Why Most China Discovery Programs Don't Work?


Tourism is fun, transformation is hard.

A True Story

I stepped into the elevator. There were four guys in there already. I've just met them during the briefing session in the afternoon. I'd be leading a group of about 30 top executives from several global companies on a field trip the very next day. 

They also recognized me. 

One guy was holding a map in his hand. It was obvious that they were trying to figure something out in the map. 

Then one of them asked me: "Do you know how to get to this Japanese restaurant? It should be somewhere around the park near the hotel."

"I'm sorry," I said. "Haven't been in this city for almost ten years. Can't really help you on this one as it has changed so much since I was last here."

"But why do you want to go to a Japanese restaurant in China? Aren't you supposed to go to Japan next week?" I couldn't help but asked. "Well, I don't know where this Japanese restaurant is. But if you'd like to try some genuine Chinese food, you can come with me. My friends (a couple) are waiting for me in the lobby and they own one of the hottest local restaurants in town."

They gazed at each other. Then one guy murmured: "Why not?" 

When we arrived at the lobby, several other people from the same group were already there waiting. They talked for a minute and told me that they were coming along with us. 

"Can't we walk to the restaurant?" Someone asked. 

"Well, I'm sorry. But I don't even know where the restaurant is," I said. "And it is probably a bit more than walking distance. We will have to split into groups though as we can't fit into one car. Some can go with my friends' car. And the rest will have to take taxis from here." 

The group of 8 or 9 people was composed of European, American, Arabians and one Japanese as I recall. We arrived at the restaurant. My friends and I went on catching up at a separate table after getting the group settled down, with food and drinks.

Later, I heard that there were some issues with them paying with international credit cards. Then they resolved the issue among themselves as some of them had sufficient cash with them.

I was still catching up with my friends when they left. Some came to say thank-you and told me that they'd walk back to the hotel. 

We parted there. 

The next day, we had three visits in total in a nearby city. It was a long day as we had to get up really early trying to accommodate a packed schedule. At the end of the full-day program, I left for the airport directly and the group took the bus back to the hotel. 

I was told later that some people went back to my friends' restaurant. Apparently they had really good experience the night before. What I didn't expect though was that it somehow turned out to be quite a drama. 

What happened was that they didn't have enough cash, even if they knew that the restaurant had issues with accepting international credit card. Plus the staff on duty didn't speak much English. Apparently some big guys showed up from nowhere and the group were almost forced to exchange US dollar into RMB (perhaps even at an unfavorable rate) and settled the bill. 

How does it work normally?

Over the years I have worked with many foreign delegates in China on their so-called 'China Discovery' or 'China Expedition' trips or programs. These trips or programs usually have the following things in common: 

  1. It lasts one or two weeks (mostly one week). The one-week program works the best because it is a reasonable time frame that executives can take off their busy work schedule. Plus, people can travel over the weekends. That gives the effective time on the ground for about 4.5 or 5 days. 
  2. Most of the trips or programs are organized by business schools or consulting/training companies. They usually operate on the following models: 
    • Outsource: The easiest way is to use an external vendor to organize the whole trip. Such vendors can be local business schools, local companies, local agencies or independent professionals. 
    • Partnerships: Some of the programs are jointly organized, or organized as part of an international or exchange program. 
    • Do-It-Yourself (DIY): In theory, the "Do-It-Yourself" (DIY)  model works on the assumption that the program directors or managers organize the discovery or expedition trips by themselves. In reality, however, they still rely heavily on their vendors or partners on the ground. 
  3. The format of such discovery or expedition programs is usually a blend of lectures, company visits, guest speakers, field research/interviews, and/or delivery of project assignments. 

Why they don't work?

The above real-life case was just a great illustration of why most of the Chinese Discovery Programs don't work. 

Supposedly, it was almost the end of their discovery program or expedition trip. I met the group on the second last day of their one-week program in China. Plus the following day we went on a full-day field visit where they had direct contact with different groups of people in China instead of staying in the hotel conference rooms.

By then, they should have had some first-hand experience. Yet, they still had the embarrassment at the local restaurant.

Real transformation rarely occur on such trips. Why?

  1. First, the mentality hasn't changed. Most people don't get on such programs with the objective to achieve perspective transformation. It is just one of the trips to a foreign country, China in this case, and an eye-opening experience at best. In the case above, the group had already been in China for four full days when I met them in the elevator. And they were going to Tokyo afterwards. Yet, they were looking for the Japanese restaurant instead of maximizing their exposure while in China.  
  2. Then, it is easy to stay in the comfort zone. It is understandable that some of them wanted to go back to the same restaurant because they had great experience there the night before. Still, a safe assumption would be that they went back because they knew the place. It was an easy choice and they didn't have to stepped out of their comfort zone and navigate the unknown. 
  3. Last, knowledge doesn't equal change. For those who had been at the restaurant the night before, they should have known that the restaurant had issues with accepting international credit cards. Shouldn't they have learned something and have been able to avoid the drama completely?

As the ancient saying goes,

When in Rome, do as the Romans do. 

If you were on such programs at the expense of the organization, shouldn't you at least immerse yourself in the local environment and culture and maximize your learning?

Simple as that. 

Questions: Have you been to China? Have you been on a China Discovery Program or Expedition trip? How was your experience? Please share with us in the comments below.