Tag Archives: china

The one with the $20 auction

OK so it wasn’t strictly $20 it was 100 Yuan but you’ll get the point…

Professor Max Bazerman is a very well credentialed man.  He is Jesse Isidor Straus Professor of Business Administration at the Harvard Business School. His areas of expertise include decision making, ethics and negotiation and he has a publication list that would make even John Grisham blush.

Professor Brazerman’s first lecture on the MBA programme begins with the $20 auction where students can bid to win $20. Of course the bidding starts at $1 and can only go up in whole number increments so you’d figure the most it ever sells for is $20, right? Wrong. It has been sold, I believe, for as high a sum as $204 which having an expertise in ethics the good Professor donates to charity.

If you are anything like me you are likely sat reading this thinking “I’d never fall for anything like that” and you are probably right… but lots of people do and it’s for that reason that I’ve used this mechanic is several workshops including one which I ran today in Guangzhou, China. The workshop looks at amongst other things the nature of internal competition in organizations and how often the drive to succeed in the internal competition distracts from that ALL so important factor…the external competition.

Between my colleagues and I, we have run this workshop several times and I believe our record is somewhere in the region of £80 (and we usually use fake money) but the device is a good one for making the point about how otherwise sensible rational people make often strange decisions in the name of winning.

So this morning I duly got 100 Yuan (about £10) out of my wallet and popped it in an envelope to use at the appropriate moment. When the moment arrived in the workshop a strange thing happened – the auction didn’t work and despite my baiting and goading I only managed to get the team up to 20 Yuan (I had started the bidding at 10!) and was asked the following question:

“Why would we compete with each other? If we nominate one person and all share their costs, can we all share the prize?”

My initial reaction was a forced smile and a response in the affirmative whilst preparing to try and make the learning point without the auction having worked and then I stopped and thought, ‘is this cultural rather than just a group of bright sparks?”. Now I don’t know the answer but it’s been bouncing around in my head ever since.

I wrote a post last week (whilst working in Hong Kong) which shared the Hall’s cultural contexts and a feature of a high context culture (like China) is that identity is rooted in the collective as opposed to low context cultures like the US and the UK where identity is rooted in the individual. Now whether this is due to cultural context, political context or just the foresight of a few bright individuals seeing right through my plan I’m not sure. However, the idea that a group of relatively junior people in our Guangzhou office paid the equivalent of $4 in the $20 auction has made my day, especially when you look at the cost of the MBA programme at Harvard!


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The one with the landlord’s fixtures

At exactly midnight (Hong Kong time) on July 1st 1997, the Last Governor of Hong Kong, Chris Patten sent the following telegram:

“I have relinquished the administration of this government. God Save The Queen. Patten.”

The succinct communication was the last official act of a government that had existed in some form or other for 155 years and with it Great Britain’s “tenancy” of Hong Kong ended and it became a Special Administrative Region (SAR) of China or more correctly The People’s Republic of China. The terms of the SAR were negotiated in the years leading up to 1997 and it’s an arrangement that will last for 50 years at which point it will be subject to review. The return to Chinese rule did not however spark the mass exodus some predicted either of people or money and Hong Kong today is a vibrant multi cultural city-state.

You don’t have to travel far in the city to find relics of the former tenant – whether they are architectural or some classic road names -I can’t imagine Carnarvon Road is named after a Chinese location and Cameron Road is surely ahead of its time? But the interesting impact is on the culture which appears at least on the surface to be a blend of both its significant influences.

I have been very fortunate over the past few years to make several visits to Hong Kong. They have been mostly business (with a little pleasure snuck in) and I have worked with people from our business who have been of either British, Hong Kong-Chinese or Mainland Chinese origin and got to see firsthand some of the differences that manifest themselves as Asia accelerates its position in the global economy and the multi nationals strive to work effectively in the region.

In his 1976 book “Beyond Culture”, the anthropologist Edward T. Hall proposed his concept of cultural context defining the differences between high context and low context cultures. He was an American who’s work had started with native Americans and through working with the Foreign Service had broadened globally and I think I’m right in saying he defined the extremities of communication cultures using Japan and the US as respectively the poles of high context and low context cultures.

Information regarding his definitions is readily available but in summary:

High Context

  • Relationships build slowly
  • Trust depends on connections
  • Identity rooted in the Collective
  • Hierarchical structures
  • Space is communal
  • Time is polychronic
  • Time is a process
  • Change is slow
  • Accuracy is valued


Low Context

  • Relationships build up quickly
  • Trust depends on one’s merit
  • Identity rooted in the individual
  • Egalitarian structures
  • Space is territorial and private
  • Time is monochronic
  • Time is a commodity
  • Change is fast
  • Speed is valued

Given the poles are Japan and the US it is likely no great surprise that fairly close to both those extremes are China and the UK, with the Chinese culture very high context and the UK far lower.

It was during a discussion of these ideas with a group in Shanghai that one of the Senior Managers in the room asked the question “so where does Hong Kong sit?” Being a good facilitator I inwardly panicked and outwardly threw the question back to the room… discussion ensued. The result of the discussion was in their opinion, that Hong Kong sat somewhere you might define as mid context having elements of both high and low and the discussion went further to how the history of Hong Kong might have influenced this.

In reflecting on this on several occasions with various people since that time the idea of mid context seems to have some resonance for people experienced in the region and the observation had been made by several people that rather than having a diluted culture in the middle that Hong Kong has some distinctly high context elements and some distinctly low context elements and that they could possibly correlate to the role of the family (where culture seems far more traditional) and the role of commerce (where the behaviour observed by others has been likened far more to Western cultures).

Given the pace of globalisation, the shifts in economic power, the need for multinational businesses to operate globally and the future of the SAR, it seems that Hong Kong may have some interesting times ahead and with hindsight will the most significant landlord’s fixtures not be the buildings or the road names but the divergent culture born of two significant influences?

Where does all this leave us? Given a lack of significant research it leaves us with some interesting ideas from people who live and work in Asia and personally it leaves me with a desire to further explore this fascinating place which given it’s half past gin o’clock and I am sat in a hotel in Kowloon,  I will do now!



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