Tom Coyner and Song-Hyon Jang: Mastering Business in Korea

by Philip Gowman on 5 July, 2007

in Book Reviews, Books on Business & economy, Travel Books

Mastering Business in Korea(Seoul Selection, 2007)

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With a title like “Mastering Business in Korea” the current book might well turn off the casual reader. But as well as having, as its title suggests, a business angle, it can also be used as a more general cultural guide. And because this is a practical book written by people who have lived in Korea for years and make a living out of advising foreigners on how to succeed there, even when talking about the most business-oriented of topics there are little nuggets which a generalist can tuck away for future reference.

Such as. When recruiting a Korean locally, an employer is advised to gain the employee’s consent to take a copy of his or her clan records or family tree. You’re in a better bargaining position when the prospective employee wants something from you (a job): otherwise Korean privacy laws would prevent you finding out about a person’s family connections. As to why you might want to know the family network, well, you’ll just have to buy the book.

Some other examples applicable outside of a strictly “doing business” context.

  • If you want to get anything done, you’ve got to get drunk. No matter how well you interact with a colleague or counterparty in the office, bonding over a beer or soju can often remove a communication logjam experienced around the conference table. I’m going to be putting that into practice with some of my Korean cultural contacts in London.
  • A contract is the start of a negotiation process, not the end of it. Applicable to the six party talks?

Even chapters which look intimidating can have some interesting facts. When they talk about “product distribution”, what they really mean is “shops” — from how the glitziest departments stores work, down to the ajumma-run corner shop, with everything in between. So don’t be put off. The book is highly readable, which has the benefit that when you think you’ve coming to a less interesting bit, you can skim-read a few pages quickly while still taking in what’s being talked about, and slow down again when you get to a bit which does interest you. But you’ll be surprised how little you find yorself doing this.

So while you might not find something to engage you on every single page, that’s going to be true of any piece of non-fiction. And this book shows that business books do not have to be boring. Much of the advice given here is sensible from the Western / Korean cross-cultural perspective, and sound business sense as well. And even if you’re not planning on entering into a joint venture arrangement with a Korean partner any time soon, there’s going to be observations in this book which are going to add to your understanding of what makes Korea tick.

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