Teaching Chinese R&D Managers

The “culture” that defines effective and ineffective R&D management practices is universal and to a great degree independent of country culture, at least as far as managing R&D in China is concerned. I base this conclusion on my recent experience in teaching four groups of industrial R&D managers in Shanghai, China, in December 2005 and June 2006.

When I was first approached to put on a workshop, I had several concerns. The main one was how much of the R&D management best practices that I teach in North America would be applicable in the Chinese culture. Another was the language barrier. I don't speak or understand Mandarin. Thus it was with some trepidation that I accepted the invitation to teach.

The language barrier did not prove as difficult as I thought it might. A majority of the workshop participants had a working knowledge of English and I was provided with two-way simultaneous interpretation. Thus when participants were asked to post on flipcharts the results of their group discussions in response to the open-ended questions posed during the workshop, it was not uncommon for the answers to be written in English.

The biggest surprise, however, was the answers to those questions. To a great degree, they were identical to the responses I hear from my American and Canadian participants. After a while, I had to keep reminding myself that I was in China, not North America.

Thus my primary concern over the transferability of North American/Western European R&D management best practices to China did not prove to be a problem.

The following are some of the “flipchart” questions and answers from the Chinese R&D managers:

What gives you the greatest satisfaction on the job?

Having a new product you worked on be successful in the market place.
Being rewarded for working hard.
Receiving recognition and respect from leaders and subordinates.
Receiving promotions and salary increases.
Doing a job you like very much.
Making friends at work—having good relations with co-workers.
Having the right to make decisions.

These responses more or less match the answers to a 1999 survey by R&D Magazine on the satisfying aspects of a researcher's job, which they reported to be:

Solving challenging problems.
Quality of the people they work with.
Doing interesting work.
Doing what they are good at.
Ability to work independently.

What are the factors that discourage idea generation and creativity?

Organization is too bureaucratic, with a strict hierarchy.
Not enough recognition for the development of intellectual property.
Top management focuses too much on key performance indicators that don't take creativity into account.
People are not given enough time to be creative due to work load.
Company focuses too much on short-term return on investment.
Culture is to always say “yes” to the boss when the answer should be “no.”
Fear of failure is too high.
Customers prefer safe solutions, not creative ones.
Motivation system does not support creativity.

These answers are clearly in line with the many research studies conducted in North America and Western Europe on what inhibits creativity. The only distinct difference is the difficulty that many Asians have in saying “no,” when “no” is the appropriate response to a request to do something.

Describe the most effective R&D manager you ever had who motivated you to work to the best of your ability.

Was a good role model.
Was involved, appreciated good work and provided rewards.
Was fair, and open in his dealings with subordinates.
Understood the nature of R&D work (e.g., risky, uncertain).
Fought for subordinates' benefits and compensation.
Took care of the career paths of subordinates.
Had good interpersonal skills, was friendly and sociable.
Provided freedom to his subordinates.

Your worst R&D manager?

Making decisions by himself with no explanations.
Wanting very detailed reports, did not trust subordinates (i.e., micromanager).
Not consulting with employees.
Not rewarding or praising good work, or the rewards were not dispensed fairly.
Being unable to provide any support.
Not having a good enough technical background, so was easily fooled.
Just acting as a conduit for orders and letting the full administrative pressure from senior management flow through to the scientists (e.g., would say “yes” to their boss about the feasibility of a project without first evaluating that feasibility in discussion with staff).
One who did not take his share of responsibility when his team failed at an assignment. (As one manager said, “success belongs to the boss, failure to the workers.”)

What organizational causes of poor performance have you observed?

A lack of training provided to do the assigned task.
Being assigned uninteresting tasks, or one beyond their present capability.
Not having adequate resources to do the job.
Uncertainty about job stability.
Having mistakes punished and not accepted.
No opportunities for personal development.
Unfair performance evaluation.
Being assigned too much work.
Having poor supervisors or non-supportive managers.
A company culture that did not support high performance.
Poor collaboration between departments.
Working on a poorly planned project with unclear targets or objectives.
Having to deal with too much red-tape and administrative trivia.

The Chinese replies to the question about organizational causes of poor performance compare favorably to the answers I have recorded from North American workshop participants over the past 25 years. They are:

Lack of clearly defined performance standards, or management only pays lip service to the standards they have (i.e., they tolerate poor or disruptive performance).
Repeated lack of senior management support for risk taking (e.g., mistakes punished).
Lack of adequate equipment and resources.
Lack of time to do a good job (e.g., work overload).
Assigned a project that demands skills not present and not being given time to learn them.
Inadequate or poor supervision (e.g., autocratic or laissez-faire manager, or poor performance feedback).
Poor communication within the organization.
Fear that projects will be shut down before full completion (i.e., reduces commitment).
Assigned too many dull, unchallenging projects, which results in loss of motivation to do a good job.
Lack of appreciation, recognition and/or rewards for good performance (i.e., good performance is taken for granted, but poor performance in strongly criticized).
Too much paperwork.

Questions about motivational tools, personal causes of poor performance, performance appraisals, team management, team rewards, conflict in the R&D environment, time management, and barriers to delegation all elicited answers that could have come from R&D team leaders or managers sitting in a room in any city in the U.S. or Canada.

Consequently, I believe that the acceptability of North American/ Western European R&D management best practices bodes well for the Chinese R&D managers because it means that they can augment their knowledge and skills as managers by accessing the many dedicated journals in this field, and especially the practical articles contained in Research-Technology Management

Published in Research-Technology Management, Vol. 50, No. 1, January-February, 2007 in Perspectives Section