Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Muddy water and live fish

When I worked as a product manager in Silicon Valley, the business rationale ran something like this--let's find an unmet need, figure out an innovative way to satisfy that need, and voila, we'll make a lot of money in the process.

Now more than 4 years back in China, I'm still struggling with the Chinese business rationale--let's find something to sell, pile on tons of superlatives and expert opinions to shove it into the mouths of prospective customers, and hope that they swallow it so we can make a lot of money in the process.

Of course it's not quite clear cut as that: I remember all of my friends, the "insiders", laughed at the expensive Siebel CRM systems and how they tend to way underdeliver their promises; then again in the US we can, and the press can, laugh at the overzealous sales people and watch Siebel go downhill.

In contrast, here in China, in the industry of Internet advertising that I'm in, there's a consensual hush over the big industry secret--that several well-known websites routinely resort to clandestine software to fake clicks on their clients' advertising to enhance the clickthrough rate.

So that justify us to cheat in a similar fashion to enhance customer "satisfaction"?

No, we will never do that. That's against the core values of the company. But we can use fancy terminologies to enthrall the market. To promise some hi-techy panacea that'll transform China's internet landscape. We'll use "top-notch" technology to deliver superb clickthrough rates, whereas in reality we simply leverage the cheap manpower and the shuffling around of some resources. So suggested the boss.

Then we shall add all the data points together and make the customer report look good?

Oh, that wouldn't be ethical, would it?

But we already fooled our customers into believing our "technologies." Why not add the numbers together? Those numbers are real, just not generated in the way we promised the customers.

That wouldn't be right, would it?

The boss pondered on.

I am always at a loss at the ambiguous line of business ethics in discussions like this -- so we can't cheat, but we can't be entirely honest either; we can't be as low as those despicable media that everyone secretly despises in the industry, but we can't be entirely clean ourselves.

Everyone cites the tired saying--water doesn't harbor live fish if too clean (i.e., something muddy has to exist to protect the fish from fisherman).

Yet unlike many old China hands who disdain the backward Chinese business ethics, I thoroughly enjoy this ambiguity. It's challenging. It prompts me to think often where I shall draw the line: other than the cold seemingly self-evident values taught in business school ethics classes, I have to be responsible for my employees (how do we compete in a tricking market place?) and my customers (how do we provide some real value even if not in the ways promised?).

It's both challenging and enjoyable for it's alive. The discussion is alive. My boss, my staff and I are alive--how do we define the ethical line in our business? Despite what the professors have said in classrooms, we, like kids, have to search for the line all over again by ourselves in practice.

Tonight after dinner, a sales person sought me out. She bought me coffee and vented her unhappiness. Her team leader was selfish and untrustworthy. She felt stifled and unappreciated. She felt sad about her team, for a team is not a team if not a winning close-knit team that helps each other to excel. She cried. She wanted a chance to lead her own team, to do things right.

I enjoy the ambiguity and the earnestness in China. For despite the muddiness of the fish water, people, deep down, want to do things right.

I trust that the water would clear up gradually, and more fish would survive eventually.