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FROM ANCIENT TO MODERN How exploration and collaboration lay at the heart of Asia’s greatest trading initiative and the lessons we can learn for transforming sales performance today.

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Consalia’s event publication



Professor Hum Sin Hoon Deputy Dean, NUS Business School

The ‘art of collaboration’ vs the ‘art of war’ As the balance of power shifts from west to east, it makes sense to examine how different cultures approach business, particularly the Chinese who are swiftly emerging as the key global economic driving force. In his keynote presentation, Professor Hum Sin Hoon, Dean of NUS Business School, explored the art of collaboration in the context of 15th Century explorer Zheng He and the paralells that can be drawn for today’s business world. PURSUING COLLABORATION


ost business people are familiar

with chinese military srategist, Sun Tzu’s The Art of War. Steeped

historians place Sun Tzu (or Sun Zi) as a contemporary of Confucius, The Art of War Asian military thinking for the past two millennia and, more recently, become required reading for Western military, business and legal strategists. However, Sun Tzu is by no means the only military leader to be celebrated across Asia. Recently, the writings of Chinese admiral

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Zheng He (who lived well over 1,500 years after the general) have begun to emerge in translation, marking the 600th anniversary of this 15th century explorer’s maiden voyage in 2005.

He’s mission from the Chinese emperor was to spread peace and goodwill, and promote trade. At a time of unprecedented openness, this was the favoured economic strategy for the Chinese and there are important lessons to learn for contemporary business people. How much better, therefore, to pursue the Art of Collaboration rather than the Art of War? This was the focus of a keynote address by Deputy Dean of the National University of Singapore Business School, Professor Hum Sin Hoon, at Consalia’s most recent Global Sales Transformation conference in Singapore. Professor Hum outlined the relevance of Zheng He’s voyages to contemporary business essentially a diplomat, albeit that he was a consummate warrior too. “He could have conquered but he did not. His mission was to spread peace and goodwill.”

Zheng He completed several trading missions at the behest of the emperor, exploring as far as the

The first step is to prepare yourself for collaboration... This requires hard work and diligence as well as the capability to be innovative. So you build capabilities others don’t have, so you will be attractive. coast of East Africa and South-East Asia. merchant ships and enormous ‘treasure ships’ carrying gifts from the emperor, as well as a huge complement of 28,000 men, ranging from soldiers to doctors and interpreters to engineers. Co-ordination of this huge army needed considerable organisational ability; Zheng He required extensive skills in leadership, talent and supply chain management, as well as logistics. Considering that his expeditions preceded the voyages of renowned explorers like Vasco da Gama and Christopher Columbus and were on a vastly larger scale, Zheng He was a pioneer of unparalleled stature.


THE 4 C’S OF COLLABORATION Professor Hum contrasted the approach required for waging war the way we pursue collaboration, which is a perpetual, sustainable relationship. He set out what he calls the four ‘Cs’ of the art of collaboration: CAPABILITy BUILDING Zheng He embarked on his voyages he spent a “lot of time and energy and resources” building types of ships) and recruiting the right people for the expeditions. CO-ORDINATION important for all 28,000 of Zheng He’s men to “sing the same song”, Professor Hum declared, describing the expeditions as a major co-ordination challenge. ting the emperor’s message was at the heart of each expedition, which began with a decree from the emperor and included messages and gifts to the leaders Zheng He encountered on route. CONTINUITy cemented the relationships he established across six consecutive voyages at two yearly intervals, building and sustaining the collaboration, according to Professor Hum. At the same time, Zheng He always chose to collaborate from

East and East Africa.

come from a position of strength rather than weakness, he explained.

Zheng He’s voyages were invariably meticulously prepared

There are further modern-day parallels in Zheng He’s expeditions. He relied on corporate sponsorship from above, keeping in contact with the senior leadership (in this case the emperor) as much as possible.

any contemporary business or, indeed, a sales call where research and preparation are essential. He invested in considerable technological capital around the art of navigation and also in large ports, which acted as his ‘distribution centres’.

