagi of Keio Business School

Does one-size fit all?

Business and management education, not to mention practice, has long since been shaped by Anglo-Saxon models and thought-leaders. This ‘western approach’ assumes that the same strategies and processes can be applied wherever business is conducted and whoever the stakeholders are. But to what extent is the ‘one size fits all’ approach a truism? While acknowledging the contribution of western schools of thought and practice, Hirokazu Kono, Professor and Dean of Keio Business School, Japan, also highlights the unique and oftentimes very different ways that managers and executives in Asia conduct their business and run their companies. As Dean of KBS, professor Kono oversees a singular initiative that each year brings together three schools, three Asian cultures, their students and faculty on a journey to learn the specificities of business and management in China, Korea and Japan – the CKJ initiative.

Temporality is just one dimension of the cultural difference in western and Asian approaches, perhaps epitomized in the history of the CKJ initiative itself. The long-term is given priority, and the passing of time tends to be seen as beneficial in both creating the necessary trust for greater things to occur, and also for ideas to tested, assessed and tweaked as required. ‘The China-Korea-Japan initiative,’ states Hirokazu Kono, ‘was the brainchild of two former deans of Keio Business School and Tsinghua School of Management, China, who then brought a third reputed school into the initiative – KAIST College of Business in Korea. The initiative has been in operation since 1998, although for the first five years of its existence it consisted in yearly faculty workshops between the three schools.’ The faculty workshops brought together leading academics to foster joint research projects among the three countries and several papers were published as well as a number of case study materials specifically dealing with the Asian approach to management and business operations. This first step enabled sufficient trust and working methods to be understood and five years ago the decision to widen the initiative to the students of the three schools was taken.

‘If we say that management is management and business is business,’ asserts Dean Kono, ‘then there is no need to distinguish an Asian way. But if we go into the in-depth analysis of Japanese, Korean or Chinese companies, there are several differences from the so-called western way of management. For example, there are many small-to-mid-sized companies in Japan, mainly owned and run by families. In many instances, management practices will be strongly influenced by these family ties and hierarchies and indeed, many members of the family will also be running other companies at the same time. The aim of these firms is slightly different from being only for-profit, but will instead focus on more long-term perspectives, consistency, survival, and legacy for the next generation. Moreover, on a micro-level, decision-making and delegating processes are different given the family nature of these firms.’

The CKJ initiative

In its present set up, the China-Korea-Japan initiative is built on three pillars – a faculty workshop focusing on issues relating to Asia and its policies, concerns and management practices, as well as relationships with Europe or the USA; a second pillar being sessions dedicated to the presentation and discussion of individual or joint research in areas such as finance, accounting, marketing and HR operations. The third pillar consists of student awareness of the Asian approach to business and management, crowned by a field study trip in one of the three countries.

This brings together thirty-six MBA students – twelve from each school – in an intensive week of study and discovery in a host country. A key aspect is that the student field trip takes place on a rotation basis between China, Korea and Japan, with the 2018 event being organised by Keio Business School. A different theme is selected after discussions between the participating schools, the theme for 2018 being hospitality and the service industry – an astute choice given Japan’s selection to be the host of the 2020 Olympic Games. ‘It was one of the reasons why we chose this theme,’ recognises Dean Kono. ‘The Games will obviously be a high-profile event for Japan, and an opportunity for our students to study the existing and future infrastructure in terms of restaurants, hotels and Japanese Inns and the services they provide. With the planned development of a large complex on the outskirts of Tokyo, built on the site of its famous hot water springs, the CKJ initiative will provide input and feedback to the developers from a Japanese and Asian perspective on welcoming Chinese, Korean, Japanese and international visitors to the Games.’ Moreover, while attending lectures at the KBS campuses, the thirty-six students will stay on-site at the Japanese inn to complete their study.

Three Asian Dragons share Similarities and Differences

The CKJ initiative is open to MBA students studying at the three schools regardless of nationality – meaning that western students admitted to the schools’ MBA programmes can also participate. The week’s blend of study and discovery includes visits to six companies, lectures, discussions with CEOs and a business and management analysis project. The lingua franca used is English, though similarities between the three languages – Chinese, Japanese and Korean – mean that students often hold discussions in these languages when spending time together in their project teams. For Dean Kono the experience is as much about students becoming aware of their differences and similarities as studying Asian management practices. ‘At the beginning of the experience,’ states Kono, ‘students from Tsinghua and KAIST view Japan as a different country with different business models and a different culture. But when we go to visit companies and begin an in-depth analysis of them, then students move on to an awareness that there are both things that are different and things that are common between our three countries. This aspect – going into companies and observing everything from the shopfloor to senior management – is essential,’ says Dean Kono. ‘Lectures alone – even from famous faculty – are not enough. Students have to visit actual sites and look at things with their own eyes – and then their eyes can be open to see similarities and differences. That leads to the next step of mutual understanding.  In the end run, their mindset, passion and understanding are the essential goals of the CKJ initiative.’

Given the hotly disputed places available on the CKJ, the idea that students are selected through top performance and results immediately comes to mind. But it may just be a cultural lens that provides this preconception, for surprisingly Dean Hirokazu Kono states passion as being the most important factor. ‘Of course,’ he asserts, ‘the wider objective is to nurture business leaders from this region and initial selection to the MBA is very tough. But enthusiasm – passion – is very important when applying to have a place on the CKJ initiative. If you have passion, you have interest – and when you have these you are capable of going very deeply into a topic and resurfacing with an understanding of things that bring cultures and approaches together and things that may make us different, but which can be both a source of new ideas and acceptance. If we return to language, for example, Chinese and Japanese have many similarities in terms of words and pronunciation, but at the same time there are many areas where we have relatively large differences in way of thinking. Even coexisting in one geographical region, China, Korea and Japan have big differences but at the same time a similar global approach. Step back and view the bigger picture – the globe – and there are also natural differences but also similarities. This is the perspective required of today’s global business leaders.’

A shared future

Forming mixed teams and graded on their business analysis presentations at the end of the week before a figure from the corporate world, Dean Kono acknowledges that there is a noticeable change in students’ mindset at the end of the CKJ field study trip. Future developments in the CKJ initiative may incorporate CKJ executive education or even a double or triple-degree consortium between Keio Business School, Tsinghua School of Management and KAIST College of Business. This means going through the Japanese, Chinese and Korean governments for presentation of the project and authorisation. ‘There are some hurdles,’ comments Dean Kono, philosophically, ‘but the steady, step-by-step approach is important.’ In this, there is an echo of the Asian vein of patience over time in order to reach a goal. ‘Mindset or passion towards the future of business is very important,’ he continues, ‘in addition to knowledge and skills. And the CKJ way of collaboration can enrich these. Many of the students will eventually end up working in China for Japanese companies in the import-export and trading field or banks. They even start up their own companies to create bridges and business between Japan, China and Korea. Even coexisting in one geographical region, the three countries have big differences but at the same time a similar global approach. Step back and view the bigger picture – the globe – and there are also natural differences but also similarities. This is the perspective required of today’s global business leaders.’

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