Tuesday, March 13, 2012

My Adventures in Korean Business

If you follow this blog, you know that I’ve just returned home from a six month stint as a businesswoman in a firm in Yeouido – “the Wall Street of South Korea” – located in the heart of Seoul. Over the years (and I’m getting up there now…) I’ve worked in the government, education, and non-profit sectors, and now I can add big business to that list. This was my fifth trip to Korea, but as I had worked as a teacher for three of the four previous trips, and as a US government employee for the fourth, and as I had spent the bulk of all four trips in Daegu, working at a prestigious South Korean firm in Yeouido was a very big change.

I really wanted to love my job, or at least like it enough to stick it out for several years. The salary was fantastic, and the people were (for the most part) quite pleasant to work with. Even those who weren’t so great to work with were pretty fantastic people outside of the work environment. Unfortunately – as you can probably guess by the fact that I did not seek to extend my six month contract – I discovered that big business (in general, and this one in particular) is simply not for me.

Fortunately, this job made me realize that what I really love is teaching. Days of staring numbly at a computer screen, thinking about new and creative ways to promote products about which I really could not care less really made me miss my students. I cared about my students. Sure, there are always some bad apples – sometimes you get a whole class or two of rotten ones – but I always cared about how they learned, how they progressed.  Remember the ex-job? That was my venture into the non-profit sector. I stuck it out for eight months under the worst boss imaginable… because I cared deeply about the job we did and the cause we served. But this job? I discovered early on that I really did not care about it at all. And the fact that they paid me well did not compensate for the absolute lack of interest that my job held for me. I found myself wishing I were still in the classroom, wishing I’d taken the job I was offered in Ukraine at less than a quarter of my Yeouido salary.

I’d known for some time that I really enjoyed teaching English to speakers of other languages, but there’s only so far a person can go in that career without a Master’s degree. Graduate school is expensive, and I really did not want to find myself grossly in debt and receiving a teacher’s salary… but after a little more than a month in Yeouido, I knew that what I wanted to be doing was teaching. I decided to do what I love… and I certainly did not love promoting products of questionable value with the almighty dollar (or in this case, the won) as the bottom line. I decided to bite the bullet, and applied to five graduate programs. I was accepted into all five, and my top choice has offered me an excellent funding package. I’ll begin earning my MA in TESOL in the fall.

I blogged very little about my job while I was living and working in Seoul, as it’s never wise to blog about your job – especially if you have negative things to say. Now that my contract has finished and I am back in the US, I’ve decided to write about my time working in Yeouido. Be warned – this post is long. However: it’s not as long as it could be. There were days when I thought with great pleasure about the absolutely scathing things I could write about the place once I was gone. And I definitely *could.* I’m not going to, though, because despite the things that I disliked about my job, I liked my coworkers a lot. Even the one guy that I spent much of my time at odds with – he and I are actually friends. Out of respect for my former coworkers – and not wanting them to suffer any repercussions from my blogging – I won’t be anywhere near as detailed or as scathing as I could be. Additionally, I’ll be referring to the firm as Company X throughout my post, and I won’t be giving any specific details about the kind of products and services Company X offers. Enjoy!

The Koloss Korean Business Model at Company X

Have any of you read the Mistborn trilogy by Brandon Sanderson? If you have, please excuse the following simplistic description of the Koloss. For those of you who haven’t read these books, the Koloss are humanoid monsters. They want to be human, although they lack the capacity to understand what it means to be human. They know that humans wear clothes, so they wear clothes… although they wear them in such a grossly ill-fitting and incorrect manner that they may as well be naked. They know that humans do work in exchange for money… so despite the fact that their “society” has no need of money, they will work for humans in exchange for coins, which they covet but do not use. The Koloss know that humans live in houses… so periodically they will camp inside a house or a tent, often demolishing the structure in the process, as they don’t really understand the concept. In many ways Company X is to international business what the Koloss of the Mistborn trilogy are to humans.

My first couple of weeks at Company X were stressful, but pleasant, as all of my coworkers went out of their way to help me and to be friendly. I found the work at times dull and tedious, and at other times very difficult, as it dealt with a subject I’d previously had little to no experience with. However, as I was learning how to do a new job, I expected that it would get easier with time. I actually found myself thinking of spending two or three years there at a minimum – after all, they were paying me fairly well, and it would look quite good on my resume.

When I was interviewed for the position, I was told that my job would consist mainly of editing texts written by non-native English speakers, and that occasionally I would write reports. It turned out to be the other way around: my job involved a LOT of writing, with the occasional bit of editing thrown in. Now, I enjoy writing, and wouldn’t have minded that in the least had the things I had been asked to write been sensible. Instead, many of my writing assignments seemed to come from the Koloss School of Business:

“International businesses have white papers! Anonymity, write a white paper on Product Z.”
“Sure, no problem. Please give me some facts on Product Z.”
“Here are 3 vague facts about Product Z. Please base your white paper on this.”
“Is there any more information on Product Z?”
“Even in Korean?”
“No. What’s the problem? You’re a technical writer! Write a white paper!”

I only wish I were exaggerating.

