Historical Kunming Part 4: The Dawn of Kunming

Now that we have a rough framework of dynastic history upon which to hang our tale, we can now tell the story of the dawn of Kunming.

Yuanmou Man

Kunming sits at the northern tip of Lake Dian. Lake Dian has been a home to people as long as there have been people.  The fossil record includes lufang ramapithecus from 8 million years ago and yuanmou man from 1.7 million years ago, and archaeological finds show that modern man has been living there continuously for at least 30,000 years.  But Kunming itself has its origins in the Warring States Period (475-221 BC).



One of the main states that gave the Warring States Period its name was the kingdom of Chu.  Chu started as a fief of the Zhou dynasty, and was ruled by a viscount, who ruled from a city in what is now Henan Province.  In 977 the Zhou ruler died; the dynasty started neglecting it southern holdings, and Chu started growing more and more autonomous.  By 703 BC, the ruler of Chu was openly styling himself King, openly asserting an independence that was not contested.  Chu grew in size and power (as well as in corruption and bureaucracy) until, by the time the Zhou dynasty had completely dissolved, Chu was one of the leading states of China, and a contender for imperial aspirations.

Our story starts towards the end of the Warring States Period, about 70 years before the establishment of the Qin dynasty.  Chu was looking to expand, and the logical direction was south.  Qin, though not yet an imperial power, was already the most powerful state in China, lay just to the west.  Wei and Qi to the north less powerful as Chu, but either could weaken Chi enough to make it a target for Qin.  But even more than that, the south offered control of valuable trade routes with Burma and India.  So in 280 BC the king of Chu deployed an army led by a general named Zhuang Qiao with orders to conquer the territory that is now Yunnan province.

Seal from the Kingdom of Dian

Over the next ten years General Zhuang was able to fulfill his orders, and succeeded in placing most of the region under his control. But then something happened that changed the situation entirely: Chu was invaded by Qin.  The Qin armies marched across the south of Chu towards the coast; General Zhuang and his army were cut off from their capital.  But as far as we can tell, the general saw this not as a problem but an opportunity.  Zhuang declared that the territory he had conquered was now the Kingdom of Dian, and named himself as its King.  His army married and assimilated with the local tribes, and settled themselves on the land surrounding the lake.  And General Zhuang established his capital at what is now Kunming.

Belt ornament from the Dian Kingdom

This small independent kingdom survived for well over a century, outlasting the rise and fall of the Qin dynasty.  In 109 BC the great conqueror of the Han dynasty, Emperor Wu of Han (who also appears in the earlier post Historical Kunming 2: Discourses on Salt and Iron), conquered the neighboring states of Laoshan and Mimo, and the king of Dian decided to submit to Han voluntarily rather than be conquered.  This submission was rather more in name than substance though; Dian routinely raided Han trading missions.  And in 109 BC, after Dian massacred a Han trading party passing through with gifts intended for the far away nation of Bactria, Emperor Wu decided he had had enough.  He emptied the jails in his capital city of Chang’an (modern day Xi’an), declared amnesty for any fugitives who would turn themselves in, and formed these into an army that finally brought Dian into submission and joined it to the empire.

So there you have it, the story of how Kunming was founded, and came to be part of China.

Travel booked! #ibmcsc

I got word last night that our friends at Digital Opportunity Trust have confirmed the booking of my travel plans.  I arrive in Kunming on 12 October, fly from Kunming to Beijing on 10 November, and return home to the UK on 17 November.  The intervening months will fly by in the blink of an eye.

Meanwhile on the home front, my wife was just accepted to graduate school, and in September will begin studying for her masters in psychology at the University of Derby.  She will begin her studies in late September, shortly before I head off.

What an amazing summer it has been.



China at the Olympics

It is 18:00 on Thursday 2 August as I write this. We are one week into the London Olympics.  My family and I have seen one of the three live events we have tickets for (beach volleyball), and watched a number of other ones on TV, all of which we have enjoyed.  So now I find myself looking at the medal tables…

  • My adopted country, the UK, is ranked fifth overall with 14 medals, 5 of which are gold.
  • My home country, the USA, which I proudly (and loudly) root for, is second place overall with 31 medals, 14 of them gold
  • And while they are not as crushingly dominant as they were as Beijing in 2008, China commands an unmistakable first place in the world rankings, with 18 gold medals and 32 medals overall

I look at this result and ask myself how I feel about it.

And you know what?  Despite all the accusations, the recriminations, and the other assorted moaning and wailing, I find that my reactions to all of the above are almost entirely positive.

Let’s talk about China first.  I have read the accusations about Ye Shiwen, and find them baseless and small-minded.  Nobody leveled such accusations about Michael Phelps’ astonishing superiority of mens’ swimming in 2008.  This is nothing more than thinly veiled xenophobia.

The fact is that China deserves its place at the top of the rankings.  Start with the world’s largest population.  Add to this a personal work ethic that no other nation in the world comes close to matching.  And layer on top of this the huge investment that China makes in its athletes, with over 3,000 dedicated athletic training centers around the country.  This investment, this dedication, this passion for excellence has paid off.

Let’s look at the UK next, fifth in the rankings overall.  If you ask most British people how they feel about this result, you will hear a lot about opportunities missed, but the reality is  an admirable result.  Let’s look at the numbers: the UK is 6th in a ranking of countries by GDP, 22nd by population, and 80th by size.  Their performance far outstrips countries that ought to be beating them handily.  I attribute this to their excellent education system (both public and private) and to a strong sporting culture. Recall that the Brits were key drivers in the resurrection of the Olympics in the first place (interestingly, their medal ranking in the first modern Olympics in 1896 was the same as it is today: fifth).  And finally, hats off to the UK for a fabulous opening ceremony.  The Olympic rings, forged and hammered out of molten steel, is an indelible image that will burn in my mind forever.

