Larry S. Persons, PhD
Why Innovation Is So Difficult
Stay tuned for more of blogs that guide expat business leaders in Thailand to confront their biases and work smarter—culturally smarter.
But that’s not the only thing I do. Today I pivot to address a different audience.
My new series is a heart-to-heart talk with Thais about indigenous values that can easily get in the way of their dreams for economic progress. I will be inviting Thais to look within.
If you are a Thai reading these words, you may have noticed that I have a very non-Thai name. I mention this to warn you of cultural bias that may easily ambush you and cause you to sweep my words aside. After all, what can a farang teach us about Thai culture? Who does he think he is?
I think I’m someone born in the same country as you. In fact, I know I am. I have the Thai birth certificate to prove it. And I have my story. I was deeply immersed in Thai culture for the first six years of my life. I have been swimming in the same cultural waters as you for most of my adult life. I understand, speak, read, and write Thai. And I have clocked well over 10,000 hours of field research, data analysis, and writing that have awarded me with rich insights into Thai ‘face’ values and Thai leadership behaviors. That should count for something.
To all Thais reading this series, I invite you to view me as a trusted guide, not a critic. I love our country and I respect our cultural codes. But I also I believe that I see some things you may not see as clearly. My intention in writing is wholesome and good.
If you are non-Thai and reading these words, you should know up front that I believe all cultural critiques must have a foundation of humility to have true significance. Okay, I get it. Thai cultural values can mesmerize you in one moment only to annoy the heck out of you in the next. But this series is not about unloading frustration on Thais. It’s about offering thoughtful wisdom to guide us all into seeing true innovation blossom in the Thai context.
The Thai government continues to invest heavily in its mission to upgrade the economy to an Industry 4.0 model. In the 1950’s, Thailand 1.0 was a simple economy driven by agriculture. Thailand 2.0 emerged when light industries began to pop up, leveraging cheap labor to produce goods for domestic consumption. We are now living in ‘Thailand 3.0,’ characterized by complex industries that attract foreign investments and make the country a production hub for exports. Booming tourism has also been a colossal driver of economic growth in this present economy. Covid-19 will never let us forget that.
But even before the pandemic, faults and fissures were beginning to appear in this version of the economy. Thailand’s Board of Investment (BOI) writes: “Under Thailand 3.0, the country has faced a middle-income trap, growing disparities, and imbalanced development” (Thailand in Review, Jan 2017).
These concerns have prompted the government to begin a transformation of Thailand’s economic structure to ‘Thailand 4.0.’ The envisioned shift is from a production-based to a service-based economy. Those who seriously believe in this future can show you a stunning wish-list of advanced technologies in ten sectors: next-gen automotive, smart electronics, high-income tourism/medical tourism, efficient agriculture and biotechnology, food innovation, automation and robotics, aerospace, bioenergy and biochemicals, digital, and medical and healthcare.
image credit: https://www.aware.co.th/thailand4-0/
The BOI wants to “strengthen Thailand’s reputation and convey that Thailand is open for business in a new and exciting era of growth” (TIR, Jan 2017). Ta-da! To be truthful, that starry-eyed declaration worries me. You don’t just go out and buy innovative technology like you buy the latest iPhone. It’s not plug-and-play. Technology doesn’t grow in a vacuum. It grows, to greater or lesser extents, in the disparate cultural soils of the world.
Do not miss this next sentence. Thailand 4.0 invites the private sector away from the production of commodities toward a more agile form of growth based on “technology, creativity, and innovation” (TIR, Jan 2017). If you sense an overarching theme of thinking outside the box, you’re tracking well.
The Missing Piece
This goal is noble, but anyone taking it seriously should immediately sense a huge ‘elephant in the room.’ This incredible dream of a new future cannot emerge from anywhere else but the soil of contemporary Thai values.
We should all be absolutely gobsmacked that almost no one is talking about how Thai cultural values loom as a mountainous obstacle in the way of that dream. There will be no Thailand 4.0 without Thai Values 4.0.
This ambitious economic transformation is already stretching and will continue to stretch Thai society as we know it. A collective sense of discomfort will only continue to build. What’s the source of tension? Not a pandemic that has ravaged us, not insufficient wealth, and certainly not a lack of global connection (good Lord, can we all just put our smart phones down for one flipping second?). The problem stems from instinctive behaviors of everyday Thais in the workplace. Even as I type these words, millions of Thai employees are exhibiting workplace behaviors that spell trouble for a country that has set its sails toward a creative and innovative new world.
The heart of our dilemma is simple.
