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View from Asia: Who Needs the U.S.A.?

Asia's growing self-confidence turns a conference into a town meeting.

You can expect more pushback from Asia these days. Buoyed by rising consumer markets, China and India are feeling increasingly independent of the U.S. economy. China is conducting foreign affairs with a new confidence, and discussions on how it should manage its influence can be readily overheard in cafés from Shanghai to Taipei and across Asia.

So it should have been no surprise when, at a recent CFO conference in Singapore, a participant rose and delivered a broadside to the presenters. “You offer shopworn ideas from the Harvard Business School as if Asians were boys and you schoolmasters,” said Chandran Nair, founder of a Hong Kong–based think tank called Global Institute for Tomorrow. He charged the consultants with arrogance and with failing to learn anything from the exciting developments unfolding now in Asia.

This particular presentation, it must be admitted, was a conventional rehash of the standard American recipe for success: for best results, tie shareholder value to management techniques aimed at bolstering internal corporate governance. The audience had heard it all before. What it hadn’t heard before was a scathing indictment of the manner in which the lesson was delivered.

The attendees — representatives of the South and Southeast Asian melting pot that is Singapore — loved it. A man from an Indian company noted that Infosys, the Indian IT services and business-process-outsourcing firm, had made new strides in BPO. Others cited Alibaba, the Chinese B2B supply-chain portal, which has successfully adapted the U.S. Internet model to Chinese culture.

As the moderator, I fielded the question: Do you believe that ideas of shareholder-value-based management have universal efficacy amid Asia’s multitude of cultures and fast-growth economies? Some said yes, that these ideas were “agnostic” and would fortify any business model. Others countered that they had been handed down with a sense of cultural superiority, and Asians were increasingly unimpressed. China is evolving toward a more open market in its own way, another said. But, I asked, shouldn’t truth in finance be a given? Figures from both the Chinese government and private firms are often fudged. How could an enduring business model emerge in the absence of accurate numbers?

Someone countered that focusing on Chinese “errors” was condescending. The point was that new and creative models have emerged.

The discussion had become less a conference than a town meeting challenging the innate superiority of U.S. business ideas. The participants weren’t rejecting the concept of business excellence, but chafed at the assumption that they should play the part of humble students. Open your eyes, they were saying, you can learn from us.

It’s a message U.S. businesses should expect to hear a lot more often.

Tom Leander is editor-in-chief of CFO Asia.

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