And finally, what about the US?  If you read the editorial page of the newspaper in any major city, you will find a host of discontent that we have fallen behind China in the overall medal results.  But I see a very different message

  • China has four times as many people as the US
  • Despite having a GDP one third the size of the US, China outspends the US on the development of its athletes by at least two to one
  • An aspiring athlete in the US must find a way to pay for their education, coaching, and development; all but the proven top echelons need to stay in full-time employment while training.  An aspiring athlete in China belongs to a program that fully supports and caters to all their needs, removing anything but training from their list of worries.

And yet, despite all of China’s inherent advantages, the US manages to stay in very close competition with China.  This is nothing short of amazing, and makes me very proud to be American.  Why do we continue to do so well?   This is a great question.  I have some ideas, but want to think about it and read some more before I venture an opinion.

Meanwhile, tomorrow will be a big day at the Olympics:

  • Wujdan Shahrkhani, one of the first two women that Saudi Arabia has ever sent to the Olympics, will be competing in women’s judo.  I wish her every success.
  • My favorite beach volleyball team, Kerry Walsh and Misty May-Treanor, whom I have supported since Athens in 2004, enters the elimination rounds. They won all three matches in the preliminary rounds, but in the last match they lost one of their sets — the first time that has ever happened.  Do they have a third consecutive Olympic gold medal in them?  Soon we shall see.
  • And finally, our amazing football team plays against New Zealand in the quarter-finals.  I’ve got tickets for the semi-finals, which means that if the Americans win tomorrow, we get the thrill of going to one of football’s greatest shrines, Old Trafford, to cheer our team to victory!

These then are my thoughts on the Olympics so far.  I salute the Chinese team and congratulate them on their victory so far.  But stay focused, China, and keep striving for excellence.  We are close behind and do not give up easily :-)

Sources and more information

  • As usual, most of my facts and figures come from Wikipedia.  The usual disclaimers from using a publicly editable data source apply.
  • The gold medal image comes from the Guardian; the picture of Ye Shiwen and the US football team comes from the Telegraph. Both are British newspapers
  • Finally, I want to recommend an excellent article, also in the Guardian.  Written by a British swimming coach who was hired by China to come be a coach within their swimming program, it gives a very insightful inside view into China’s investment in athletic excellence.  You can find it here:
    Chinese athletes at these Olympics train harder than anyone in the world

Historical Kunming Part 3: Chinese dynasties

So…  my intent for this week’s post on the history of Kunming was to talk about the dawn of Kunming: the start of its transformation from one of a group of Bronze Age villages on the shores of Lake Dian into a genuine city, the capital of a rebel general cut off from his homeland.

But as I got deeper and deeper into this story, it became more and more clear that I was telling a story with no anchors, cast adrift in a series of names and places, kingdoms and dynasties, that would mean nothing to someone who had not already studied at least some Chinese history.   So before I tell the story of the dawn of Kunming, I would like to give you the basic framework by which the Chinese themselves account their history: the tale of dynasties.

But before simply listing them out, it is worth asking: what exactly makes a dynasty anyway.  Unlike periods of British or Egyptian history (amongst others) that use the same term, a Chinese dynasty does not imply rule by a single family of rulers.  Instead, it is related to a uniquely Chinese concept:  天命  (Tiānmìng), referred to in English as The Mandate of Heaven.  So what exactly is The Mandate of Heaven?  How does it work?

When we are taught western history, we learn that the medieval basis for royal legitimacy was founded on a notion called the Divine Right of Kings.  This asserts that a monarch is subject to no earthly authority, deriving his right to rule directly from the will of God. The king is thus not subject to the will of his people, the aristocracy, or any other estate of the realm.  Over time, and influenced by the downfall of a number of tyrants in bloody civil wars, a new basis for legitimacy emerged in the west: the consent of the governed. (Most notably espoused by John Locke in his Two Treatises of Government).

The Mandate of Heaven is far older than either of the western bases for political legitimacy, and incorporates elements of both.  Similar to the Divine Right of Kings, the Mandate of Heaven asserts that heaven (天 – Tiān) blesses the authority of a just ruler, and gives to him the authority to govern.     But in other ways, the Mandate of Heaven more closely resembles Locke: If a ruler becomes despotic or tyrannical, Heaven withdraws its mandate and that ruler is overthrown.  Therefore, the successful overthrow of a ruler is viewed as an indication that the ruler has lost the Mandate of Heaven, and provides a ready (if post-hoc) justification for people to rise up against a ruler who treats his subjects poorly.

A Chinese dynasty, then, is a period of time in which the Mandate of Heaven was successfully held by a single group, clan, or in two cases, foreign powers.  I have made below a list of the generally acknowledged ones, with one key disclaimer:  The changeover from one dynasty to another was never a planned, orderly thing, and usually happened over a period of several years or even decades.  Thus, you are guaranteed to find disagreement about almost every one of the dates I give here. I make no claim that the ones I give here are authoritative or even a prevailing view, but they do give a good basic idea of when these things happened.

So with no further ado, here for your reference is a mildly annotated list of the main Chinese dynasties.  As the purpose of this timeline is to give context rather than comprehensive taxonomy, there are other smaller dynasties between these that I have omitted.





2070 BC

1600 BC

Since its beginnings predate the establishment of written history in China, the Xia dynasty’s origins can only be speculated at from archaeological findings, and from Shang dynasty records.

1600 BC

1029 BC

Began when Cheng Tang overthrew the last Xia ruler, Jie, at the Battle of Mingtao.

1029 BC

476 BC

Divided into Eastern and Western dynasties, the traditional form of Chinese writing first appeared during this period.
Warring States Period

475 BC

221 BC

A period of civil war, in which no one group held the Mandate of Heaven.  The famous military treatise by General Sun Tzu, “The Art of War”, was written during this period.

221 BC

206 BC

Despite being short (only 2 rulers), the Qin dynasty had a profound impact on Chinese history.  The Qin is the first Imperial dynasty; its founder Qin Shihuang was the first emperor of China, and also started the building of the Great Wall.

