— Cultural Sources of Newness

Learning by doing and reflecting on artistic interventions in Korea

After two full days of presentations, interviews, and discussions here in Seoul, several features are emerging for us about how Koreans are learning from and with artistic interventions in organizations.

The fun and honor of being interviewed by poet and management professor Sim Bo seon, Kyun Hee Cyber University

The fun and honor of being interviewed by poet and management professor Sim Bo Seon, Kyun Hee Cyber University

  • The cases we have seen so far have all been in the IT sector–which may say something about the willingness of managers in this sector to embark on innovative approaches to innovation, but our sample is too small to generalize from.  It is not coincidental that in all of the companies the CEO or another manager is taking a course with Professor Jeon at the Korea National University of the Arts and they are all being coached by him in his role with ARCOM in designing their interventions. We are witnessing the birth of a Korean intermediary/producer of artistic interventions.
  • The personal commitment of the CEOs is definitely significant, but they are not working alone–they have found other people in the organization who are championing one or more of the activities as well. In one case we were told that even if the CEO had not been such a strong supporter, others would have taken an arts-based initiative forward, maybe more slowly and on a smaller scale, because a key question they are grappling with is the identity of video game designers as artists.
  • In all the cases the companies are pursuing several kinds of artistic interventions, rather than choosing just one approach, e.g., photography, music, drama, film, exhibitions. Furthermore, they are placing the artistic activities alongside sports/body activities, the latter being quite common in Korean companies. It is about the whole human being.
  • Governance structures matter: The companies where management controls the majority of the shares have found that communicating about their arts-based initiatives has been to their advantage (eg brand recognition, corporate identity, recruitment), although they did not do it for this reason. When the shareholders are not close enough to the company to understand internal processes, the management does not want to generate misunderstandings about how resources are being invested in arts-based activities, even when the budgets are very small and the returns in terms of employee motivation, innovativeness, and health are clearly observable.
  • Similar to the responses we have in our WZB research on companies in Europe, the managers tend to believe their eyes more than figures when it comes to assessing the value of artistic interventions. One CEO explained, “We have read some HR research indicating that when people are happier it can improve productivity. But the managers can see it in different facial expression in employees.
  • Strategy of building successes: Professor Jeon explained that “In Korea when someone fails, it is difficult to try again, so it is important to have plans with which to  succeed the first time.” Each company therefore developed small-scale activities that were not likely to fail, knowing that they would not have a second chance. Fortunately it appears that in all three cases the attempts have been successful; they have created the atmosphere in which people support the artistic interventions. Internally they do admit that they are learning from things that did not go so well and are seeking to learn from these experiences. So the next step each company is considering now: how to embed the activities they have been experimenting with and make them sustainable?
  • Whereas in Europe we talk about the value of artistic interventions challenging, irritating, and provoking people in organizations to stimulate new ways of thinking and doing things, in the Korean companies we have seen, these learning mechanisms are not welcome. Instead, there is a perceived need to address the stress that employees experience with the long and intense workhours.   As one CEO explained “whatever makes people happy and get used to trying new things is a great thing for the person as well as for the company.
  • The scope of the challenge they are setting themselves is significant. Although they explicitly recognize how difficult it is to transform organizations, they do seem to share the aspiration that Professor Jeon has formulated for himself: “It is our generation’s duty to build a new style of management in Korea.”
  • In one case the CEO reported that he was surprised when he discovered through one of the artistic interventions that some employees were critical of his approach. We asked whether he had followed up by talking with employees about it. No, that would not be appropriate here, we were assured by several people. Instead, he watched the film with them and smiled at them, signalling acceptance. Once again, we who have been trained in Western cultures that direct feedback and open discussion is the most effective way of addressing differences of opinion are humble learners in this setting.

I will need more time to comb through my many pages of notes to draw out more learning points from these cases, but another day of learning lies ahead for which I need to clear my brain:  tomorrow we will present our European experiences at the international conference and we will hear about cases from Korea, China and Viet Nam.

2-hour meeting with 5 Korean journalists Nov 19 2013

2-hour meeting with 5 Korean journalists Nov 19 2013

PS: Another thing we have learned is that Korean managers, professors, students, and journalists read a lot and thoroughly. We noticed this already when Soyoung Shin interviewed us in Europe in July. Never have I experienced such a well-prepared interviewer! As Arantxa later pointed out, our Korean hosts have probably read more of what we have written about artistic interventions than we have. Since arriving here, we found that many people we met had read  the throrough report that Soyoung wrote about our meetings and our publications in the summer. The journalists had received and marked up excerpts from this report to brief them for the interviews with us this morning. And almost everyone I have seen this week has commented that they had read the blogpost I wrote about our first two days of meetings in Seoul.