Managing in the New Asia - Interview with Narayan Pant, Assoc. Dean of Executive Education, Asia Campus

Narayan Pant, Associate Dean of Executive Education, Asia Campus, discusses business concerns for China and India; corporate governance issues; the challenges of competing in a new world order, the future development of the Asia campus and more

by Narayan Pant
Last Updated: 23 Jul 2013

Knowledge: What are the main concerns being expressed by Asian executive education participants about business and economic developments in the region?

NP: The biggest conversation item is China. The fear within China is that somehow the economy is reaching stress points that could lead to fracture. The fear outside China is "that great sucking sound" of jobs and manufacturing investments continuing to be pulled into China.

The development of India is new and it seems to offer a different kind of opportunity to people in the region. Just as the rest of the world is leveraging India's back office capabilities, companies located in Asia are wondering how they can partner with or otherwise leverage the set of capabilities and price points that are offered in India.

So what does this mean for exec ed participants? There is a strong belief - often held implicitly - that the competencies needed to manage the specific context of Asia are unique and simply talking about standard general management education is not likely to be helpful. The challenges of managing hyper-growth - in revenues, workforces, investments and others - are intense enough. To have to manage these challenges in the unique regulatory, infrastructural and technological environments of the new Asia is unprecedented.

K: Do you sense that many among the younger generation of Asian professionals feel that their education systems are still not encouraging creativity and innovative thought?

NP: This is a bit of a red herring. Educational systems provide their participants with the means to exercise their creativity and build their awareness of diverse possibilities. Governance systems in the "real" world determine whether participants get to use any creative capabilities they may have acquired.

So yes, some educational systems do better and others do worse in terms of fostering creativity. But if you asked participants whether they made their choices of higher education systems based on the extent of creativity they offered, many would probably respond that this was not the principal consideration.

K: Do you feel that many of them may still see their societies - and by extension, their workplaces - as too hierarchically structured?

NP: Again, I don't know how to answer this question. Too hierarchical for what? You seem to assume that hierarchy is necessarily a bad thing. Is it? In large manufacturing organizations that work on assembly lines, you would perish without hierarchy. In firms like consulting firms that are ostensibly flat organizations, there exist elaborately structured hierarchies that form the basis for functioning where the "product" has much more implicit rather than obvious value. In the process of social construction of value, the hierarchy in such firms that maps with the hierarchy in the client organizations is an integral part of value creation.

The way the world works is that people self-select into organizations to a large extent. This means people often end up in organizations with levels of hierarchy and structure that they find tolerable for their needs.

So let's come back to your question. I don't believe more Asians than others believe that their organizations are more hierarchically structured than necessary for effective functioning.

K: As globalisation becomes a more entrenched feature of everyday business life, it is increasingly obvious that the low price/low cost strategies that have served so many Asian companies well for so long are simply unsustainable. Do Asian managers feel that they can readily cope with the changes needed to compete in the new environment?

NP: True, pure low-cost strategies are unsustainable; but then few strategies are driven by low-cost alone. Rather, the fact that some locations enjoy lower costs than others allows them to provide a new value proposition compared to others. For instance, one prominent global airline has discovered that by locating its call-centre operation in India, it can now pursue market segments and product categories that were simply not feasible given the cost structures prevalent in Europe.

The challenges of competing in a "new world order" are not unique to Asia. Managers anywhere have to manage multi-cultural and remotely located teams; be prepared for the rapid shifting of global value chains; learn to attract and retain talent in talent scarce environments etc. However, the challenge for companies located in Asia - and these are both Asian and non-Asian - is how to do all this, but in an environment that often is growing in double digits for several years in a row.

K: The 1990s saw so many major corporate scandals in Asia. This decade has seen even larger scandals in the USA and Europe. Do you get a sense that Asian professionals are more concerned with the potentially devastating consequences of unethical and illegal corporate activity than previously?

NP: Most regulators in Asia are taking corporate governance issues very seriously. This has resulted in considerable interest in education programs - both from academic institutions and process consultants - that specifically address issues of governance. This concern from regulators has caused many companies to demonstrate an observance of good practice; whether this has permeated into belief structures remains to be seen.

K: With family and other close personal relationships such an integral part of doing business in Asia, are concerns about nepotism as acute as they can be in the West?

NP: I think this would be a concern anywhere. However, what constituted favouritism might vary depending on norms and cultural history, though often less than is commonly thought to be the case. In SMEs it is almost expected in any part of the world that children will take over from their parents. This is also true in some large companies - a Disney sits on the board of Disney; a Ford runs Ford, and we should expect a Chiaravanont to run CP. This is not necessarily perceived as nepotism no matter what part of the world it occurs in.

At the same time, Narayana Murthy's children will not run Infosys, and it is feasible that a Tata will not run the Tata's. So nor is it true that Asian companies necessarily will use family connections to override competence. Thus in its true meaning, nepotism will be a concern anywhere.

K: A lot of Asian students first choice for business programmes would be American universities, but they are being put off by new visa restrictions and other political obstacles. What can an INSEAD Singapore programme offer them that an American equivalent would not?

NP: There is no such thing as an INSEAD Singapore programme. There are only INSEAD programmes. Programmes on both campuses are taught by the same faculty, in similar looking classrooms with a diversity of participants much like one another. However, the nature of the INSEAD learning environment is such that we offer an attractive alternative to a US exec ed classroom quite independent of temporally specific visa and other difficulties faced by Asian participants.

Our education environment is not US-centric, yet focuses on a learning experience designed to allow participants to develop winning attitudes to a globalised world. In that sense we have been relevant and attractive to companies and participants from the developed world for quite some time. With the rapid inclusion of Asia in the globalisation process, our offering is increasingly becoming attractive to Asian companies and participants, too.

K: How will the Asia campus develop in the next few years with regard to executive education?

NP: We will grow faster than Fontainebleau. Being located in the growing part of the global economy, our role will be to grow not just in revenues, but also in our capability to understand and lend assistance to corporate partners seeking to grow here.

We will be innovating in terms of the models of executive education we offer and provide. The needs and characteristics of the Asian market are quite different from Europe - different stages of growth, larger distances between offices, smaller relative weight in the global economy etc. We will need to be able to develop models of education that are relevant to this context.

Outreach will be a much greater part of the activities of this campus than our campus in Europe. Given the presence of China and India in our neighbourhoods, we will naturally spend quite some time in these countries, running programs, doing research and development work, and building associations with clients and partners in these countries.

K: There has been a remarkable growth recently in "home grown" innovation in Asia. Incremental and disruptive technologies are being developed throughout the region, which will inevitably alter the Asian business environment to a great extent. How are INSEAD programmes adapting to the new realities?

NP: The principal challenge we face is in working with our clients to clarify the value we provide in the executive education space. However this is a value that is very closely driven by the context to which the learning must apply.

Our challenge, therefore is to make what we know relevant to the unique context of Asia, while communicating the value of what we can do in the language our clients understand. Hence the principles of good management practice hold good in Asia much like anywhere else. However, because of the overt and obvious differences in the nature of the context in Asia, there is a natural perception that somehow the content and mode of learning needs to be different in Asia. In some cases this may well be true and - like any customer sensitive business - we too adapt to expressed needs. In other cases, our job may be more heavily weighted towards getting clients to understand the value of what we do normally to their contexts and conditions.


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