206 BC


Considered to be a golden age of Chinese civilization.  The main ethnic majority in China still call themselves Han, and the Chinese written language is still called Han Characters.
Six Dynasties Period



Another period of civil war between dynasties. The great Chinese literary classic, The Three Kingdoms, was written about this period.  Due to the pervasive influence of this Ming-era romantic novel, there are many books, movies, poems, and other works of art set during this period.



Like the Qin dynasty, Sui rule was ruthless and tyrannical, and in similar fashion it quickly lost the Mandate of Heaven.



Another golden age of culture and learning.  The system of imperial examinations for government positions, largely in place to this day, was established at this time.



This period was marked by significant advances in both gunpowder and rice cultivation, but not enough so to withstand the invading Mongols.
Yuan (Mongolian)



China was conquered by Kublai Khan, a grandson of Genghis Khan. But despite their military prowess, the Mongolians were largely assimilated by Chinese culture and civilization.  Marco Polo’s sojourn in China happens during this time.



Chu Yuan-chang removed the Mongols from the throne, undertook great infrastructure projects, and started projecting Chinese power abroad.  The Great Wall reached its current form, and the Treasure Fleet made contact with European colonial powers.
Qing (Manchurian)



Ming generals invite the Manchurians into China to help end a civil war; after doing so, they take China for themselves and rule for almost 300 years.  But as with the Mongols, the Manchurians quickly assimilated Chinese culture, and the basic form of local  government and civil service was as in earlier dynasties.
Republic of China



Though not a monarchy, the Republic is held by many to be a dynasty in that it enjoyed the Mandate of Heaven for longer that either the Qin or Sui dynasties.
People’s Republic of China



As with many dynasties before it, the Republic collapsed through corruption and misrule, and the Mandate of Heaven passed to its current holders, the Chinese Communist Party.

Sources: Most of this comes from memory; the dates are from Wikipedia.

Food of Yunnan 2: 宜良烤鴨 – Yiliang Roast Duck

Under the old British Colonial system for spelling Chinese words with roman characters, called the Wade-Giles system, the capital of China,  北京  (literally “northern capital”) was called Peking.  In 1958 the Chinese government published their own official romanization scheme, called Pinyin.  In Pinyin,  北京  romanizes to Beijing, and after the US normalized relations with China in 1979, Pinyin became the international standard and English publications around the world started calling the Chinese capital Beijing instead of Peking.

But though the capital is now referred to universally as Beijing, the old usage of Peking still survives in a few places.  One is in the name of China’s top university, which is still referred to as Peking University – don’t ask why; a good friend of the family got her degree there and even she doesn’t know.  Another such linguistic remnant is that culinary marvel: Peking Duck.  Most of you will at some point have eaten or at least heard of it: a whole duck, slow-roasted for over 24 hours in a special oven through a special and involved process (see the Wikipedia article), served with thin pancakes, green onions, and hoisin sauce.

Peking duck has been around a long time – the first known mention of it was in a cookbook published in the year 1330.  And in 1901, during the closing years of the Qing dynasty, a Yunnanese restauranteur named Zhang Wen went to Beijing to study cookery there, most notably the art of preparing Peking Duck.  When he returned to his home town of Yiliang, he opened a restaurant called Zhibin Garden at the local train station.  But restauranteur Zhang was not content to merely reproduce the Beijing Duck of the capital; he wanted to localize it and make it something unique to the region.

Zhang used a mud oven instead of a brick oven, honey instead of malt syrup for the glaze, and most distinctively pine branches and needles instead of the Gaoliang hardwood normally used for Peking duck.  The end result is now called Yiliang Duck and has become a Yunnanese speciality.  One I certainly intend to try when we arrive.


History of Yiliang Duck: China Daily and welcomechinese.com
Photos: Yunnan Tourism Administration and the Ming’s Footprints travel blog


Meeting the team!

Well, the project has become that much more real.  This week, I got the chance to meet the other members of my China deployment team, otherwise known as Team China 18, for the first time.  It was strange — from everything I heard and read about the IBM Corporate Service Corps, I went into this teleconference already expecting everyone to be articulate, passionate, and as excited about this endeavor as I am.  But knowing it and feeling it first hand, even over the phone, are entirely different, and I have to say I was really impressed by the people I will soon be working with.

As our first group assignment, we had put together slide pack to introduce ourselves, both to our prospective clients and to one another.  To share this slide pack with you, I have created a permanent page on the blog — see About Team China 18 in the menu bar above.  Head on over and meet the team!  You’ll be hearing a lot more about them, and with any luck you may be hearing from them directly, in the weeks and months to come.

Caroline’s questions…

The highly successful blogger Ruth Dela Cruz, herself an IBM Corporate Service Corps alumna, gave me advice early on that to hold people’s interest I needed to season my writing liberally with photos and graphics,  and since following her advice my readership has jumped up substantially. This post, however, will have to be an all-text post, so my apologies to Ruth and the rest of you….

Caroline Ashworth is a good friend of the family who has been following this blog since I started it.  Yesterday on Facebook she sent me the following post:

I don’t understand why your assignment location is so far away and others as well.

Do IBM consider local need or the environment in which those selected to participate in this programme live and work?  The realities of each individual’s daily need?

What about philanthropy?

Is this project an act of philanthropy? Or do the destinations selected pose viable for future IBM revenue?

Sorry but I have been reading your blogs and am not sure I have captured the essence of purpose of all this.

Not to say that I haven’t found you blogs very interesting though.

It feels like they set the criteria for selection so high that as an outsider it looks like and internal award ceremony for the Victoria Cross.

What are the proposed outcomes of it and objectives?

Just trying to understand it better that’s all.

Caroline runs a local organization called Bringing Communities Together,  which develops and delivers short tailor made learning programs, activities and events that benefit families and the wider community. So she is no stranger to community support work , and she raises some good questions and some fair challenges. I’d like to respond to them here.  Many of these questions are connected, and I see three main themes here:

  • What is the goal? Is the IBM Corporate Service Corps philanthropy or strategic investment?
  • How does IBM decide which communities to invest in?  I also think there is an implied challenge here: why isn’t IBM investing locally instead of to the far-flung corners of the world?
  • Within each community, how does it decide which businesses/schools/organizations to work with?
  • Why does IBM set the barriers of participation so high?

