Where to begin? What are the essentials to better understanding the Korean mindset with regard to Korean business? I fall back on to three fundamentals
Hierarchy—place and order
Hierarchy is one of the most distinguishing characteristics of Korean culture and deeply embedded in the Korean workplace in Korea and overseas.
Reaching back to Korea’s Neo-Confucian past, social stratification is apparent in Korea’s top companies. More so, South Korea’s authoritarian military regimes of the 1960s, 70s, and 80s reinforced the model.
For Koreans hierarchy brings place and order to society and the workplace. Unlike the West, within this hierarchy no two individuals have the same place within the social matrix–age, education, family, employment and title /position with a company or organization determining where one stands within this matrix. So deeply does it impact Korea that rankings from one’s class standings to consumer rating of the major Group global brands matter considerable.
Status—Upmarket and Lux
Traditionally Korea was a status conscious society. For the elites this manifested in a wide range of status markers from Celadon pottery, refined behavior, ritual robes, distinct cuisine, and table manners. Today a former rigid class structure no longer dominates—class distinction and status more determined by one’s education, employment, job position, and personal income. More so, we have seen considerable upward social mobility within Korea—a direct results of the nation’s economic successes.
Going hand and hand with the upward mobility has been the demand for luxury and premium goods and products. In fact, these (most often Western) lux items have taken on the role of status markers. This list can include designer eyeglasses, handbags, and watches, as well ties, scarfs, belts and name brand clothing.
Although some Koreans have shown concern over the desire for pricey goods, in the eyes of many Korean customers, the more expensive and the rarer, the more desirable the brand. Consumers equate value with a high price tag.
All and all what we see unfolding is an ever growing demand for upmarket goods and product in Korea—this consciousness driving a repositioning of Korean brands globally, too, — Korean brands wishing to be seen as premium and among world’s leading consumer goods from cars to home appliances to electronics.
South Korea’s dominant age groups have great impact on Korean business culture, so there is value in understanding the differences in Korean generations. In South Korea, a generational group is defined more by its shared experiences than by a specific number of years.
For instance, older Koreans (50:60ers) who lived through the Korean War and its aftermath are more conservative, strongly allied with the U.S., and uncompromising towards North Korea.
In contrast, a group called Generation 386 (a phrase coined more than a decade ago, and comparable in some aspects to American baby-boomers) grew up in a period of great student unrest and tend to be more socially conscious and liberal than their forbearers. 386, no longer literally accurate term, stands for Koreans in their 30s in the late 1990s, born in the 1960s, and educated in the 80s. (Re-coined now as 486’s in some circles.)
A third generation of South Koreans, those in the age group of 26-35, is commonly referred to as the New Generation or Shinsedae. Many of this group have studied abroad, worked most of their careers on overseas support and projects, are fluent in English (and often another language or two), and have a global perspective.
This group grew up after the 1997 economic meltdown in Asia, which strongly impacted South Korean culture. This younger generation of Koreans is less concerned about ideology and more pragmatic. Their primary concern is finding a job. They are also a strong “gotta have it” consumer class and individualistic as a result of the impact of globalization, the Internet, television, and the high percentage of students who attended U.S. schools and universities.
All three noted, I see hierarchy, status and generations as a lens to better understand the Korean mindset, both within their society and in the workplace across their global organizations.
For more insights, questions or comments, I am available to discuss.
Just go to http://www.meetme.so/southerton