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In this Asian century, who in business is talking the talk?

Are we unprepared for the so-called Asian Century? A new report saying we rate poorly on Asian knowledge and languages is a wake-up call to corporations, writes business journalist Charis Palmer.

How do you teach an old white man new tricks? That’s the question facing corporate Australia as it wanders into the Asian Century woefully unprepared.

Today’s CPA Australia report on competitiveness finds Australia rates poorly in its knowledge of Asia and Asian languages, and is just another in a long line of warning bells that ring in the face of the rhetoric suggesting Asia will save Australia from any major economic downturn.

CPA Australia wants study of the Chinese language to be compulsory for all primary and secondary students, but what of the directors and CEOs managing Australia’s leading companies now, many of which are dependent on Asia for growth? A change of mindset is required, says CPA Australia, to ensure Australia can be more than a peripheral player in the Asian Century.

That’s going to be a major challenge according to John Menadue, founding chair and board member of the think tank Centre for Policy Development. In July, Menadue said Australia had gone “on smoko” from Asia, with Australia probably less Asia-ready today than it was 25 years ago.

In a speech to the Asian Studies Association of Australia at the University of Western Sydney, Menadue left his harshest criticism for the business sector, which he said was failing to get its own house in order while talking up Australia’s potential in the region:

I don’t think there is a chair, director or CEO of any of our top 150 companies who can fluently speak any of the languages of Asia.”

Menadue said it was “obviously too late” for leaders to acquire Asian language skills but, worse than that, he argued the cosy directors’ club wasn’t even recruiting executives for the future with the necessary skills for Asia.

The CPA Australia report adds support to Menadue’s argument, revealing the perceptions of some 6000 business decision-makers from Australia and internationally. The respondents placed a relatively low level of importance on access to, and knowledge of, Asian markets and bilingual staff, while at the same time overestimating Australia’s integration with Asia.

CPA Australia is urging business leaders to attach greater value to Asian experience and knowledge when recruiting staff. That’s difficult when the cosy directors’ club seems only interested in promoting from within.

Take Pacific Brands, which today faced a second strike vote and potential board spill over executive pay. The Bonds, KingGee and Stubbies brand owner couldn’t be a more iconic Australian company, but even it had to face up to the new reality, sending manufacturing to China in 2009.

When Pacific Brands chief Sue Morphet resigned after the company posted a $450 million loss in August, who did the board choose to replace her? Not an executive known for their Asian experience, but a formal naval officer with strong leadership skills that chairman Peter Bush instantly hit it off with.

We’ve known for decades the impact the boys’ club has had on the representation of women in board and leadership positions. Pacific Brands is one of the few listed Australian companies that has a gender balance on its board.

But now we see the dominance of white men on Australia’s boards and executive committees has impacts beyond gender, and unless there’s change soon, Australia will miss out on the next growth wave.

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  • 1
    Tony D'Ambra
    Posted Tuesday, 23 October 2012 at 3:38 pm | Permalink

    Go to any Australian university graduation ceremony and you will be in no doubt that our tertiary education sector is making a massive contribution to Asian economic expansion. We have a fount of goodwill. Most likely it will be squandered by our xenophobia - which is not just business’ problem.

  • 2
    Paul Butler
    Posted Wednesday, 24 October 2012 at 9:23 am | Permalink

    I went to the International Directors’ Course last year run by the AICD and was staggered that hardly anyone there could speak an Asian language. Apart from people who lived in Asia (me and one other participant) everyone (participants and presenters) were mono-lingual and had a serious lack of understanding about the varied cultures in Asia. Maybe the next generation of leaders will have the language and cultural skills to enable Australian companies to exploit the Asia Century, but I don’t have much confidence

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