The Foreign Education of Managers in Chinese Businesses

In a comment to my last post, Mark makes the significant point that perhaps all of this emphasis on English in Taiwan discriminates against otherwise excellent minds. This is a thought that had crossed my mind and often comes up in a different form in conversations with Taiwanese teachers at my school. Mark writes,

I wonder if some future Ding Lei or Chen Tianqiao is being snuffed out of an engineering program due to English proficiency requirements. An enforced foreign-language workplace would be great for English majors, but a great loss for many others.

In fact, I think these examples highlight the importance of English speaking skills for students who hope to reach business prominence in China, Taiwan, and other nations throughout Asia.

Chen Tianqiao is the CEO of the Sanda Entertainment Group. He is a graduate of Fudan University, which is an extremely difficult university to enter. Of the 12 people listed on his companies website as top amangers, including Mr. Chen, listed on his management team, 3 have degrees from American universities (2 of which are bachelor’s degrees leading me to believe they are American citizens). Most of the others graduated from elite universities in China. While it remains possible that Mr. Chen does not speak English, it appears he values this in his top management.

The same holds true for Ding Lei, founder and NetEase. Of his senior managers, only the COO did not attend university in an English-speaking country. It appears that Mr. Ting is the only member of the Board of Directors who was not educated in an English-speaking university.

In Taiwan, as recently as 1999, of the 284 companies listed in the Hsinchu Science Park, 110 were founded by US-educated engineers.

With an emphasis on foreign education among the executive managers of these firms, I have no doubt it is considered an important qualification among mid- and senior-level managers.

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With an emphasis on foreign education among the executive managers of these firms, I have no doubt it is considered an important qualification among mid- and senior-level managers.

You won’t find much argument there. English skills are considered an important white-collar job qualification all over Asia, regardless of their utility for the job in question.

I think the situation is somewhat similar to that of getting a degree at all. Many visionary company founders, including billionaires such as Steve Jobs or Bill Gates are college dropouts who subsequently hired people with degrees to serve as their executives. Similarly, Chen Tianqiao and Ding Lei used their vast technical skills to build multi-billion dollar enterprises, and they hired graduates of western universities to serve as their executives.

I sincerely doubt that the boards of Shèngdà (Shanda) or Wǎngyì (Netease) need or use their English skills much in the course of their actual jobs. When quarterly earnings conferences come around, the IR people are pretty hard to understand.

One thing that clouds this comparison is that up until the last few years, Chinese universities were much weaker in engineering and the sciences. When the people on many of those boards were in school, studying in the west wasn’t just a big advantage in learning English, it was also a big advantage in learning their crafts. Now that many of these gaps have closed, I expect to see more and more home-grown talent in China.

What Mark says is true. Also, there is nothing in the position of a CEO that requires one to speak standard English. One could speak Indian English, Black English, etc. However, the chances of becoming a CEO with such non-standard dialects is very slim.

English is much more than a “skill” it is what Bourdieu calls “cultural capital.” In the same way that people in certain jobs are expected to know about modern art, fine dining, etc., so too are they expected to have English skills. Failure to display the correct cultural capital at a dinner party, or out drinking with your colleagues, will likely loose you the next contract.

I’m not saying this is the way things should be, but just that we should consider the importance of English outside beyond the question of how many native English speakers you might need to talk to.

Taking a different tack:

My own estimation of the importance of English for getting the latest news and information on a wide variety of topics from books and over the internet has increased tremendously since I moved back to Taiwan. Only a small portion of what is available in English is translated into Chinese, and only after some delay.

I would argue that any good CEO needs to stay on top of the latest news in the English language press in order to do their job properly in a rapidly changing and globalizing economy. Not necessary, sure, but certainly desirable.

BTW: The situation in Europe is certainly different from East Asia, but it is worth noting that many of the top companies in linguistically conservative France now primarily use English in the workplace.

Kerim,

I think industry representatives would disagree with you. I am frequently told by engineering students that despite the difficulty of using English texts, they prefer them to the Chinese translations because they are more up-to-date and accurate.

I have also interviewed a large number of local business people about the necessity for english in their workplace. High-tech workers and engineers regularly tell that without English verbal skills, they could not do their job. In addition, many of the highest paying, highest status jobs in the financial service sector demand a very high levels of English.

I also think you will find that many of those French speaking business people speak English. One of the major findings of Zoltan Dornyei is that English is increasingly becoming nationalityless and more the language of cosmopolitanism – even in eastern and southern Europe.

The gobalized service world of Sakia Sassen has an official language, and it is English.

Scott. Did you read my comments in a mirror? Are you sure you are disagreeing with me?

I suppose I’m really disagreeing with you. There is no reason why Standard English (with a big S) is necessary, although advanced English certainly are.

This is one of those subjects I often feel torn about. I don’t like the idea of English being so important, but it is.

I don’t know if that answers you.

Scott, are you saying that everyone in a company, including engineers needs to speak English, or just that they need some English speakers?

Scott,

You seem to have missed the fact that I was making an analogy:

Knowledge of standard english in the US is like knowledge of business english in East Asia.

You also seem to have read the second half of my comment backwards.

I’ve still missed it. “However, the chances of becoming a CEO with such non-standard dialects is very slim.” A CEO where? In Taiwan? It happens all the time. Do you mean the USA? In that case I agree with you completely. Speaking Standard English would be as important for an American CEO as not speaking it would be for a rap star.

Yes. The point was that this is a matter of cultural capital not purely a question of “necessary skills”. Obviously, which cultural capital is relevant to the specific context. Singing KTV might not be a relevant skill for a US businessman, but it would be invaluable for a certain level of East Asian businessman.

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