Monday, May 07, 2007

Clash of cultures: An American at the helm of a leading Korean institution

The American is physics Nobel winner Robert B. Laughlin. The institution is Korea Advanced Institute for Science and Technology (KAIST).

When the two were together for three years, the result was one heck of a disaster.

In an interesting, meta-cultural way, they even disagree on whether cultural clash was an issue:

Ryu Keun-chan, a member of Korea's national assembly who was involved in Kaist's oversight, cited cultural issues as a problem. Dr. Laughlin, he says, "could not communicate his ideas to students and professors."

Dr. Laughlin doesn't think that cultural issues played much of a role during his tenure. "I find that when Koreans bring up those subjects they're mostly trying to deflect the conversation away from the issues they really care about -- money and job security -- because talking about them in public is taboo."

The link to the WSJ article comes via Doug Natelson who adds an interesting perspective:

To be fair to Bob, the leaders of KAIST were crazy to hire him - all issues of personality clashes aside, he'd never managed a group of more than a handful of people, let alone an enormous research institution with a complex bureaucracy, large staff, and huge budget. Surprise: a Nobel prize in physics doesn't automatically imply success in extremely sophisticated management problems. It's also entirely possible that his assigned task was essentially impossible by design. An interesting read, anyway.