What is the goal? Is the IBM Corporate Service Corps philanthropy or strategic investment?

IBM is a public corporation, owned by its individual shareholders.  These are people like you and me.  In fact they are you and me.  I own IBM stock, and any of you around the world whose retirement savings are invested in any major mutual fund are also likely to be part owners of IBM.  We invest money in IBM, and IBM agrees to do their best to give us a return on our investment, either through dividends or appreciation in the stock price.  If an IBM officer or employee takes our money and uses it for another purpose (e.g. sending the kids to university, taking a holiday in Tahiti, or remodeling a backyard tennis court), there is a word for that: embezzlement.  Which is just a fancy word for theft.  Even if this embezzler is a higher-minded individual and uses the money to start a center for the homeless instead of lining their duck pond, the principle is still the same (see my post Corporate Philanthropy: A Walk on the Dark Side for more on this topic)

The only defensible way that a publicly held corporation can engage in any kind of philanthropy is by clearly demonstrating that doing so will have a direct impact on the return to its shareholders.  This return does not have to be monetary: the highly successful initiative to get institutional investors to divest stock of any company doing business with the apartheid regime of South Africa is a great example of this.  But nevertheless, a company’s philanthropic investments have to be clearly tied to either principles or objectives that shareholders approve of.

So the answer to this first question is that the IBM Corporate Service Corps is philanthropic in that it gives away free services that IBM can and does otherwise charge for, to communities and organizations that could otherwise perform them.  But the CSC is by no means a random act of kindness; it is a strategic investment that IBM hopes to benefit directly from in several ways:

  • By targeting communities and organizations that have the potential to grow into paying IBM clients, and directly helping them succeed in that growth
  • To contribute directly to IBM’s good reputation and brand awareness, both of which are clear differentiators from its main competitors
  • To enhance the global effectiveness of its employees by giving them hands-on experience in radically different cultures and operating models

How does IBM decide which communities to invest in?  I also think there is an implied challenge here: why isn’t IBM investing locally instead of to the far-flung corners of the world?

Let me answer the challenge first, because it is an important one.  IBM does act locally.  Corporate responsibility is a good example of the non-monetary returns that many of today’s shareholders demand on their investments.  IBM invests heavily in local concerns, particularly in the areas of education and the environment.  In fact, with specific regard to you and your organization Caroline, there is a program called On-Demand Community that lets me directly nominate individual community organizations for small grants in exchange for a commitment of volunteer service; let’s talk about how I might be able to do something for Bringing Communities Together next year.

The other thing to remember is that IBM is a global company with a direct presence in 170 countries.  So in a very real sense, every CSC deployment is local.  My deployment in China, the teams currently deployed in Ghana and Kazakhstan, previous CSC deployments to dozens of other countries, all of these are backed by local IBM offices in those places.  Those local offices are led by local community members, and get the credit for bringing in teams of international

So why don’t the local offices mobilize local IBM employees to work directly in their own communities?  Surely that would be far cheaper, and it would allow those precious relationships to be built by the IBM’ers most directly placed to capitalize on them.  Well, I do not run the CSC, nor am I the one deciding its investment strategy, but I would speculate that this decision was taken for two reasons:

  • Distribution of skills.  IBM has many different product offerings: hardware, software, consulting, research, even advertising (I believe IBM Interactive is the fifth largest online advertising agency).  These capabilities are not evenly distributed across IBM offices around the world.  In my own specialty, CRM, such skills are decidedly localized.  The Corporate Service Corps provides an infrastructure for getting individual skill sets where they are needed the most.
  • Investment in cultural awareness and global capability.  IBM needs leaders who can design, deliver, and operate large, geographically distributed solutions.  By sending prospective leaders to areas far outside their normal operating environment, IBM is building this capability as directly as possible.

Within those communities, how does it decide which businesses/schools/organizations to work with? 

This sort of assessment is not within IBM’s core competency.  And while IBM has offices in most of the regions the CSC deploys into, these offices do not usually have the sort of logistics expertise to successfully manage the sort of large multinational deployments that the CSC requires.  So to help with this aspect of the operation, IBM partners with major NGO’s who do have their core competency in these areas.  The NGO that I will be working with in my deployment is called the Digital Opportunity Trust (see my previous blog post Meet the Digital Opportunity Trust for more about them).

Why does IBM set the barriers of participation so high?

Well, with regards to Caroline’s initial query, I think that obtaining a Victoria Cross is still quite a bit more difficult :-)  Let’s put some numbers to things here.  To be eligible for the CSC you have to have been within the top 25% of performers worldwide for at least two of the past three years.  IBM employs about 420,000 people, so if you assume most people’s performance ratings are relatively stable then there will be about 100,000 people each year that are potentially eligible to participate.  IBM has budgeted around $50M for the CSC as a whole, which allows for several hundred people to be deployed each year.  So the bar is not set impossibly high, but selection is still highly competitive.

How does IBM decide who to select? As I referred to above, IBM considers the Corporate Service Corps to be first and foremost a leadership program.  In this regard it has two aims:

  • To makes its leaders better prepared for true global operations
  • To retain those top performers and keep them from moving to IBM’s competitors

The first goal is hard to measure, since there is no effective way of comparing the results to a control group.  The second goal is much simpler to measure and the results speak for themselves…

Of the roughly 2,000 people who have successfully completed a CSC deployment since the program began in 2008, not a single one has left IBM.

A hint of what lies ahead… #teamchina18

Yesterday we received the first indication of what challenges lie ahead.  Digital Opportunity Trust, our NGO facilitator, sent us the following little tidbit of information

The following table presents several options for continued high impact CSC program opportunities in China building on the past successful CSC Program implementations of DOT with IBM in China during 2009 – 2011. The final scope of work will be decided upon discussion with local partners and stakeholders.

