Intelligence and the ability to think outside the box while simultaneously following the rules set down are only a few examples of talents so many day Korean corporations seek in their employees. During the short but turbulent history of modern day Korea, however, there existed a powerful item on the list of talents— sheer will strong enough to turn everything upside down. This item converted into a hidden force that came to influence the Korean society in many ways, not all of which are positive.
Many would agree that social change is natural, but coping with its reverberations is apt to cause much disagreement within a community. What the members of a society need for it to function well is a point of contention, not least because what is actually is required of them to progress as well as to survive may not be apparent at first. Still, there are often constants such as creativity and ingenuity—the ingenuity of the earliest farmers to experiment with and ultimately domesticate crops, for example, was the one factor that greatly progressed the agricultural age.
Physical skills were not the only factor that proved vital for such an agricultural community’s survival, however. Behind progress in the agricultural era lay selective breeding, a form of genetic engineering, where farmers would try to increase crop yield and its tolerance to disease, among other qualities. It would have been considerably harder for a nation to support its people if people with patience and experimenting minds had not sought to domesticate crops in this way. There exists qualities that, though they may not be the most prominent, end up influencing a society in a farreaching way.
Cogs in the Machine
After the agricultural age came industrialization, a fateful phenomenon that happened in a particularly short timespan for Korea and one especially liable to spark disagreements. Even its beginnings are contentious—some claim that the colonization of Japan assisted in helping Korea make its way into the industrial age, although this is a statement that the majority of Koreans disagree with. Industrialization in Korea took off under the repressive rule of President Park Jeong Hee.
▲ Professor Bae Johngseok. Photographed by Kim Seung Hyun
Park’s industrialization policies, known as the Five-Year Plans, were proposed in order to raise the nation from the ravages of the Korean War to a state of economic autonomy and stability. “It is true that the leading firms of that era had different styles. Hyundai was all about building bridges where there were none. It most valued courage to venture into the unknown and experience things, whereas for Samsung, the focus was on pragmatic skills,” said Professor Bae Johngseok (Business Administration). Despite these differences, however, all Korean corporations during the industrialization era had one great, common interest—to establish an independent, high-functioning economy for the good of their country.
According to Professor Bae, there are steps that need to be taken in order for a business to begin attempting innovation—emulation first, and then creative emulation, the art of successfully customizing and improving an existing idea. In Korea during the industrialization era, the only option available was simple emulation. Consequently, the traits to look for in a worker became diligence, compliance, and most importantly, determination to give their all for the greater good. The skills needed for people higher up in the hierarchy of the corporation were more complicated, however. Business leaders needed courage, good ideas, and a will of iron, for companies were then expected to create something out of nothing.
▲ Provided by Pixabay.
Making the Impossible Possible
Arguably determination played a biggest role among all desired traits in bringing progress to Korea, for determination for a better life brought progress to corporations—birthing the so-called Miracle of Han River— and laborers both. Quality of life deteriorated severely for workers, whose rights were consistently ignored in favor of an economical breakthrough that would not be fully complete even after Park’s rule. Data from the International Labour Organization (ILO) shows that the average amount of average working time per week for Korean laborers was 50.3 hours in 1963, only to climb up to 57.0 hours in 1965 and 58.8 in 1967. However, low but persistent voices continued to call for change. Religious communities even joined the labor protests, one such example being the Kanghwa Simdo Textile protests. A decades-long process to protect workers’ rights, participated by most of the community, culminated in a revised Labor Standards Act. The Act emphasized punishment for such companies violating workers' rights and expanded protection for laborers.
During the times mentioned above, the encouraged, as well as the dominant, were captured in the thought of hungry mentality. This is a mindset that emphasizes willpower, with the belief that sheer determination can make even the impossible possible. According to Professor Na Jin Kyung (Psychology, Sogang University), this is an attitude that is especially prominent in Asian societies, where excelling in an interdependent environment is prized higher than being able to excel individually. “Collectivism has a large influence on Koreans; they choose to act according to the people they associate themselves with, and this leads to a mindset where people are seen as beings always capable of change. They see the individual as a being who can improve themselves at the end of the day, despite external situations and even the state of their abilities now,” he explained.
Socially preconditioned mentalities aside, the circumstances that shaped the hungry mentality were dire ones. The war had caused great damage to the nation’s already fragile economy. Korea was left with little to support itself with besides foreign aid and factories left over from Japan’s rule—whose workers were largely left in the dark about their workings. Something clearly had to be done for Korea to stand on its own, but the future looked bleak. As a result, the Korean society chose to adopt a way of thinking in which they believed effort would be able to carve a path through any mountain. Fortunately for Koreans, a path to a better life existed in the form of education.
▲ The growth of Hyundai cars’ sales in the U.S. Provided by www.hyundaiusa.com.
Hunger Gone Blind
A particularly debilitating union between the hungry mentality and education brought unfortunate consequences. Education seemed to be the best way of equipping Koreans with desirable traits and skills, most of which had to do with acquiring a secure and high-paying job. However, whereas the number of jobs available was limited, Korea in the 1970s housed about 32,247,000 people within tight borders. The easiest way to stand out among the plethora of applicants was to acquire a diploma from an esteemed university, and to that solution Koreans flocked.
