Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Going on a Korean Business Trip

Samsung Germany
Working as a foreigner in the HQ of Samsung, a company with a major global presence, I travel a lot for work to overseas countries. The year 2015 has had a different feel for me … for the first time since I moved to Korea in 2012 I have been working in a Korean-dominated team. My Korean colleagues speak English but certainly my boss is far more comfortable in Korean. Emails and documents in Korean constantly pass through my inbox, and unfortunately my Korean proficiency has not improved this year. Samsung Mobile does not offer Korean classes for foreigners, I was shocked to learn…

With a Korean team comes Korean business trips, which are considerably different than the business trips I am used to. I went on 5 business trips this year to many corners of the world: Western Europe (twice), USA, Brazil, and India. My trips ranged from 6 days to 3.5 weeks and were focused on improving the management of Samsung Mobile’s B2B channel partner network.

One time my director did get to go
shopping on a Sunday
The first thing I noticed is that there is a ton of pre-trip reporting…first to your VP, then to other VP’s who might be effected by your travel, and maybe even the head of the department if he is interested. Because my department has a mixture of Korean and non-Korean executives, the reporting was done in both Korean and English, which slowed us down a bit. Many Samsung trips are hurriedly put together at the last minute, and sometimes you are scrambling to get meetings to fill the calendar which you are required to present for approval to travel. The pre-trip time can be quite hectic.

I learned in the pre-trip planning process that the South Korean passport is quite possibly the best to have in the world. I don’t know what the exact criteria are for those passport freedom rankings you see from time-to-time, but in terms of countries you would actually consider visiting the South Korean passport offers all the freedom you would need. Chile is the only other passport that has visa-free access to all G8 countries. Also, I fly to Vietnam frequently now on personal trips and I am jealous when I need to shell out $60 for a single-entry visa in my American passport while the Koreans all get off the plane and just walk to the immigration counter. The effect of this policy is that Koreans can depart for last-minute business trips on a whim. For instance in August, when my director unexpectedly and suddenly announced that we were heading to Brazil for 3 weeks, I needed to raise my hand and say “Just a moment. Americans need a visa.” My Egyptian colleague also needed one, which was not surprising since he needs a visa to visit just about anywhere in the world. (the upside of this is that it does force my director to do a little trip planning in advance!)

Once you have finally secured all of the executive approvals that you need, you pack your luggage and you’re off to modern Incheon Airport on a plane to somewhere far away (I have never traveled on business to anywhere within 6 hours of Seoul). You go through whatever pre-flight rituals you have and brace yourself for a long trip in economy class — Samsung doesn’t fly its manager-level employees in business class unless they happen to be lucky enough to visit Brazil…over 24 hours from Korea! Fortunately we often fly Korean Air or Asiana, which are nicer to fly than Western airlines. When you land, hotels are also ordinary in developed countries, but you to get to stay in nice 5-star properties in emerging markets. You strictly cling onto every receipt you can and pray that your Korean Samsung credit card works the whole time … otherwise you’re in for a long fight when you return with the robots that sit in Accounting.

Samsung India - Delhi branch
When you land it’s often straight from the plane to the hotel to the Samsung subsidiary office, where the hard work begins. Korean business trips mean long hours and a lot of Korean food. I feel like I am on a world tour of Korean food this year … I have eaten it on 4 continents. I could understand if we shared a couple Korean meals a week with each other, but Samsung Koreans eat Korean food in over 50% of non-breakfast meals abroad (and over 90% in India). Samsung cafeterias worldwide serve both Korean food and local food, and my Korean teammates ate Korean food most days for lunch. When you descend upon a Samsung subsidiary there are the many introductions which must be made promptly to all the Korean expat executives in the subsidiary, and then these expat executives all will treat you to dinner at various times, the majority of the meals being Korean food, often with a lot of soju drinking. I’m not impressed with the way Korean expats have adapted to local tastes.

Being forced into eating Korean food can be frustrating, especially as I had several dinners where I was the only non-Korean and the whole conversation went into a language which I can only partly comprehend. In many meals I simply sat at my plate and quietly ate my food — when the host of the meal wanted to speak with me he would switch to English. I was sad that we passed over churrascarias in Brazil and all forms of Indian food in India — my teammates did not eat Indian food once!

With many team dinners and late nights in the office and some Saturday work, there is very little time to oneself for sightseeing. As the executives in Samsung Korea say, “You’re not there for shopping.” There is an intense focus on daily reporting, showing every day that you are getting work done to justify the expense of you being away from HQ. There is a lot of stress generated from “showing off the performance” to the Korean subsidiary head, and you often get pulled away from work at a moment’s notice for dinners with Korean expats.

I enjoyed working with friendly counterparts in Samsung Brazil

That said, despite the perils of Korean business travel it is good to get out of HQ from time-to-time to “see the real world” — it sometimes feels in Suwon that we are sitting on an island trying to understand what is happening day-to-day in the rest of the world. As Korean culture is quite distinct from the cultures of the markets which generate most sales for IT companies (USA, China, Western Europe, Brazil, India), a company like Samsung faces greater challenges in developing products suited to local tastes than competitor companies based in those countries. At HQ we can benchmark best practices of other IT companies and develop what seems like a sensible channel program from our ivory tower, but the real learning comes from being on the ground in subsidiaries around the world and trying to implement our programs — you quickly see what won’t work when you face reality. I have been fortunate this year to experience a sample of local business cultures worldwide and see the challenges of integrating these cultures with Samsung Korean business culture. I would just appreciate if my teammates could diversify their palates a little … and maybe leave Saturdays for sightseeing :)

1 comment:

  1. This is so interesting to hear your insights about living in South Korea.
    I am a Malaysian born Chinese and shared apartment with Korean room mates in US during our student days. That was the only way I could pick up the language easily by listening to their daily rants. They made me fall in love with their food..!!