Friday, January 27, 2006

Explosive Concentration

Does Korea's Confucianism encourage "explosive concentration"?

I'm not even sure what the question means, but Orankay's post of January 25 has called it to my attention, along with a Business Week interview conducted by Asia Editor David Rocks and Seoul Bureau Chief Moon Ihlwan, speaking with Lee Kun Pyo, Director of the Human-Centered Interaction Design Laboratory at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science & Technology (KAIST).

They talked about Korean strengths and weaknesses related to the process of designing products.

Lee argues that Koreans are very good at designing "products that have a very short lifecycle," and when Rocks and Moon ask him why "Koreans [are] better at short-lifecycle products than long," he says:
According to the Western view, you need to systematically collect lots of data and try to find patterns and a set of principles before starting your design. And this takes a lot of time, so you tend to stick with those principles. This really fits in well with products with a long lifecycle.

But Koreans traditionally don't articulate what they're doing beforehand. They're very contextual. Of course they do customer research and product planning and user-centered design and so on. But they quickly arrive at solutions, then look at the solution to find any further problems. Some might say that's unsystematic, but it's really very dynamic. And it works well for products with a short lifecycle, like mobile phones or MP3 players.
This must be why my students wait until the night before the deadline to do their papers. Lee is right about the dynamism in Korea, and I see that I work very differently than most Koreans that I know. My pace is slower: I plan ahead, work on details, double-check everything, and try to finish before a deadline so that I have time to check everything again. Koreans work rapidly and finish right at the deadline or just after and seem unconcerned about minor errors. On short-term projects, the Korean approach might work fairly well, but on long-term projects, the energy required cannot be sustained, and the errors grow in seriousness because they both multiply and affect each other.

Anyway, I take it that Lee intends to connect Koreans' ability at "explosive concentration" to their talent for short-term projects, but he doesn't say so directly. Lee's concept of "explosive concentration" only comes up when Rocks and Moon ask him if "Korea's traditional Confucian hierarchies hinder good design?" Here's his response:
There are two sides to the issue. Confucianism can mean quick decisions, explosive concentration. That's good. But there are also problems. In hierarchical societies, when designers make a presentation to CEOs, the designers look at the boss's expression.

If he says, "Hmmm," the designer says, "Oh that's bad design. We'd better change it." They never challenge the bosses. So whenever I have a chance to speak with CEOs, I always tell them they shouldn't try to be experts. Don't say, "I don't like this color," but ask the designer why he chose the color.

Things are changing. In the past, product planning was done by marketing people who would choose product concepts by statistics, and engineers would present the structural requirements. The designers always lost the game. But now the head of Samsung's mobile division asks the designer to make a mockup and throws it to the engineer and says, "Make it." The opportunity has been handed over to the designers.
I think that Lee clearly expresses one of the problems that I've noticed with Korea's Confucian hierarchy, namely, the lack of discussion. Hierarchy rules, and bosses are never questioned. Lee gives the best advice that a smart boss should follow in Korea, given the cultural constraints: don't make statements; ask questions.

What I don't quite understand in Lee's remarks is precisely what he means by "explosive concentration."

Is he talking about the ability of Koreans as individuals to focus and concentrate upon a problem, or is he talking about the ability of Koreans as a hierarchical group to focus and concentrate upon a problem?

Does he mean the former? Well, my wife can certainly concentrate better than I can.

Does he mean the latter? Well, I can see how a hierarchically driven focus upon a short-term problem can concentrate all of a group's collective energy and skill and solve the problem quickly.

I assume that he means something like the latter since he links "explosive concentration" to Confucianism, which is a social ethos.

Of course, he could mean both, but I'd like to hear more.


At 6:17 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Jeffery -- I don't have your email address so I'm availing myself of your comments function: just wanted to make you aware of a well-written blog, The Beiderbecke Affair, by Brendan Wolfe, who writes on Korea (having taught there awhile) among other things.


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