Andrew Hill Could the next great management guru be Chinese?

With the Chinese Communist party about to anoint Xi Jinping as its new secretary general, there is plenty of speculation about the implications of its political and economic changes for the rest of the world, but little about its capacity to inspire management innovation.

China is overdue a modern management guru (Sun Tzu, born around the sixth century BC, doesn’t count).

Walter Kiechel has written an excellent potted history of “The Management Century” in the latest Harvard Business Review, starting in the late 19th and early 20th century with an “age of scientific management” (led by Frederick Winslow Taylor), moving through a more sophisticated era of growing self-confidence from the 1940s to the 1980s (dominated by the insights of Peter Drucker, whose life and work is celebrated this week at the Global Drucker Forum in Vienna) and on to the modern era of specialisation and globalisation. But, as Kiechel writes, “most of our story so far takes place in the United States”:

Where are the voices of indigenous Indian, Chinese, and African business leaders who have original ideas, rooted in their cultures, to add new perspectives to the worldwide conversation about management?

Some authors have tried to take a different viewpoint. Ikujiro Nonaka and Zhichang Zhu, respectively Japanese and Chinese, have written Pragmatic Strategy: Eastern Wisdom, Global Success, which cites Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms as one example of how “Confucian pragmatism” could be a successful alternative to western strategies. Their book is dense and philosophical. But at least they attempt to find some broadly applicable lessons from outside the US-centric mainstream.

Many outsiders, on the other hand, argue that Chinese managers have been raised in such an idiosyncratic national system that they can teach little to western counterparts brought up on democratic shareholder capitalism. Even writers who have actively sought out working alternatives – like Christopher Meyer and Julia Kirby, authors of Standing on the Sun – say they “have not seen China developing mixed-value business models that will invade the global capitalist ecology”.

But my colleague Leslie Hook writes that the so-called “sixth generation” of Chinese party leaders that will follow Mr Xi in 2022 is already more diverse and more cosmopolitan than the one now taking power, including lawyers and captains of industry. The global, competitive pressure on Chinese managers to develop new ideas is arguably even greater. It would be astonishing if in the next two or three decades, China did not generate at least one worthy successor to Taylor, Drucker and the rest.