Supporting Local Industrial Cluster Development Helping local Hi-Tech industry cluster in guiding local private economy, especially SMEs engaged in ICT, service outsourcing, bio-tech and modern processing/manufacturing to move toward a good and healthy development Local Hi-Tech Industrial Parks
SMEs Transformation and Innovation Helping local government in building a smarter strategy in upgrading competitiveness and international business cooperation. Using IT technology in creating a worldwide network Local commercial bureau
Supporting Local NGO/Industrial Ass. Development Supporting Youth/Women  entrepreneurs development Youth League/Woman entrepreneurs association, etc.
Community Service Interacting with rural schools by involving IBM China’s ODC programs Education Organization, selecting 1-2 rural high schools

Many of you reading this are not familiar with what I do on a day-to-day basis, and might well read this and and think to yourself, “That doesn’t actually tell me anything about what he will actually be doing!”.

Some of you, however, have a deep working knowledge of my profession, in many cases greater than my own, while others of you will be colleagues who actually work with me on a day-to-day basis.  You will greet the above table with a knowing smile, and say to yourself, “That doesn’t actually tell me anything about what he will actually be doing!”.

Rest assured, this lack of specificity is not lost on me.  I’m certain this is because the DOT are still working with the targeted organizations to finalize the scope of our engagement, and are probably just now figuring out the team assignments.  In truth it makes sense for them to wait until these tasks are complete to share such details with us.

But that doesn’t make the waiting any easier :-)

First conference call with our team members is Thursday; am really looking forward to meeting them.


Historical Kunming Part 2: Discourses on Salt and Iron

Historical Kunming Part 2: Discourses on Salt and Iron

Salt making in the time of Marco Polo

They also have brine wells, from which they make salt that is used for food by all the inhabitants of the country.  And I assure you that the king derives great profit from this salt.

So wrote Marco Polo when he visited Kunming in or near the year 1282 AD.  The king was a son of the emperor Kublai Kahn, grandson of Genghis Kahn and the founder of what the Chinese referred to as the Yuan Dynasty.  This Mongolian emperor, like the Chinese emperors both before and after him, enforced a complete monopoly on the manufacture and sale of salt throughout all of China.  And it was in Kunming that one of these salt production centers was established.

In reading about this monopoly,I came across an amazing connection between modern and ancient Chinese history, one that I will enjoy sharing with you…

Emperor Wu of Han

Our story begins around 110 BC, during the reign of Emperor Wu, seventh emperor of the Han Dynasty.  Emperor Wu was known for lavishing money on territorial expansion (which he was very good at), extravagant displays, and “advisors” aligned with his many superstitions. And in the time honored tradition of other despots, from Pharaoh Khufu to Louis XIV, Emperor Wu’s grandiose visions nearly bankrupted his empire.

But just as Louis XIV came to rely upon the genius of Colbert to save France from economic ruin, so too was Emperor Wu served by one of the period’s great economic thinkers: his agriculture minister Sang Hongyang.  It was minister Sang’s idea nationalize the production of salt and iron, selling back to the public at regulated prices. Though wildly unpopular, this monopolization was a huge financial success for the government, and bankrolled many further conquests, extravagances, and superstitions for the rest of Emperor Wu’s reign.

Regent Huo Guang

But when emperor Wu died, many people, particularly scholars in the provinces, argued for a return to the lasseiz-faire policies of previous Han emperors.  These people became something vaguely akin to a political party, and styled themselves the reformists.  Officials of the central government quite naturally argued that the central government should retain the monopoly; these officials styled themselves modernists.

The newly crowned Emperor Zhao was only 8 years old when Emperor Wu died, and China was ruled by a regent named Huo Guang.  Regent Huo had no desire to see this disagreement break out into civil war. So six years after the death of Emperor Wu, he ordered the reformists and the modernists to gather at court to hold a great debate that would resolve the issue.  That debate was known as the Discourse on Salt and Iron; its proceedings have survived to this day.

Agriculture Minister Sang Hongyang

A compromise was agreed.  Some monopolies, most notably that on liquor, were abolished.  But for the most part, the modernists (who were led in the debate by Sang Hongyang himself) were judged to have won the day, and the government got to keep its salt monopoly, though Sang himself would be executed a year later for involvement in a plot to have the regent killed.  And the salt monopoly has survived from that day until now.

Taken on its own, this story would be just a mildly interesting historical footnote, an insight into what official life was like two thousand years ago in the world’s oldest surviving civilization.

But let us fast forward now to 2009 and take a look at the actions of a certain government official Chen Guowei, Supervisor on the Enterprise Supervision Board of the State Asset Supervision and Administration Commission.  Supervisor Chen had proposed that the salt industry be liberalized and eventually privatized.  These reforms were supported by many Chinese businesses, but opposed by consumer groups, who feared instability, speculation-fueled price bubbles, and fears over quality control of iodization (for many Chinese, salt is their only nutritional source of iodine, a key nutrient).  And so in the spirit of long-deceased precursor in Chinese government, Supervisor Chen held a meeting on Salt Reform.

The arguments raised in that meeting have echoes over two thousand years long.


  • Most of the story of Emperor Wu, Regent Huo Guang, and Minister Sang Hongyang come from Wikipedia and linked Chinese history sites
  • The report on the 2009 salt reform meeting comes from East Asia Forum
  • And the Discourses on Salt and Iron themselves?  The ones written two thousand years ago?  Still available on Amazon :-)

IBM Differentiates Itself From the Pack. Something to share with the people we engage…

A great article today in the Technology section of the New York Times on how IBM is differentiating itself from the increasingly commoditized high tech industry.

I definitely recommend taking a look at this.


Look for a full post tonight, a continued exploration of the history of Yunnan.  Learn how little has changed between 87 BC and 2006 AD.


