Samsung: A Model For China

The company shed its hierarchical culture for more democracy

Chinese companies are racing to become global brands, and while they certainly can learn much from their Japanese, American, and European competitors, they would be wise to look closer to home at South Korea's Samsung Electronics Co. Samsung has transformed itself from a stodgy Asian original-equipment manufacturer into one of the hottest brands in the world. And it has made the miraculous transformation through design. By using design innovation to create products greatly desired by consumers, Samsung has been able to break out and develop its own identity, its own global brand. But moving to become a design-driven company required a dramatic change in Samsung's hierarchical, Confucian corporate culture. If China's big corporations hope to establish themselves in America, Europe, and Japan, they may well have to do the same. They will have to give their young designers and managers much more freedom and accept the consequences for their companies.

How did Samsung do it? It hired top U.S. design firms such as IDEO to teach its designers the skills and values of design innovation. It sent many designers overseas to live and work in Western design studios. It opened its own Innovative Design Lab of Samsung (IDS), an in-house school where designers could study under experts from the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, Calif. It also created a new position, the chief design officer, allowing designers to go to the top with their new ideas.

Most important, Samsung loosened up. The company shed its traditional Confucian culture with its emphasis on hierarchy, position, and age for more democracy. Young designers were encouraged to challenge their superiors.

Samsung also went beyond the product itself. It studied how consumers interacted with its cell phones, computers, and TVs, from opening the box, reading the manual, and configuring the products to their own individual wants and needs. It's this commitment to research that gives Samsung its design edge.

It also makes Samsung a winner. This year, Samsung won five Industrial Design Excellence Awards, making it the first Asian company to win more awards than any American or European rival. Juried by the Industrial Designers Society of America and sponsored by BusinessWeek, it's one of the most prestigious design awards in the world. If Chinese companies want to develop enduring brands, they should strive to match Samsung's achievement.

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