This has been a problem since the 1960s, which began with parents vying for their children’s entry into better middle schools. Even after entrance exams for middle schools were abolished, anxiety and heightened competition remained, with private education being redirected towards college entrance. Although the 7.30 Education Reform formally condemned many forms of private education, it only led to it being practiced in more and more ingenious ways—private tutoring for children of the higher class was sometimes conducted in cars or during nighttime. All this was done to acquire a degree from a prestigious university, which had effectively become the most indispensable talent for Korean citizens.
▲ Hyundai Motor Group’s talent page. Provided by www.hyundaimotorgroup.com
The unhealthy version of the hungry mentality extended its reach into Korean industries as well as schools. Following the Japanese model, Korean corporations competed on materialistic values instead of quality. By sacrificing quality for prices—only $4,995 per vehicle—Hyundai’s sales soared; a 1994 New York Times article estimated that 264,000 Hyundai Excel models were sold in the United States (U.S.) in 1988. Hyundai’s products had terrible quality compared to those of leading automobile manufacturers, such as General Motors or Toyota, however. What mattered was the ability to produce rapid results, not the insight to stop and see if necessary procedures were being taken in the process. The obsession with procuring quick results proved to be contrary to its original intentions as well as being harmful for the image of Korean products in general.
Some of the disasters in Korea had been due to this obsession for just getting things done with. The nation plunged into a wave of outrage after the Pangyo Techno Valley Festival incident. It was an open-air concert where some participants were standing on the ventilation shaft that collapsed twenty meters underground. Oversights such as the bulk of staff being positioned near the stage and not near potentially dangerous spots, as well as eager crowds having little regard to heed safety directions, led to sixteen deaths. Time and time again this obsession with expediency has proven itself a great threat to Korean society.
▲ Provided by Pixabay.
A New Wave
Times changed as they inevitably must, bringing new developments and deepening pre-existing ruts. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) crisis in Korea in the 1990s made it clear that the nation would need reforms. Having achieved basic economic stability, Korean firms began to change the way they operated. Despite its initial failure in the U.S. market, Hyundai Motors began to invest in more than simple manufacturing. Hiring foreign experts to actually improve the quality of the company’s products, as well as focusing on research and development, proved a success.
Soon companies changed what they were looking for in prospective employees. Instead of hiring those who knew how to persevere and perform menial tasks in a factory, firms started looking for well-educated minds who could bring positive changes to the products they were selling. This was required for lowertier employees as well as those on the executive board, for the time had come for Korea to advance toward creative emulation—an innovative process where ideas originally taken from another source evolve and become uniquely customized.
“One way Samsung encouraged employees to innovate was by awarding those who contribute and punishing those who do not. It is called the war for talent where there was a search for those who could produce concrete outcomes. Basically, this person was someone who could support a vast number of other people by creating something out of nothing,” said Professor Bae. Furthermore, the innovations that occurred in the realm of technology resulted in the rise of the Internet and the Information Technology (IT) industry, spheres that required both creative ideas and logical ability. Education looked to be the perfect tool for better products and better profit, now more than ever.
▲ JRD’s talent page. Provided by www.jrd.co.kr
And the Same Rut
Still, the state of Korean education remained much as it had been. Part of this is owed to what Koreans look for the most when choosing a job. The poverty that gripped modern Korean society so severely influenced many to value high pay and security the most, and this way of thinking was passed down to the millennials. According to a survey conducted by Korea National Statistics Offices in 2011, 38.3 percent and 29.2 percent of Koreans aged 13 to 29 chose pay and stability respectively as the factors that influenced them most in choosing a job. Almost 22 percent of the same age group cited a position in a major corporation to be their most preferred career.
As Korean conglomerates' accounting, sales, technology, and other departments expanded, a demand for trained individuals with many qualities arose. Many Korean universities started to focus on skillbased, pre-professional majors, however, and the majority of their students thought in the same way. In a 2011 survey conducted by Career, a job portal website, 38.3 percent of the respondents said that they would select Business or Economics as a double major. Forty-one percent of the entire group answered that they believed a double major would better equip them for the job market.
Plenty of corporations have announced that they are seeking wellrounded, creative individuals who have not singularly focused their efforts in one field. In 2014, Samsung, Hyundai, SK, Kookmin Bank and more employed Humanities-related questions during the recruitment process. This Humanities wave carries a flaw, however, which may be related to the phenomenon of Humanities students feeling insecure without a more practical double major to hold on to. “Korean firms still see fields such as Humanities as a simple tool to produce a very specific ability, an ability that mostly has to do with producing better products for better sales,” commented Professor Bae.
This is a longstanding mindset; it also may be the reason there are not many instances of Humanities taking center stage within Korean firms, much less the Korean society. Besides the classes offered to its staff on Humanities, the field is more or less lying fallow within Korean corporations; Samsung Economic Research Institute’s (SERI) survey found that 35.7 percent of its 244 responders saw Humanities as being underemployed. Humanities has long been seen as a source of greater understanding when it comes to human nature; however, its potential is not being employed fully because of the myopic attitude mentioned above.
