Low-cost labor remains a strong incentive for Western investors to manufacture in China, but design firms are telling a different story about human resources.
Andy Switky, president and general manager of Asia for Palo Alto, Calif.-based product design and development firm IDEO, said hiring has been the biggest challenge in China.
``We can overcome a lot of the cultural differences between Chinese and Western business styles, disagreements about pricing, and the value and the importance of branding,'' he said, ``The hardest I've had to deal with is hiring the right kinds of people.'' IDEO is not the only one, ``most design firms that I know have had a similarly difficult time hiring people'', he said.
Located in Shanghai - home to more than 50 colleges and universities - what qualifications is the IDEO China office looking for? Switky's answer is ``a depth in the area, like mechanical engineering, with a breadth of curiosity about other things.'' An IDEO person should work collaboratively with designer, engineers, manufacturers, so it's very important to be curious about what happens before and after his or her own part.
IDEO stresses the importance of collaboration in recruiting. But Switky was not talking about collaboration in universities - within a research team or lab. He referred to collaboration between designers working with ethnographers, cultural psychologists, and toolmakers. Chinese students are no strangers to the former type of collaboration, but the latter.
Creativity is also hard to find. ``Many engineers are not trained to think creatively,'' Switky said. ``Engineering is ultimately about technical problems,'' and good problem-solving takes a lot of creativity. Unfortunately, many Chinese engineers are narrowly focused in their jobs. ``When they get out of a job of designing mobile phone housings, they don't know how to design other products.''
Switky said education hasn't caught up with the experiences. Although some universities are doing a good job of teaching innovation and product development, when it comes to desired knowledge and skill, ``it's the industry that's pontificating.'' He said many Chinese firms are at a point where they do not need people to think creatively.
``I hope that changes ... it has to change,'' he said. The lack of creativity, the lack of desire for creativity and the lack of incentives for creativity, could influence far beyond an individual engineering graduate or a company. It's vital to the industry and the nation's economy. ``China itself will become a commodity if all it does is commodity stuff.''
But design is still far away from being integrated with Chinese manufacturing. ``Customers talk a lot about design, yet they are unwilling to pay for it.'' To most companies in China, design is an expense to be cut. ``Most of the customers do not understand design,'' so they choose design firms by costs, not value.
Also, many Chinese firms view design at its narrowest meaning, instead of the whole package and process. They miss ``lots of things outside straight industrial design that are critically valuable.'' Switky said most customers only want pretty pictures ``that are not marketable, do not have stories to it, and do not involve brand attributes of the company.''
Yet, consumers do value design. ``In a place for so long there wasn't enough stuff, now there's choice.'' People can choose between inexpensive but basic products and more expensive but better-made brand names. ``To say the Chinese are driven by low cost is not true,'' Switky said, evidenced by the success of luxury brands. ``In big cities and the east coast, there are enough people with enough money who aspire to that [western] lifestyle.
``Chinese companies are just getting to understand that they have to build their brands, and product design is part of it,'' he said. Exposure to innovative companies, either domestic or foreign, reinforces the tendency.
Sometimes innovation is stifled by corporate officials fearful of change. Switky said, ``Innovation is often about letting go of the established control, and letting things evolve in new directions. That's inherently a scary thing for people who have been playing by the rules all their careers and risen up to the organization.'' He said it is frustrating to do business with companies like this, either in China or the States.
Surprisingly, much of Switky's frustration in hiring comes from the absence of a commitment to a technical career in China. Every engineering graduate's goal is to become a manager in two or three years. ``That means you only have two or three years' experience as an engineer,'' he compared that to the West, where a lot of people have lifelong technical-oriented career goals.