Korean business positioned to practice corporate citizenship the 'right' way

At the end of 2012, I was honored to be invited to speak to a group of 500 executives in Seoul at the Korean Institute for Social Responsibility (KOSRI) meeting and film festival (original news item on Korea’s EtodayEnglish translation). Business has been an impressive engine of change in Korea – moving the country over the past 60 years from war-torn poverty to levels of prosperity that are on par with developed economies. It seems like progress can be endless in Korea and that anything can be achieved with hard work.

Seoul is a beautiful mix of ancient culture and futuristic modern architecture. My hosts were extremely welcoming and eager to understand and apply concepts of global corporate citizenship that have been developed in American and European corporations. While there, I was invited to the headquarters of a major Korean conglomerate to meet with the executive in charge of the company’s corporate citizenship initiatives. His team presented for our response, a comprehensive plan to orient their corporate citizenship around the work of a prominent U.S. academic who has a recent best-selling business book focused on cause marketing, which is a relatively new concept there.

In the course of our conversation, the executive shared with me almost as an aside that the founder of the conglomerate had espoused as part of the corporate culture from the beginning of the enterprise, the company as a dojang. Do (道) means “the way” or “art” and Jang (場) means “a place,” which makes dojang the place where one practices the way – or more specifically, as the executive explained to me – the “right” way. The “right” way evokes the same kinds of values in Korea that it does in the U.S.: being sustainable, ethical, generous, and fair. My advice was to use dojang as the organizing principle for the initiative rather than to adopt a more novel and foreign approach.

I was struck by how much we can learn from each other and how the human impulse is to equate new with superior. So much of what is central to good corporate citizenship can be found in the layers of meaning embedded in the concept of dojang. Research shows that companies benefit more from adopting citizenship efforts that have obvious and logical connections to their cultural context and their core competence and that a longer duration of investment also yields greater credibility and, therefore, a greater likelihood of success.

We look forward to working with our colleagues at KOSRI and to more dialogue with our Korean colleagues. I was reminded that new perspective can help us see the value of things we take for granted. For that, I thank my hosts for the opportunity to be reminded and to have the opportunity to learn with and from each other. Chodae haejusyeoseo gamsahabnida.