“International businesses have case studies! Anonymity, write a case study on Company B’s use of Product Z.”
“Sure, no problem. Please give me some facts on which to base the case study.”
“Here are all the facts you need: Company B has Problem Q. Product Z solves Problem Q. Company B uses Product Z and no longer has Problem Q.”
“But do you have any actual facts? Details on how Problem Q was affecting Company B? Details on *how* Product Z has been able to solve Problem Q? Details on how this has affected Company B’s performance?”
“No. We don’t have anything like that. But what’s the problem? You’re a technical writer! Write a case study!”

I only wish I were exaggerating.

I saw a lot of Company X’s Korean language “case studies.” They really did follow the above format. The notion that “FAMOUS COMPANY “C” USES OUR PRODUCT SO YOU SHOULD, TOO!” was prevalent throughout their entire domestic marketing plan. And the thing is, it’s working.

I’d like to ask those of you who are familiar with Korea to think of the major Korean companies, the famous Korean brands. Which ones just popped into your head? I’d be willing to bet that whatever company you just thought of is a customer of Company X. Their client list is really quite impressive. In addition to most of the big name businesses on the peninsula, the Korean government and many Korean universities are also their customers.

Company X – with its peer-pressure marketing techniques has managed to saturate the domestic market, and has reached the point where it must either branch out overseas or stagnate. They’ve chosen to branch out overseas, and they’re taking their peer-pressure marketing plan global. I’m not sure how this kind of marketing will fare in other parts of East Asia, but my protestations that fact-less white papers and case studies would not fly in the western world (which is, after all, why they hired me) fell completely on deaf ears.

I wrote four white papers in six months, ranging from 12-15 pages each. I wrote at least twenty “case studies.” Eventually I stopped asking for facts; I knew there were none to be had. Believe me, my bullshitting skills developed at an exponential rate.

Company X is trying to become a “global company” – they desperately want to enter the Australian and American markets. But they really seem to lack the kind of general Western business knowledge that they need to possess in order to make this happen, and they seemed quite unwilling to listen to me when I pointed out that just because this technique works in Korea does not at all mean that it will be successful world-wide. Sigh.

This cluelessness on the part of Company X regarding how to do business definitely soured my attitude towards the place. As did our products. They were okay. Some of our products were better than others. They did most of what we claimed they did… but not all. It’s hard to feel passionate when you realize that in some cases the company is exaggerating their products to the point of sorta-kinda telling a falsehood or two for marketing purposes.

The company’s products are advertised by a bunch of buzz-words: Next-Generation. Intelligent. User-Intuitive. Extensible. Scalable. The New Paradigm. As mentioned above, they tend to be rather big on adjectives, and rather small on facts. There are, however, a small handful of facts that they bandied about so much that I did not for a moment credit their veracity… until I learned that, well, they weren’t totally factual.

In the field that one of Company X’s products occupies, there are Ten Things which are very important for a product to be able to handle. Not all companies in this field have products that can handle the Ten Things. Those that do tend to make a big deal of it; it’s a good advertising tactic. Pretty much everything ever written about one of Company X’s products talks about its ability to handle the Ten Things. I assumed that it really could do this.

Then in November I learned that the product only covered nine of the Ten Things. I pointed out that to say that we covered all ten was false advertising – that it was lying – that we needed to say we covered nine of the ten, that we needed to stop saying we covered the Ten Things. The response was, “Your facts don’t need to be so specific. Besides, our competitors probably only cover nine of the ten, too.”

There is a type of compliance that’s also recognized in the field in which Company X operates. Let’s call it Y Compliance. They claim to have Y Compliance Certification. Apparently they’ve actually run into some problems from saying this; they had to issue a press-release clarifying what they meant at one point. They have a certificate from an organization NOT AFFILIATED with the Y Compliance folks, which has tested the product and proclaimed it in compliance with part of the Y Compliance requirements. And yet “Y Compliant!”  and “Y Certified!” (etc) appear on all documents pertaining to this product. Not a complete lie, but definitely misleading.

Don’t even get me started on the one “easy-to-use, user-intuitive” product that was an absolute nightmare to use.

Periodically, companies/organizations/governments that were interested in purchasing a product like one of the ones we sold, and would submit a list of requirements. In theory, we were supposed to review the list, and mark which items we could do, which we could do partially, and which we couldn’t do. Whenever these were submitted in English (from potential overseas customers), I would be asked to take care of it. I would also be told to mark ‘yes’ or ‘partially,’ but never ‘no.’

Except that often it *was* no. I remember one list of about 150 requirements, about 35 of which our product did not fulfill. I completed the form honestly, and submitted it to my supervisor. Before he submitted it to his supervisor, he’d reduced the number of nos to something like five. I questioned him about it, flat out saying, “You’re lying to them!” His response? “I’m not lying. I’m promoting our product.” He also said, “We’re in pre-sales. Our job is to be confident and never say anything negative about our products. It’s the job of the people in post-sales to say ‘I’m sorry’ a lot.”


For the sake of the employees of Company X, I would like the place to succeed in becoming a successful global company… but they still have rather a way to go before they meet this goal. 


Anonymous said...

Ugh, that sounds horrendous. Glad for you that you got out of there and into the school of your choice. Do you think that you'll head abroad again after completing the MA or work with new immigrants in the US?

Anonymous said...

Thanks very much for sharing your experiences in a korean company. Great insights