Followers and leaders, hardwares and clouds

CES 2011 will probably celebrate Korea Inc's 3D, smart TVs, or cloud computing successes (see how Korea Telecom markets it's ucloud beyond business and professional targets, towards consumers).

And in retrospect, 2010 clearly marked a turning point for Korea : this is probably the year leadership spirit became mainstream.

I'm not talking about the "can do", "CEO me" spirit, but about a cultural shift from an eternal best follower to a trend setter.

Ever since I first came to Korea 20 years ago, business management has been based on international benchmarking, and executives obsessed with what others were doing overseas. Still now, you can feel this Japanese Complex (how to kill the economic father), or that CEO Complex (how would Steve or Bill think or do ?) almost everywhere, but a top down revolution is trickling down the hierarchy : start thinking by yourselves, go set the pace, all that come on, be a Tiger kind of stuff.

New generation of US-grown Ivy Leaguers instilled strategy into Korean boardrooms, converting top chaebol owners to quality, sustainability, and proactivity. Most notably, Hyundai's Chung Mong Koo or Samsung's Lee Kun-hee had to literally shake their own companies to force much needed cultural revolutions. A couple of years later, both companies shine among the top stars of 2010, but both have yet to confirm and to reach new levels in order to secure their recently claimed leaderships.

There's little choice for them : even if Samsung increases by 18% its research and development investments, competition remains fierce, and Chinese players keep catching up in all major innovation fields.

But this Korean revolution also faces two major homegrown bottlenecks : a SME ecosystem and an education system unfit for the challenges to come. Because paradoxically, the most connected country on Earth generated monsters hampering the emergence of a truly efficient network society.

Of course, this is a country where netizens have more power than anywhere else, but precisely because there's a wide gap between the people and the politic, economic, or media elites. Indeed, Korean society it as the same time too connected and too disconnected.

But let's get back to business, where evergrowing and ever more agile chaebols leave no room for manoeuvre to SMEs : small fishes can only grow dependent from bigger fishes as clients or providers... or end up as trophies in their acquisition sprees. Even at the peak of the economic crisis, SMEs had a tough time hiring or keeping talents because everybody wants to work for a big brand.

Big fishes are only starting to realize they need stronger players around. Take mobile applications, for instance : for years, the most advanced country in mobile multimedia was lacking a balanced ecosystem because operators wanted to control the whole chain and push their own solutions. The irruption of Apple in the local pond did not only wake up the smartphone market at the hardware level, but also the complete middleware and application ecosystem, forcing everybody to open up new stores and to look for new partners. If Korean mobile industry took over Europe ten years ago, it is only catching up now by moving towards a more open ecosystem, fitter for innovation*.

As usual, major cultural changes can't happen without a top-down intervention, and it sometimes takes a whale to set the pond in order : last year, the Korean government had to coerce industry leaders into collaborating with each other as well as with smaller companies on key R&D fields, because that was the only way to compete at the global level.

As a matter of fact, Korea's ultra-competitive culture doesn't prepare for coopetition nor for next generation partnerships : it's all about winning against competitors, being number one, nixing the Other.

The same can be said about Korea's ailing educational system. Ailing ? Korean students fare so well worldwide that this system is often praised as one of the most efficients... but record denatality and suicide rates tell a completely different tale : this system is now completely corrupt and must evolve. If Korea reached the top thanks to a merit-based, social-ladder-friendly educational system, it will collapse if it persists into this unfair, money-based nightmare where creativity is totally castrated, and where young humanoid robots compete in the ultimate dystopian race for conformity.

So instead of celebrating 2010 as the year of the confirmation of Korea as a global power in such various fields as economics, Olympics, or diplomacy, I'd like to expose 2010 as the year the Korean model reached its limits.

As we've seen, change is coming. And I'm confident it will quickly radiate across a society which enjoys an amazing ability to embrace change. The 1998 crisis could have brought an abrupt end to the Miracle on the Han River, but the country somehow managed to rebound, leveraging on regional opportunities (struggling Japan, booming China), but mostly on its own dynamics.

Seoul, the capital city, is showing the way by embracing cultural diversity and collaborative sourcing of new ideas to stimulate the SME ecosystem, to improve everyday life and international competitiveness. And at long last, the national government is reconsidering SMEs as a priority. Unfortunately, the much needed reform of education is not on the agenda of this otherwise very conservative power.

Now is the moment. Flush with money, surfing on an unprecedented wave of international recognition, Korea must have the courage to change key parts of its DNA if it wants to remain a top player.

mot-bile 2011

* Apple itself is not really a model of open business, but that's yet another story

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