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Table of contents

Capitalism from below: Market and institutional change in China. Ou, A. Administrative Science Quarterly, 59 1 : 34— Owens, B. Humility in organizational leadership. Unpublished doctoral dissertation. University of Washington, Seattle, WA. Parsons, T. Toward a general theory of action: Theoretical foundation for the social sciences.

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Leadership of Chinese Private Enterprises

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Academy of Management Journal, 39 6 , — Yin, R. The company fixed them in only six months and has since prevented their recurrence, in large part by equipping its people with assessment tools and skills and by engaging suppliers to address problems at the source. A new performance-management system helps ensure that both the automaker and its suppliers keep up their ends of the bargain.

The growing sophistication of consumers, more intense competition for their business, and the escalating cost of serving them are raising the stakes for the multitude of organizations that use China as a sourcing platform. Leading multinationals and domestic companies alike are fast recognizing that the days when they could view their China sourcing units as RFQ-generating 1 1.

Request for quotation. Our research and experience in the country 2 2. In addition to our experience working with companies in China, this article draws on findings from an ongoing, proprietary global benchmarking effort to identify global best practices in purchasing, as well as a series of in-depth interviews we recently conducted with chief procurement officers at 14 leading multinationals and state-owned enterprises in China.

For state-owned enterprises, the purchasing challenge starts with the fundamentals: talent and training. Few of these companies in China routinely hire purchasing specialists such as category managers who are university qualified, and even fewer hire purchasers with advanced degrees. By contrast, our global benchmarking research finds that among top purchasing organizations, almost 90 percent of the purchasing staff holds at least an undergraduate degree.

Among the others, only 62 percent do. Moreover, few state-owned companies create capability-building programs to bolster the skills of these employees or do much to consider their professional development. Currently, many state-owned companies provide only basic orientation programs for purchasing staff and have no or few formal mechanisms thereafter to help employees share knowledge or refine their skills. Best-practice programs, such as job rotations, are practically nonexistent. The relative dearth of talent in the purchasing units of many state-owned enterprises contributes to another problem: many of them commingle important operational and strategic roles inside the sourcing function.

Such companies fail to recognize that these roles require different skills—the former focusing on speed and process integrity, the latter on long-term market analysis and selection of suppliers. Commingling such roles can be disastrous for the bottom line. For example, at one heavy-industry state-owned enterprise that combined the two kinds of purchasing roles, sourcing leaders chose suppliers according to the convenience of the staffers who tracked the orders rather than any strategic reason. The result was much higher costs and time-consuming delays.

Only when the company segregated the roles and began working on the capabilities of each did decision making begin to improve. Even modest organizational improvements can pay off quickly.


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Another state-owned company, an automaker, recently conducted a short series of intensive coaching and feedback sessions for its procurement staff. One goal was to equip purchasers with much better information ahead of negotiations, since relatively few employees understood the manufacturing costs associated with various components they sourced or the broader internal cost implications of their sourcing decisions.

Within a few weeks of completing the sessions, the procurement team—armed with a better understanding of the critical cost drivers of components—had identified a new set of alternative suppliers and negotiated better terms with existing ones. Multinational companies in China tend to score better than state-owned ones on the basic talent dimensions of purchasing.

Our experience and research suggest that only a little more than half of the savings that companies can achieve from better purchasing are attributable to highly skilled buyers. The rest comes from deep collaboration with other functions to make sure that good sourcing practices and thinking spread throughout the organization.

Many multinationals struggle on this dimension—in some cases because functions other than purchasing are not as developed as they must be to get the full savings. Yet even when functional groups are strong, multinationals may unwittingly establish organizational impediments that hamper meaningful cross-functional collaboration.

Four challenges

For example, in many multinationals the purchasing unit in China reports both to the leadership there and to the global functional chief to maintain consistency or control. The experience of a global equipment maker suggests the potential for greater collaboration and empowerment in the purchasing function. Most started by working with their teams to identify cost-reduction opportunities in areas that did not require major design changes. These moves alone lowered those costs by 5 percent—a substantial proportion, given the relative maturity of the products in question and the fact that previous cost-reduction efforts rarely generated savings of more than 1 to 2 percent.

Leadership Of Chinese Private Enterprises: Insights And Interviews

In a second phase of the effort, the teams focused on technical cost-saving ideas—for example, helping to improve standardization and process efficiency among key suppliers. The cross-functional teams, working closely with internal stakeholders and suppliers, generated more than new cost-cutting ideas that together are expected to deliver an additional 10 percent in savings. On this measure, multinational companies do tend to be much further along the course than state-owned ones. Yet both struggle to engage procurement in broader areas, such as product development or marketing, where supply-base know-how leads to lower costs and even better design decisions.

Global producers for local markets

Although this issue is not unique to China, the strength of functional silos and deeply ingrained hierarchical views of the workplace make it a particular concern there. By contrast, top companies look for ways to give purchasing a louder voice in upstream product-related discussions. Yet even the simplest new products can benefit from early purchasing input as part of a broader design-to-value effort.

For instance, a leading packaged-food company recently sought to launch a bottled-water product in China but worried that costs were too high to meet the target retail price. For industries reliant on innovation, the triple whammy of rising costs, complexity, and competitive pressure means that the old ways of developing products in China now risk becoming liabilities.

Staying competitive will require domestic companies and multinationals alike to change, starting with the mind-sets and attitudes that have pervaded product-development activities in China. Product-development roadblocks. The growth of one China-based medical-device player, for example, has halved in recent years as smaller domestic competitors copy its designs and undercut its prices, much as the company itself copied from multinationals in earlier years.

To some extent, multinationals face a mind-set challenge as well. For more, see Marla M. Nee and Opper , through their five-year study of over entrepreneurs in the Yangzi River Delta region, provided convincing evidence and a persuasive argument that this economic miracle is the result of the actions and ambitions of entrepreneurs. Since they could not rely on formal institutions, private entrepreneurs had to develop their own informal lending systems and networks of suppliers and distributors.