Ashima, a folktale from the Yi people of Yunnan

The Stone Forest, Yunnan Province

In the heart of the Stone Forest, a remarkable limestone formation about 60 kilometers from Kunming, is a very special stone called the Ashima stone.  Legend has it that this stone was once a beautiful woman named Ashima, which literally translates as “more precious than gold”.  How did she become a stone in the Stone Forest?


China’s first color movie

There is a long epic poem that tells the story.  It is hundreds of years old, but was first written down in 1813. The legend of Ashima figures into local marriage customs, and was the subject of the first color movie made in China, in 1964.  The best English synopsis I was able to find comes from the University of San Francisco; it reads as follows:



Once upon a time, a girl was born in a poor Yi family. Yi people were one of 56 of the nationalities in China. The parents hoped the girl would be as beautiful as flowers and as shiny as gold. They named her Ashima.

When Ashima grew up, she was very beautiful. Many young Chinese men were attracted by her singing and dancing. But Ashima was in love with Ahei, who was a brave and wise young man. They were engaged to each other at one of the torch festivals for Yi people.

One day, when Ashima was on the market, she met the son (Azhi) of the village leader. Azhi thought Ashima was very pretty. He wanted Ashima to marry him instead of Ahei. Azhi was very rich, and Ahei was very poor. Still, Ashima loved only Ahei and wanted to marry him.

When the fall came, Ahei had to leave the village to work in the field. When he was gone, Azhi kidnapped Ashima and forced her to marry him. Ashima cried and insisted she loved only Ahei. This made Azhi very angry. He whipped Ashima until her whole body hurt. Still, Ashima believed Ahei would come to rescue her.

When Ahei heard about Ashima’s kidnapping, he rode his horse home without delay. When he got to Azhi’s door, Azhi would not let him in to see Ashima. Then, Azhi proposed a song contest with Ahei. The contest lasted for three days and three nights. Ahei won the contest, and Azhi had to open the door for him.

After the contest, Azhi asked Ahei to stay overnight in his house. He promised to let Azhi leave the next morning and take Ashima with him. However, it was a trick. During the night, Azhi unleashed three tigers to kill Ahei. But Ahei was ready for the attack, and killed the three tigers with three arrows. The next morning, when Azhi found all the dead tigers, he allowed Ashima and Ahei to leave together.

But Azhi did not give up. He wanted to kill Ashima since he could not keep her. When Ashima and Ahei were playing by a river, Azhi used his power to flood the river. Ashima was drowned. Ahei could not find her. He kept calling Ashima’s name, but he heard only his echo.

Ashima was turned into the river stones. Later, whenever Ahei missed Ashima, he would face the stones and call out Ashima’s name and talk to her. He always heard the echo of a response. In this way, Ahei lived with his beloved Ashima forever.

I am very much looking forward to visiting Ashima when we go to Kunming.  Who knows; maybe she will talk to us.

Photos from Wikipedia and china.org.cn

A trusted advisor helps me answer last week’s questions…

Last week, I posted about a McKinsey report that projected workforce demographics into the year 2030:

  • 38 million to 40 million fewer workers with tertiary education (college or postgraduate degrees) than employers will need, or 13 percent of the demand for such workers
  • 45 million too few workers with secondary education in developing economies, or 15 percent of the demand for such workers
  • 90 million to 95 million more low-skill workers (those without college training in advanced economies or without even secondary education in developing economies) than employers will need, or 11 percent oversupply of such workers

In that post I raised some questions:

  • How does a company like IBM need to set its strategic objectives to survive and thrive in what promises to be a highly chaotic work environment?
  • How does the IBM Corporate Service Corps fit into such a strategy?
  • The report presents this evolution as inevitable.  Is it?  Are there any new, disruptive approaches that could stave off this impending gap?  I’m thinking in particular of disruptive education policies and the rise of freely available primary curricula along the lines of Kahn Academy; how can we leverage this kind of approach to make the size of the gap smaller?
  • Finally, and most importantly, what does this mean to me as a parent?  How do I advise my children as they decide how they want to shape their own lives, and help them plan their future?

I am still ruminating on the first two questions; my gut tells me I won’t have an intelligible answer until I go out in the field, gain some first-hand experience, and have a chance to learn from other people doing the same.  But I have made some progress on the second two, after consulting with one of my closest, most trusted advisors:  my eleven-year-old son Artemis.

Artemis guides a robotic arm through an obstacle course at the Farnborough Air Show

I gave Artemis a copy of the McKinsey report to read and asked him what he thought of it.  He told me that the answer was obvious: if there are 45 million too few workers with secondary educations and 90 million unskilled workers without jobs, then if we educated at least half of those 90 million workers we would solve one problem and halve the other.

Socratic dialog being the norm in our household, I then asked him how we go about achieving that goal.  He thought about that for a while, and then told me that it would be very expensive to educate all the children in African villages, and that the dictators in those countries would just take the money.

Then he asked me the million-dollar-question…  “what difference do you think I can make?”  I had been hoping for that question.  I talked about disruptive strategies, ways to get education into the hands of people directly, bypassing corrupt governments entirely, and making it free so that anyone could afford it, no matter how poor.  I must have been overbearing in my passion, because he got a worried expression on his face and said, “That’s a lot of pressure, dad.  I don’t think I could ever live up to your expectations of me.”

That threw me for a loop, because he was absolutely right.  Any idea that started with me, would instantly be taken as pressure, and had the potential to turn what could be a grand adventure into a living hell.  And talking further, Artemis and I realized there were really a million different ways a child might act on the information in that report, and use it to shape life choices.  Some of the ones we came up with together:

  • Being able to access free educational content like Khan Academy requires speaking English or one of the other languages it has been translated into.  Working on a way to make language instruction itself available globally would be a huge enabler
  • A child with an interest in engineering might direct his energy to concentrate on a way to distribute free access to a browser and an internet connection, so that all this magnificent content would be truly accessible even to the most impoverished.
  • Finally, along a very different line of thinking, that many unemployed, unskilled laborers is a certain recipe for political unrest.  A child who cared about protecting her family or country might well be inspired to serve in her country’s police or armed forces.

