Real corporate values to survive Asian test

The Australian government has gambled on promoting an expanded engagement with Asia as a strong domestic political winner. It has packaged a bundle of rather self-evident truths – we are a part of Asia even though our historical ties were European – as a de facto plan to harness greater prosperity as Asia’s middle class expands rapidly.

Nothing wrong with that assessment other than that is already happening and has been for several decades. Had the government offered anything substantive in the way of incentives to drive further growth (it can’t because it has used every last cent of spare cash on welfare handouts) or innovative ways to bolster established relationships (it didn’t because it lacks the imagination) we could become enthused.

As it stands, it will be left to the ingenuity, drive and determination of Aussie entrepreneurs to build the bridges our government sees shimmering in the distance.

Which makes a point raised by the government’s architect of its grand Asian vision very pertinent. Dr Ken Henry, a former mandarin and head honcho of our Treasury department, has urged local business people to stick to their tried and tested approach to business here and not pursue substantive change in a drive to succeed in Asia.

Henry suggests local business people don’t yet realise that their Australian style of business will still work just as well in Asia.

He is fearful that our entrepreneurs will be tempted to copy Asia’s perceived advantages of low labour rates, limited commitment to workplace health and safety and scant environmental concern in their chase for profits.

Instead, he suggests, we should simply emulate the Germans and Swiss in being unequivocally positive about our high wage rates, determination to protect workers from injury and recognition that environmental damage is unacceptable.

Henry says successful Australian companies operating in Asia behave there as they do at home.

His point is very valid. If corporations undermine the values that underpin their corporate culture at home when they establish operations in new markets, they damage their credibility. They especially undermine the confidence of their employees who see a lack of honesty in the way their employer operates. This is untenable in the longer term.

The way a business conducts itself is similar to a partnership like marriage. If one partner starts adopting two personas, the other is left bewildered and estranged. There can be no trust and respect if value-driven behaviours are not deeply embedded and honoured.

Attempting to beat Asian enterprises at their own game is self-defeating for Australian businesses. We are what we are and we need to avoid culture cringe and be proud of our traditions and heritage.

That does not mean we should fail to adapt to local conditions and become worthy elements of new marketplaces. But, by demonstrating what matters to us in the way we conduct business, is to tell the world we have confidence in ourselves and our ability to succeed against most odds. And anyone will acknowledge that confidence is almost always a vital precursor for success.


Acknowledgement: Adam Creighton, The Australian.