Let Talents Soar…
Incorporating into firms fields left forgotten during the age of simple emulation is a process still unfinished. Regardless of this, however, change marches on. The Fourth Industrial Revolution is in full swing. Qualities such as creativity and the ability to execute ideas are more important especially with the rise of a new era—the Age of the Internet of Things (IoT). For instance, just three years ago, Samsung bought for $200 million the Washington, D.C.—based home automation platform SmartThings, which aims to transform traditional houses into smart houses. The technology used by SmartThings makes extensive use of IoT technology to allow electronic products to talk to each other as well as their owner to control appliances and other household devices. IoT is also helping farms allocate resources better to make farmers more productive.
Korea was a quick learner in the industrial age and a second mover during the digital age. However, in order to become a first mover in the IoT age, it needs to take a different approach. This does not mean, however, that it should completely alter its list of talents. Traits such as diligence and mindsets such as the hungry mentality—in its essence, without its byproducts of haste and obsession with outcomes—must remain. According to Professor Bae, two important traits that Korea must continue to possess and must engender are both “freedom and discipline.” Ultimately, it is up to the thriving industries and society to provide an environment where their employees can become pioneers of the new era.
▲ Things most needed for Korean society but often overlooked in favor of expediency or ingrained culture. Provided by Pixabay.
A Silicon Valley phenomenon, Google, shocked the corporate world with its corporate culture. Free food, no dress code, relaxed bureaucracy, flexible working hours—all these were designed to provide all employees a space where they were free to imagine and interact with one another and to be feel comfortable at work. Google’s management deemed that these practices were what fueled much of the company’s success.
For Korean corporations to continue flourishing, keeping and fostering a flexible environment will play a key role. Flexibility is important because it allows a company to quickly address emergencies, as the economy is ever unpredictable. However, Professor Bae mentioned that “the Korean corporate culture follows a military culture” where a strict bureaucracy is followed. Large changes will be necessary to create such flexibility. An initiative that some companies have started to take is to change their hierarchical system to a team system. In a team system, employees are divided into small groups with one leader and are assigned to different tasks. This lessens the tension between the employees and employers, “and fosters communication among colleagues, regardless of their social position,” claimed Professor Bae. Such a method increases flexibility, fosters closer ties among employees, and provides them the freedom to create.
▲ Provided by Pixabay.
But Treat Them Right Beforehand
There is a fundamental problem with this system, however, one that chiefly has to do with the mindsets. The successful efforts of foreign companies to ally with Humanities on a deeper level, such as Intel and IBM recruiting scholars to delve into what the future may bring, shows that Korea is heading in the right direction by seeking those majoring in Humanities. Still, there needs to be more instances of this field being taught in corporations. The link between firms and universities being strong as always in Korea, both organizations need to help Humanities truly flourish—the former through employing more people who has majored in the field, and the latter through reinforcing subjects seen as arcane, such as Philosophy, as well as the more practical subjects in Humanities.
Another factor that leads to wasted talent is the lack of autonomy and reliability. “Harvard University is an example of an organization that has free rein over selecting whom to allow in their borders; any individual who is deemed suitable is accepted. This, however, is backed up by reliability, by the premise that no external forces will influence how the organization in question works,” said Professor Bae. As the recent scandal with Choi Soon-sil and the preferential treatment shown to her daughter involving entry to Ewha Woman’s University shows, Korean establishments are not yet free of outside influence, nor do the ones with sufficient power to wield autonomy act with reliability. This is one of the greatest obstacles that need to be abolished before Korea can fall into step with the rapid change that is overtaking its firms and its schools.
A Healthier Hunger
Corporate culture is not the only factor that needs changing in order for Korea to move forward. The continuous string of issues that have arisen from the hungry mentality proves how strong a grip the mindset has on the Korean society. The hungry mentality lies in its focus on weaknesses, and more importantly, their improvement. “In a communityoriented society like Korea, it is of great importance that its members do not cause harm to each other. The natural result of this was an attitude that placed importance on finding and fixing what is deficient,” Professor Na explained.
The willpower and trust in the possibility of positive change is applicable to the society at large as well as in the ability of individuals. Korean citizens’ efforts to keep the series of candlelight vigils free of violence after the Choi Soon-sil scandal is an example of this, and more of this determination—the true core of the hungry mentality— is much needed in the Korean society. Collectivism, another mindset that is prominent in Korea, can also produce positive effects if paired with a healthy hungry mentality. Professor Na said that collectivism enables an individual to possess wide viewpoints that allows them to see the connections between many separate factors. The ideal hungry mentality would consist of strong willpower and eyes that do not lose sight of the big picture.
Determination has long been with Korea and its people. However, it has been proven that blind determination and all its weaknesses— haste and myopia—damages not only the individual, but the community itself. In order for Korea to cultivate its human resources and put them to use properly, it must take a closer look at the mindset that holds sway over its society. Progress cannot be possible without changes in the firms and institutes of education that so many of Korea’s youths look up to. It is up to organizations as well as individuals to take the initiative.
▲ Willpower has been and will continue to be Korea’s greatest strength. Provided by Pixabay.