Australia: Preparing Australian Business For The Asian Century

The Government's White Paper on Australia in the Asian Century outlines what the country needs to do to succeed in this challenge. John Denton looks at what business can do.

In September last year the Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard announced her intention to develop a White Paper, which sets out the opportunities and challenges that Australia needs to confront, overcome and in many respects push along in what's known as the Asian Century.

The White Paper is called Australia in the Asian Century. It's designed to plot out the economic, social, political and cultural issues that need to be considered as Australia develops and tries to find maximum opportunity for itself and its people, but also generally for the region as well.

It's chaired by Dr Ken Henry, who was a former secretary of Treasury and a board member of one of Australia's largest company's the National Australia Bank. Katherine Livingstone who is the chair of Telstra, one of the other largest companies in Australia. And also Peter Drysdale who's a professor at the Australian National University in the Crawford School. Peter is generally seen as the father of the idea - of what's known as - APEC or Asia Pacific Economic Community and certainly one of the great proponents of Australia's engagement but also the development of the region itself. And me - John Denton, partner and CEO of Corrs Chambers Westgarth.

A lot of businesses are thinking to themselves, what do we need to do to skill up to improve our capabilities to participate in the Asian Century?

That is a question that I am often asked about and frankly, it's one that we think about at Corrs as well, because we are constantly thinking about how do we adapt the firm to ensure that it's right size, right ready, appropriately focused and appropriately skilled for any given moment. But also thinking through what we should be skilling up for, for what we foresee as changes.

You start hearing and thinking of some of the elements which would be critical to the success of any business. First of all there is adaptability. The ability to constantly adapt your organisation. The other is to actually be able to think forward. Therefore, being quite externally focused and always thinking about future scenarios and how you adapt your organisation so that you are right size, right ready, capable to actually be able to operate in the future state that you envisage and how do you skill up. Part of skilling up is actually how do you ensure you have the breadth of people, the breadth of thinking and the willingness to adapt. That actually goes to what we would call diversity issues. Our firm is highly focussed on diversity and not just because it's the right thing to do to be healthy as an organisation, there is actually genuine strategic value.

As you think through where the Asian Century is going, the rapidity of change and the need to be able to engage at a broad ranging set of discussions with multiple points of view available. Not just from one sort of standard bearing white Anglo Saxon male, but actually having a diversity of views including gender issues, ethnic issues and all elements that make up diversity. It creates not just a very healthy firm but it also improves your strategic capability for participating effectively in this dramatically changing world, which is occurring most importantly because of the rise of Asia. Look at the region in which we sit, look at the propinquity of Australia to where all this growth is taking place and it's in Asia. Therefore, becoming a part of the culture is very important.

You can start hearing the way we think about things. We think this is actually relevant for all businesses and is proven I think by the empirical evidence that's has been assembled for the White Paper. Adaptability to change and problem solving becomes very important. But solving problems is better when you have diverse range of thinking available to you, diversity becomes important and of course thinking towards the future all the time.

We are talking about Asia and business so clearly thinking through what we call 'Asia related capabilities'. This is partly, but not only, language. It's also trying to understand Asia, as I always say to my partners and colleagues who want to get involved in various aspects of business in Asia. One of the challenges is you cannot be superficial, you actually have to develop a depth of view about the particular jurisdiction or the particular country in which you will be operating or seeking to operate. People respect that but they also expect that. Because if you are serious about a relationship it means you genuinely want to get to know people and want to care about the things that they care about. That means understanding the various drivers of those economic entities and societies. It's to talk about Asia broadly and to understand that Asia is not a monolith but actually is made up of a variety of different cultures and political systems, religious beliefs, all these sorts of issues. You really need to understand that, of course language is important, however if you can speak but are unable to feel it, it doesn't really help you communicate.

So you need to be able to really commit yourself to developing substantive knowledge because in the end a relationship is more than shaking a hand or giving out a business card. It's engaging in a discussion of high trust with people about whom you really care, you can't fake that so you have to develop the elements that support that. We think that is important as well, we were talking about 'Asia related capabilities' and of course you can't do that quickly. It does take time and that goes to that last piece that you just can't imagine up a relationship, you have to develop relationships over time.

What proves you have a deep relationship? It's not the fact that you have exchanged business cards, it is the fact that you have developed mutual goodwill with each other. Sure we are in business which can be monetised from to time to time but if the sole aim is transactional, that will never be a relationship. It's really trying to understand what it is that generates the goodwill necessary with a person, persons and groups in other countries around the region. That requires you to learn a little bit about what really matters to them and about their economies, their societies and their religions etc, you can't know everything. Ultimately you need to be able to focus on where you can make the most difference.

We would say that adaptability, problem solving, future forward thinking, really starting to worry about substantive issues through things like developing up 'Asia related capabilities' and being committed to developing long term relationships are all the keys to building an organisation which can be successful in the Asian Century.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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