The Nation: Sustainable 21st Century Business: An Asian Perspective
21 April 2003
Editor: In 2004, Edwin Sim established Human Capital Alliance, Thailand’s Premier Executive Search & Senior Advisory Firm. Between 1997-2003, Edwin Sim was Managing Partner of Korn Ferry Thailand. This article was first published by the Nation in April 2003.
K I Woo reviews comments made at a recent seminar by The Economist Intelligence Unit entitled “Sustainable 21st-Century Business.” Part one of a two-part series.
In Thailand, as elsewhere, businessmen are under constant pressure to ensure their business is sustainable in the 21st century. They are flooded daily with high-priced business solutions developed by numerous international companies.
Chavalit Tsao, the Chairman of IMC Pan Asia Alliance, a shipping company with global operations, including Thailand ’s Unithai Group, said his companies had tried almost every business solution coming down the line during his 25 years in business.
” ’In Search of Excellence’, ’Seven Habits of Effective People’ and now the ’Balanced Scorecard’ and ’Six-Sigma’ – you name it, we’ve looked at it and probably tried it,” he said.
A fourth-generation shipping tycoon, Chavalit took over the family business from his father a little more than a decade ago. Recognized across the global industry, Chavalit is currently Chairman of the London-based International Association of Dry Cargo Ship-owners.
At a recent seminar in Bangkok entitled “Sustainable 21st-Century Business” co-sponsored by The Economist Intelligence Unit and Korn Ferry Thailand, Chavalit acknowledged that although every successful company was compelled to try the latest management techniques, his experience still indicated that few solutions were capable of guaranteeing an organization would be sustainable throughout the 21st century.
Chavalit said that during the 1990s boom, business leaders faced an almost irresolvable dilemma. “No one was just doing business: they were only speculating. Anyone can throw a dart and hit an elephant,” he said.
That period, he said, led to tremendous cultural changes in Asia . People became much more materialistic, running around with three mobile phones, buying land and speculating on shares. “Leaders had to analyze how and where they were leading their people,” he said.
The social costs were tremendous. “Perception became more important than truth, legality became more important than justice, and actions that were bad suddenly became good,” he said.
To resolve his dilemma, Chavalit said, he decided to look closely at cultural issues. He endowed his East West Cultural Centre and began research on 3,000 years of management history in China .
“In both an Asian and a Western context, we wanted to see if we could draw something from the wisdom of the past,” he said.
Chavalit said that based on his study and interpretation of Chinese culture he would respond to the question of sustainability with the following formula: achieving sincerity, finding a holistic and interdependent dynamic balance, and the creation of harmony.
“This is the process, the means and an end,” he said.
Chavalit said that in his opinion, any actions that ultimately created harmony were sustainable. “Those are your key productivity-indicators,” he said.
Conversely, activities that do not create harmony are not sustainable.
“Business is inherently a social enterprise: it’s about serving human needs and receiving a return or reward, which is part of the system’s design,” he said.
With globalization, business has grown immensely and has a much more important role in shaping culture. Chavalit said that at the end of the day businesses, governments, and non-governmental organizations had to work together as three pillars of social development to ensure that markets and cultures were operating properly and delivering happiness to everyone.
“The business sector is the most powerful and most able to mobilize and deploy resources,” he added.
Modern businesses can also learn sustainability by following the ancient belief of cycles, he said.
“In the ’Yijing’ ’The Book of Changes’, a classic of Chinese philosophy, everything grows, matures, dies, and then renews,” he said.
At the same time, the “Yijing” emphasizes that if everybody plays his or her role, then everybody is rewarded, Chavalit said.
“Heaven and earth are all-giving,” he said.
As for the companies under his control, Chavalit said he wanted to develop a living organization, something that would grow and renew itself.
He said that to achieve sustainability, one must be guided by principle – exercise self-restraint if the market does not itself encourage restraint. Be financially motivated – because that is how the system is structured. Be commercially oriented and technically sound.
A living organization, Chavalit said, must look at more than just efficient key productivity-indicators. Company leaders must closely consider issues such as internal motivation, people orientation, process rationality, and leadership guidance.
“The whole thing must be built on the concept of growth, relationship and the concept of self,” he said.