Saturday, October 8, 2011

The Challenge to Innovate in Korea

The death of Steve Jobs has prompted an outpouring of journalistic efforts, all around the world, to explain innovation, especially the sort of innovation that characterized his tenure at Apple.  The Korea Joongang Daily carried an article questioning whether the death of Jobs would have a deep impact, or whether business would continue as usual.  However, that article addressed the global market for smartphones and the patent litigation between Apple and Samsung, failing to get to the more significant issue of how Korea can make the transition from hardware exports to software and services creation.  The latter is really the sort of innovation that this nation requires at this juncture.  As illustrated in the accompanying graphic (click to see a full size version), the success of Apple, and Android has more to do with the software and applications, or the new communication ecosystem, than with hardware.  Therefore, an opinion piece by Tom Coyner, also in the Korea Joongang Daily, caught my eye. His piece zeroes in on the persistent lack of lateral cooperation between organizations and departments that characterizes Korean business, government and the academic sector to this day.  Tom therefore uses the term "silo innovation" to describe Korea's approach to innovation.  This reminded me of an exchange I had with Horace G. Underwood, several years after my Fulbright year (1985-86) in Yonsei University's Department of Mass Communication.   I was working on a research project that required inter departmental and multidisciplinary cooperation.   Horace wrote to me that I should remember that Korea had very little history or tradition of lateral cooperation whatsoever.   Over the years since, I have been repeatedly reminded of the essential accuracy of  Dr. Underwood's observation.
The lack of lateral cooperation is deeply embedded in Korean culture, and the language itself, if used properly seems almost to work against innovation.  I still remember the first few days of my Ph.D. program in communication research at Stanford University.  Along with the other incoming graduate students, I greeted all of the faculty members in the Institute for Communication Research by their first names, a practice that would continue throughout the four year program.  Even in English, being on a first-name basis with well known scholars made an impression on me.  However, it is difficult to even imagine such a thing taking place in a Korean language conversation at a major university here in Korea or in one of Korea's major companies.
However, prospects for innovation are not that bleak.   Koreans have embraced the study of English and other foreign languages and many universities have adopted English curricula.  The change may be generational, but younger Koreans will, at some point, come to embrace communication patterns that foster good lateral communication and cooperative endeavors.  This, it seems is a challenge that must be met if Korea is to truly succeed at innovation.

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