And Finally

Bull market

Charlatans abound in China’s management training industry

Bull market

We'll discuss how to merge marketing and sales in next week's class

Peter Drucker was reluctant to be referred to as a ‘guru’. The world’s leading management thinker had come to the conclusion that gurus were all too often charlatans. Drucker preferred to be called a writer instead.

China is a country where Drucker’s concerns about the less reputable side of his industry are coming true. A recent report in the China Youth Daily on one trainer’s advice on self-promotion provides a good example. His recommendation to students was that they make sure they were always the last to board flights, and only to do so having been called at least three times. This was guaranteed to get their names broadcast around the whole terminal – ergo tremendous free publicity.

Not something that Drucker, who died in 2005 at the age of 95, would ever have recommended. But management training in China is experiencing a growth spurt that is nothing short of explosive, says the Daily. The country now has 180,000 training institutions claiming to provide business education.

The practice of teaching business skills first began to emerge in China in the 1990s, amongst the entrepreneurs of the Pearl River Delta region north of Hong Kong. Many managers at state-owned enterprises – in most cases brought up during the days of the centrally planned economy – also sought training in China’s market reform era.

Successful trainers could earn decent livings too, as the educational system was not equipped to teach business thinking. The better ones built reputations for themselves. One of the early figureheads – Yang Sizhou in Shenzhen – enjoyed local newspaper fame as the “Professor who bought a BMW”, for instance.

But, as the industry has filled out, quality has often been compromised. Too many of the newcomers lack genuine insight and experience, says the Daily. Behind the smiles and sharp suits, the actual content is often meagre. One training course has even tried to use hypnosis techniques on students, in the hope that they would persuade friends to sign up too.

Then again, Drucker might take heart that his own ideas live on – thanks to a network of academies that have been set up in his name across the country. Minglo Shao, the founder of the franchise in China, says that Drucker backed the project because he realised that quality management training was in short supply.

The Chinese have an appetite both for authority figures and learning – and sadly, the charlatans are capitalising on it.

In her book Factory Girls, author Leslie Chang visits a training programme in Dongguan where bluff is the order of the day. The training course tells students what colours to wear (“purple represents mystery”), how to achieve success (“30% knowledge, 70% interpersonal relations”) and throws in the odd bits of history (‘The heroes from history never varied. Chiang Kai-shek and Mao Zedong led the pack, with Hitler a distant third. He was valued for his eloquence.”) Sharing a taxi afterwards with the teacher, Chang discovers that it is only the second class he has ever taught, and that “most of his teaching materials came from the internet.”

But perhaps the biggest shock for Drucker would have been to meet ‘guru’ Ding Yuanzhi, who tells Chang matter-of-factly that his next book will dumb down and copy wholesale from the Michael Porter classic Competitive Advantage. As Ding explains: “My book will basically boil down Porter’s ideas. Shenzhen has a lot of bosses with an elementary school education but they are hungry to learn.”

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