China may be an awakening economic giant but Western managers can still comfort themselves with the knowledge that they have the edge when it comes to innovative thinking, education and technical skills, right? Wrong.
The notion that the Chinese economy is run by a cadre of unimaginative, obedient management functionaries is simply plain wrong and Western managers need to wake up to this new reality fast, latest research has suggested.
The UK Institute of Leadership & Management's Global Management Challenge poll of 325 managers in the UK, US, France and China found a worrying level of complacency among Western managers about the capabilities and competencies of their Chinese counterparts.
"Messages we traditionally receive about China portray an authoritarian, sweat shop economy that has scant regard for the environment or concepts such as corporate social responsibility," said Penny de Valk, ILM chief executive.
But the reality was that Chinese managers had a real thirst for knowledge and experience, were focused on improving performance and processes, were often better educated to begin with and received more in-house training than their peers in the West.
The ILM's finding is at odds with research published early last year by the US-based The Conference Board that questioned the quality of the education being attained by Chinese graduates in an education system with a "learning by rote" culture.
"In contrast, the Global Management Challenge reveals a more sophisticated picture of Chinese managers. They see themselves as having a high regard for rules, customer focus and their impact on the environment. They value wisdom and knowledge, and while willing to acknowledge weaknesses, are also determined to correct them," said de Valk.
Western perceptions of Chinese managers were too often rooted in the past, she added.
Rather than simply being a low-cost, long hours economy, China was already developing a sophisticated, innovative and ambitious management culture, she stressed.
The areas Western managers identified as being most important – getting things done, customer focus and communication – were not the areas in which they felt they performed most strongly.
Yet there was little interest among Western managers to invest in developing these key abilities, the research argued.
The Chinese managers surveyed came across as well educated and far more ambitious than those in the West, where managers generally seemed happy with the current state of their management capacity. Chinese managers, by contrast, were not and were doing something about it.
"Success breeds complacency and there are signs from the research that decades of economic success and prosperity have made managers in the West complacent," said de Valk.
"Chinese managers are setting the global management agenda and those businesses and managers that are unable or unwilling to accept this change and evolve accordingly will fall by the wayside," she added.