And it was over the course of this conversation that my role as a parent became clear to me.  My son and my daughter have to decide what future they will make of their lives.  What I have to do as a parent is make sure they understand enough about where the world is heading so that they can make decisions that are relevant, well-informed, and directed towards bringing about the sort of world they want to live in.  I ran this thought by Artemis, and he informed me that was the right way to do it.  And then he asked if he could play Assassins Creed II on the Xbox.

There are some days where being a parent is the best job in the world.

The Kunming Wolfdog

One of the group activities for Team China 18 this month is putting together an introduction pack for DOT to use in introducing our team to the communities we will be working with.  Each of us are supposed to provide a mix of professional and personal details about our lives that will help people to know us better.

In these slides, several of my colleagues have indicated a fondness for dogs; this got me wondering if there were any notable breeds of dog from Kunming.  And sure enough there is one.   So Brett and Renata, I give to you the Kunming Wolfdog.

The Kunming Wolfdog

The breed was started in the 1950’s in response to the need for a common standard of dog for China’s military and police corps.  In 1988 it was recognized internationally as a distinct breed.  The main antecedents are German Shepherds and a group of wolf-dog crossbreeds developed in Beijing, but there were also a number of house dogs of indistinct breed in the initial breeding pool; detailed pedigrees were not kept.

Physically, they strongly resemble German Shepherds, but their wolf heritage is evident in the taller rear haunches and in how they carry their tail.  They are a very active breed, and require significant exercise every day to stay healthy and happy.  The breeding guides all say that they require at least one long walk every day.

They are primarily working dogs and seldom kept as pets, though this may be changing over time.  But even though they are mainly working dogs, the breed is quite popular.  There is an annual dog show in Kunming every October that features the breed.  The 2011 show was held on October 15, so it is not impossible that we will be there at the right time.

The 2011 Kunming Dog Show

So there you have it.  The Kunming Wolfdog.  I shall keep my eyes posted during my visit for a glimpse of this very handsome looking hound.

Corporate Philanthropy: A Walk on the Dark Side

By now I have had the opportunity to talk with most of my colleagues on Team China 18.  We are quite unanimous in our excitement about the upcoming adventure, and there is a shared bond of understanding between us about what we would like this to mean:  to IBM, to the organizations and communities we will be working for, and to ourselves.

But a question has been nagging at my brain for the better part of a month now: if doing this is such a positive thing for everyone involved, why is it new and innovative?  If it benefits everyone as much as it seems to, why hasn’t it been established procedure for every major corporation worldwide?

With that in mind, I trolled the web to find people who thought that what we are doing is a bad idea.  And the web being the magical place that it is, it should surprise no one that I had little difficulty in finding some.  The main theme of this critique appears to be that corporate philanthropy is no more or less than direct theft and malfeasance of funds from shareholders.  Some specific examples:

On 21 July 2010, Jamie Whyte wrote an article in the Wall Street Journal entitled “When Corporate Theft is Good”.  He points out that were a corporate manager to give $100,000 to an outside party that has not provided the corporation with commensurate goods and services, in most circumstances that manager would be guilty of embezzlement.  But if the outside party happens to be the manager’s favorite charity, then for some inexplicable reason it is not only legal but encouraged.

Earlier the same year, Daniel Indiviglu wrote an article in The Atlantic criticizing Glaxo-SmithKline for donating a large body of anti-malaria research into the public domain.  As quoted by the National Conference on Citizenship in one of their featured discussions:

Indiviglu questioned the integrity of this decision, stating the intellectual property had been financed as an investment by the company’s shareholders. He made the argument that the “Glaxo management decided to take investor dollars and donate the profit that may come from it”—the profit that shareholders had perhaps invested in hopes of receiving. Ultimately, he states that without “explicit shareholder approval, [it is] unclear how this is different from taking investors’ money and misappropriating it.

My emotional reaction to this argument is immediate; I feel contempt for such rapacious small-mindedness.  But however much I may dislike it, I am forced to admit that the logic behind the position is not only sound but compelling.  The only possible refutation available to a corporate manager is that corporate philanthropy is a sound business investment – in other words, that an investment in charitable work produces more shareholder value than the cost of that work, at rates of return better than would be available if the money were spent some other way.

This is serious business.  Our headlines are awash with examples of corporate management squandering shareholder money.  Where is the evidence that we are not doing the same?  The good news is that such evidence abounds.  And since I assume that anyone reading this blog has an interest in the subject, I would encourage you all to acquaint yourself with the evidence, because the burden of proof us on us.

Without it, we are nothing more than thieves.


Is Corporate Philanthropy the Same as Stealing? National Council on Citizenship, 23 July 2010

Making the Business Case for Corporate Philanthropy.  Harvard Law School Forum on Corporate Governance and Financial Regulation, 20 August 2011.

Photographs: Stanley Quan, Sox First

Food of Yunnan 1: 过桥米线 – Crossing The Bridge Rice Noodles (guòqiáo mĭxiàn)

Amongst his observations of Yunnan and Kunming, Marco Polo noted that the people there were particularly fond of raw meat.  Like most people, I tend to associate raw fish with Japanese sushi and raw beef with Italian carpaccio or east European steak tartare.  Uncooked meat is frequently brought to the table in China, but only to be cooked there by the diners themselves; not once in all my visits to China have I encountered a dish in which meat is eaten raw.

Is the eating of raw meant something unique to Yunnan then?  Or have people simply outgrown their taste for it?  It has been over 700 years, after all.

Armed with curiosity, I resolved that I would spend the next part of my life dedicated to a deep, thorough, and comprehensive study of Yunnanese cuisine.  In other words, I googled around for about half an hour looking at some web pages. And while I didn’t find any dishes that resembled those described by Marco Polo, I did find many delightful things to share with you.