In turn, he selected appropriate leaders for his own team along with the right managers, and also enlisted specialists such palace doctors) to build his human capital. All of which helped build collaboration and trust with the locals, for instance by providing medical aid.

that was indisputable, given the

He also built up a repository of useful knowledge about the places

an important message for today’s businessperson, particularly in sales, Professor Hum said. you are much more attractive as a collaborative partner if you

market research today. “He found out what goods and supplies the locals were interested in. He found out what currency they used and the trading methods they adopted.”

for collaboration,” Professor Hum explained. “This requires hard work and diligence as well as the capability to be innovative. So you build capabilities others don’t have, so you will be attractive.” Professor Hum also set out what he described as Zheng He’s ‘Five acts of collaboration’. the admiral chose to articulate his intention for collaboration. act was always to read out the emperor’s decree (in translation)

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immediately understood that his intentions were peaceful. Zheng He’s second technique was always to practice generosity. His treasure gifts for the local rulers from the emperor. He acted according to the principle that “What I give out is more valuable than what I will receive from you”. He went further by sharing China’s advanced knowledge with the locals, extending generosity to the wider public, for instance through passing on agricultural knowledge and This instance through ensured that the winwin followed as it encouraged the local

We have traversed more than 100,000 li (50,000 kilometers) of immense water spaces and have beheld in the ocean huge waves like mountains rising in the sky, and we have set eyes on barbarian regions far away hidden in a blue transparency of light vapors, while our sails, loftily unfurled like clouds day and night, continued their course [as rapidly] as a star, traversing those savage waves as if we were treading a public thoroughfare.

people to want to reciprocate through bilateral trade. Zheng He’s efforts to pursue the sustainability of the relationship ensured longerterm success. For instance, he acted to keep the sea lanes open by pursuing pirates. In this way, he maintained peace and the balance of political power. Finally, he endeavoured to build ongoing trust by improving the lives of those he visited: one example was the way in which he enlisted the help of his Chinese doctors to administer to the local

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generate a return,” Professor Hum concluded.


Sun Tzu or Sunzi was a Chinese military general, strategist and philosopher during the Zhou dynasty’s Spring and Autumn Period. He was born with the name Sun Wu and known outside his family by the style name Changing. He is traditionally credited as the author of The Art of War and, accordingly, has been Asian history and culture, both as the author of the treatise and as a

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population. In truth, Zheng He’s 15th century philosophy is remarkably modern in its outlook, echoing the principles that underpin Web 2.0. Today’s online business models often feature a similar approach, for instance many smartphone apps tend to be given away free. Then users may choose to buy the premium version once they have begun to trust the app and the organisation that has built it.

Zheng He was a Hui-Chinese court eunuch, mariner, explorer, diplomat and admiral, who commanded expeditionary voyages to Southeast Asia, South Africa from 1405 to 1433. He was a favourite of the yongle Emperor, whom he had helped rise to power. Zheng He climbed to the top of the imperial hierarchy and served as commander of the southern capital Nanjing. However, he fell from grace when there was a change of regime.

ZHENG HE IN THE MODERN ERA Bringing Zheng He’s philosophy up to date, delegates suggested that, when applied to sales, such an approach would involve more focus on the customer. His spirit of generosity would be captured not in an unethical way, say via bribery, but through techniques such as free trials, as sell online apps.

core of the sales methodology. However, this does not preclude a ‘Challenger’ approach, if it adds more value for the customer, Creating a win-win scenario is at the heart of Zheng He’s ethos and modern-day sales. Research by Consalia has established that these ideals are very far from what customers actually tend to experience during their day-to-day interactions with

salespeople. Interviews found that customers most often associate traits such as ‘manipulation’, ‘supplier-centricity’, ‘overt arrogance’ and ‘complacency’ with salespeople. Consalia has found that the positive values customers look for in salespeople centre on:


Zheng He’s seven voyages took place between 1405 and 1433. He covered a distance of over 50,000 km during this time, traveling to Southeast Asia, South Asia, the

AUTHENTICITy Zheng He’s transparency theme; CLIENT CENTRICITy to be more customer focused; PROACTIVE CREATIVITy numerous voyages; and TACTFUL AUDACITy Challenger approach. HOW TO DO BUSINESS ZHENG HE-STyLE

Although Zheng He commanded a vast army of followers and crew, he sought to promote trade and economic growth instead of building an empire under his rule.

1. Articulate your intent 2. Practise generosity 3. Build the win-win 5. Build trust on an ongoing basis

The ships of Zheng’s armada were as astonishing as its reach. Some accounts claim that the great baochuan, or treasure ships, had nine masts on 140 meter-long decks. The largest wooden ships ever built, they

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Professor Hum Sin Hoon – GST6 keynote