Career Advice: The CIO Role in China

Career Advice: The CIO Role in China

Today, having experience in China is a bonus. Tomorrow, it may become a necessity as China grows more and more central to the strategies of multinational corporations, both as supplier and customer

Wan succeeded in getting a bigger hiring budget from HR and finance, but not quite enough to compete with the global IT vendors like SAP and Oracle. So he changed his tactic. "I decided it was better to train new grads than to try to hire them away from other firms," says Wan. "The strategy worked, but it took time."

Don't expect outside help to fill the gap, either. China suffers from a dearth of local third-party systems implementation partners and local software companies. "If you're doing a major implementation, there's less of a resource base so your implementations are going to be more expensive and more difficult to do," says Peters, who's currently paying a premium to IBM China for its help with Emerson's ERP implementations.

The Complexities of Hierarchy

While China may seem like a new frontier to Westerners, that's not at all the way the Chinese view their business landscape. In fact, new ways of doing business threaten very old and established hierarchies. Many leaders inside Chinese companies came aboard when their enterprises were run by the state and Communist party. These men wielded tremendous amounts of authority and power in that structure. Not surprisingly, they still want to be in charge. And, as is typical in communist bureaucracies, they are accustomed to change happening at a snail's pace. They often resist new ideas — especially when they come from outsiders.

Combating this kind of opposition was a challenge for Brennan at Asimco, which is still partnered with, invested in and connected to various state-owned enterprises in many complex ways. Brennan sought counsel from his direct report, IT services manager Bruce Li, who is overseeing Brennan's current ERP project and serves as a cultural attache or the interim CIO. "Bruce has fantastic English language and cultural translation skills and keeps me on the straight and narrow in terms of how I need to be perceived," says Brennan. "I have to strike a balance between being the expert making these business units move on an issue and working collaboratively with them as a partner. I want to be authoritative and strong but I don't want to be that overbearing, know-it-all expat."

Li helped Brennan get the general managers of the company on board with both upgrading the company's existing ERP system and a more problematic new business intelligence system. "We were dealing with folks from the state-owned entity side. And even though we own a majority stake in them now, the local guys can make life difficult if you don't know how to deal with them," says Brennan. "Bruce is pretty ingrained in the corporate culture, having been here eight years. So when it came time to ask them for access to their firewalls, or to figure out how to work with their finance resources, my approach was to talk to Bruce first. I let him go deal with the local folks and call me in at the appropriate point," says Brennan.

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