Global Musings: A Celebration of Diversity

Tom Peters

We've been touting the Japanese "consensus model of management" for over a decade; many have tried to transplant it root and stock into North America, with spotty results. A reviewer in the New York Times

Consider research done by Andre Laurent at INSEAD, Europe's leading business school. Managers from a dozen nations were asked to assess the following statement: "It is important for a manager to have at hand precise answers to most of the questions that his subordinates may raise about their work." The participative Japanese would dismiss any pretense of management omniscience, right? Guess again. Seventy-seven percent of the Japanese polled said "yes," the boss must know all—most by far among all nations' respondents. Just 13 percent of Americans agreed. Incidentally, the supposedly rigid Germans were closer to us than to the Japanese.

In short, national character varies widely and often not according to stereotype.

Let's look again to Europe. The bumper sticker on my Nissan Pathfinder is a blue oval surrounded by 12 gold stars. It reads "Europe Unie." The Single Market in Europe that it portends for 1992 is an exhilarating prospect. Talk abounds of newly homogeneous continental tastes; and sizable firms are merging and forming "strategic alliances" at a breathtaking pace. But some observers are leery. "Removing avoidable barriers to trade between isolated national markets is unquestionably a good idea," writes London Business School Professor Paul Geroski in the Sloan Management Review. "But what gives one cause for concern is the further, often implicit proposal to populate this market with a small number of giant Eurofirms, each producing a small range of Europroducts. ... It is hard to believe that it is in anyone's interest to have a few large, arthritic dinosaurs thrashing about on the European industrial landscape. ... What will result from 1992 ... is not a large mass market, but a large market composed of very heterogeneous consumers."

Harvard's Michael Porter, writing in the Economist, likewise fears excessive industry consolidation: "The most competitive industries in all the European nations were those where capable national rivals were pressuring each other to advance: German cars and chemicals; Swiss pharmaceuticals, heating controls and flavorings. ... In contrast, widespread collaboration was a sign of decline."

The benefits of giantism have always been overrated. And fragmentation of markets is the clear message for the '90s in autos, sneakers, and engineering materials alike—from Osaka to Miami to Zurich. Most important, on January 1, 1992, the French will not stop being French. The Italians will surely still be Italian. That was obvious during a family vacation to the French Alps, about 15 kilometers from Italy. It took all of 100 meters to see the difference. At the border crossing, the French national police were typically formal, perfunctory, close of gesture. But the Italians! Their border cops were effusive, not the least because of our accompanying 21-year-old daughter. My wife and I were "Momma" and "Poppa." Sarah was celebrated. Exaggerated hand gestures cut the air. It was Italian. It was not French.

Other differences were apparent, too. At 6 o'clock one crisp morning, I watched two French farm workers haying a field—with sickles. A few hours later, I frittered away an unconscionable 30 minutes trying to change dollars into francs at the local branch of France's biggest bank. The number of clerks milling about, chatting, passing papers to and fro, was staggering. (Had I been in Japan, the story would have been about the same. That country is as notable for its medieval farming practices, hordes of underemployed bureaucrats and convoluted, inefficient wholesale/retail distribution system as for its efficiency in the car and semiconductor businesses.) The point: The U.S. has a yawning lead in overall productivity, relative to Western Europe (even Germany) and Japan. Europe and Japan surely have industries in which they hammer us. But an economy is a whole. Overall U.S economic leadership is due largely to a remarkably consistent level of productivity across all business sectors.

Which is all well and good. Yet I must reflect on one final element of my sojourn in France. I'm convinced that nation leads the world in wild flowers. The density, variety, and beauty were stunning. The question: Where would you rather be number one wild flowers or national productivity? Social commentator Susan Sontag makes gleeful fun of the "ruthless work ethics" of overwrought Germans, Japanese, and Americans. She has a point. American, Japanese, and German productivity are all wonders. So French wild flowers. Vive diversity!

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