Modern Thai culture still tends to reward conformity, hierarchy, and tradition. It teaches people to ‘color within the lines.’ It treats people as cogs in a bigger machine with no other mission than to do the same thing in the same way, time after time, day after day. And have you noticed that many Thai employees seem quite comfortable to do just that? Now, these qualities are wonderful assets for predictable and slow-paced business environments. They are highly suitable if you are in the business of ‘counting beans,’ or error-prevention.
But business agility, you see, thrives on their opposites—rapid experimentation, decentralized leadership, and thinking outside the box. There’s just no getting around it. If you want to invent new things, you have to do more than simply mimic those who’ve gone before you.
This is a deeply disturbing predicament. We are talking about deep culture, stuff that lies way beneath the surface, values that are highly resistant to change. Thailand is a proud country—rightly so—one that has spent a great deal of time and effort constructing its cultural identity around the themes of conformity, hierarchy, and tradition.
The government is spending billions upon billions of baht to clear the way for advanced internet, smart cities, and upgraded ports. These are important steps forward, but there’s a danger in becoming enamored with shiny new toys. Even if we were to build the world’s best physical infrastructure for innovation, we would still need a workforce with bold ideas and the confidence to try them. Today, we have neither. Most Thai workers bury their ideas and hesitate to risk something new for fear of failure.
When Culture Fails to Evolve
Like other countries, Thailand must learn the difficult lesson that if it wants to be a player in the 21st century global economy it must scrutinize some values that have been highly cherished for centuries. National leaders are attempting to challenge and stretch the country’s workforce, but let’s not miss the story within the story: an ominous tension is building between radical business models and conservative Thai cultural norms. And even for notoriously flexible Thais, the rubber of culture can only stretch so far.
To invent ingenious products and services, Thailand first needs to reinvent itself. I’m not for a second suggesting that the workforce entirely abandon its ‘Thai-ness.’ That’s a silly thought, and it would be a case of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. But for true innovation to blossom we must somehow leverage the present cultural foundation to think about old problems in new ways. How precisely do we do that?
I’m not exactly sure, but I know the quiet place to begin. Introspection. Soul-searching. Self-examination. Increased self-awareness. Thais can take a first step into the journey by asking the simple question, “What is it about my workplace behavior that sucks the life out of creativity and innovation?”
This level of introspection is a difficult thing to wish for, and Thais are not to blame. The irony of ironies is that technology itself is the culprit.
Technology is inhibiting most Thais from taking this first step. I fear that the present epidemic of addiction to social media platforms is lulling an entire new generation to look outward, not inward. Like proverbial frogs in a kettle, this population is happily anesthetizing itself with a voyeuristic attraction to photos, videos, and superficial social connections. If our faces are in our phones for 6-8 hours a day, how can we possibly ‘see’ our own souls?
Yet that is the delicate task before us. If we are to step into a highly innovative future, we must first perceive and then talk about things that are getting in the way. We need a wake-up call.
Netflix Culture: A Slap in the Face
A new book is causing quite a stir in business circles around the globe: No Rules Rules: Netflix and the Culture of Reinvention (2020). This story of the meteoric rise of Netflix is nothing short of astounding. Beginning in the late 1990’s as a company that rented movies to customers by shipping DVDs through the mail, today Netflix is a powerhouse producing its own hit shows in multiple languages and livestreaming movies to 200-plus million subscribers in over 190 countries.
According to Reed Hastings, founder and CEO of Netflix, the company’s success is due in large part to its unique company culture. Thais should take the word ‘unique’ in that last sentence as code for ‘troublesome.’ The Netflix culture of talent density, complete candor, and decentralized decision-making is so starkly different from traditional Thai organizations that it feels like a slap in the face.
While I was reading this book, I began thinking about how lessons from Netflix, combined with insights from my own book, The Way Thais Lead, could help organizations here in Thailand adapt to the 21st century global economy. That was the genesis for this new series of articles. In forthcoming blogs, I will be comparing the internal culture of Netflix with organizational cultures commonly found across Thailand.
I want to be clear about my purpose. I will not be challenging all Thai organizations to throw caution to the wind by joining the Netflix fad. I will also not be arguing that Netflix culture is so American that it can never take root in Thailand. I’ll be asking this question: “How can we contextualize Netflix culture to Thai culture in such a way that it fuels unbounded creativity and innovation?”
I think this is the wake-up call we’ve been waiting for. The cultural differences could not be starker, but we are onto something—something fresh, something new. Somewhere in the maze before us is a pathway that will guide us to the missing link: Thai Values 4.0