So without further ado, I give to you that most iconic of Yunnanese delights, Crossing the Bridge Rice Noodles, or 过桥米线 (guòqiáo mĭxiàn).

Most people seem to agree that the recipe for Crossing The Bridge Rice Noodles is somewhere between one and two hundred years old.  There is not nearly so much agreement on how it got its name, I found the most fully realized telling of the most common story on a food adventure blog published by a couple in Vancouver called Chowtimes, which I have reproduced below.  They in turn appear to have gotten it from a sign posted on the side of a food stall in Yunnan itself.  Like many Chinese translations the prose is quirky, and calls out the many grammatical differences between their language and ours.  But unlike many Chinese translations, I find that this passage loses none of its ability to communicate a sense of wonder and delight…

Cross Bridge Rice Noodle is a special dish of Yunnan. It is originated during the Qianlong period, nearly 200 years ago. There is a popular legend regarding its origins.

It is said that a scholar in Mengzi, who was preparing for the Imperial examination, went to an island in the Na Lake everyday to study. His wife went across the bride to the island to bring his meal to him. Owing to the long distance, he had to eat the meal cold everyday.

Accidentally, his wife discovered that a greasy chicken soup is not easy to get cold. What’s more, fresh ingredients, such as seasonal vegetable, fresh meat and so on, can become edible by putting them into this kind of boiled soup.

From then on, the scholar could have a delicious and hot meal everyday. Because his wife went across the bridge everyday, the rice noodle made this way was named as Cross Bridge Rice Noodle.

By now, the Cross Bridge Rice Noodle has a distinct development. The most important factor in this noodle is the soup. It was made with natural hen, pig bone and ham. It needs to be boiled for over 6 hours until the soup become savory and the oil from these are distilled.

The next thing worth mentioning is the ingredients. There are two kinds of rice noodles. The proper kind is the slim one, which is good at keeping the flavour of the valuable soup. The ingredients can be divided into two categories: vegetable and meat. The vegetable used are dependent on what is in season. The meat is focus on slice. The thinner the better, so the slice meat is one of the characteristics of the Cross Bridge Noodle.

Last but not least, the process of eating is special. The right orders are as follows: firstly, put the meat slice in the soup, then the vegetable, the last one rice noodle. Minutes later, a hot colorful and delicious Cross-Bridge Rice Noodle is ready.

So there, in authentic Chinese English, is the story of Crossing the Bridge Rice Noodles.  As you can see in the above photo, the final dish is built at the table by the diners themselves.  That is probably the thing I enjoy most about Chinese food in general; more than any other cuisine I know of, the eating of Chinese food is designed to be a social activity, shared with family, friends, and colleagues.  I cannot wait to come to Kunming and try it with my team.

Historical Kunming Part 1: Kunming and Yunnan as seen through the eyes of Marco Polo

Most places in the world are steeped in history, and that history often defines the culture of its inhabitants.  Nowhere is this more true than China, and the canonical history of civilization that we receive as  westerners is almost completely silent about one of civilization’s most dominant cultures, a heritage that far outdates ours in enlightenment and sophistication.  Every western traveler to China I have ever spoken with (myself included) is at some point daunted by a sense of how much of the story we have missed.

To ensure that my team and I miss slightly less of the story this time, I will be trying to learn a little of the history of Kunming, and of Yunnan province.  And as an interloping westerner, it seems fitting that I start with the story of the most famous interloping westerner of all, Marco Polo.

Marco Polo was a Venetian merchant who in 1272 at age 17, went with his father and uncle on what was supposed to be a 2-3 year trade mission to China.  He ended up serving in the court of Kublai Khan, and stayed in the Mongol dynasty for almost 20 years.  His eventual return was badly timed; he arrived in the midst of a civil war in 1292 and was imprisoned for a further seven years.  His loss was our gain; having nothing better to do, he narrated the story of his travels to a fellow prisoner, a French romance author named Rustichello.  Upon their release in 1299, Rustichello published those narratives, and while the original manuscript is lost, various translations of the original survive to this day.

In Renaissance Italy it was considered right and proper to boast of one’s accomplishments; failing to do so was interpreted as a sign of weakness and subservience.  And while Marco Polo himself is portrayed to be a man of utter pragmatism, Rustichello was a romance writer by trade and unabashedly used the tools of his trade to their greatest effect when telling the tale of Marco’s travels.  For both of these reasons, the truth of some of the stories in this book must be taken with a healthy degree of skepticism. There can be no doubt that Marco and his father and uncle did go the places they claimed to have gone; their accounts of these places and the events that took place during their visit rings true with contemporary Chinese accounts of the same events.  On the other hand, there is no evidence whatsoever to support the central role in these events or the high position in the Mongol court that Marco assigns to himself.  In fact there is almost no mention of Polo’s twenty-year sojourn at all in Chinese historical records, only the scantiest hints of indirect evidence.  Certainly a foreigner so highly placed as Polo claimed to be would not have escaped the notice of otherwise inexorable Chinese scholars.

Where Polo’s account really shines though, is in his descriptions of the places and people he visits.  Unlike his biographer Rustichello, there is not the slightest flight of fancy in his worldview.  He notices those things that a merchant would deem important.  What items of value a region produces. Which roads are safe.  The abundance (or lack) of grain or livestock.  The quality of their horses.  Their religion and system of government.   And above all, health and temperament of the people.

So here then with equal mix of fascination and skepticism, is Polo’s account of Yunnan and Kunming, as he encountered them in around in the year 1282 AD.

On the farther side of the river Brius  lies Kara-jang, a province of such size and wealth that it contains no less than seven kingdoms (Kara-jang was the Turkish name for Yunnan, and Brius for the Kin-sha-kiang, one of the sources of the Yangtze).  It lies towards the west; its king is the Great Khan’s son, whose name is Essen-Temur, a very great king and rich and powerful.  He rules his land well and justly, for he is a wise and upright man.

After leaving the river, the traveller continues westwards for five days, through a country with numerous cities and towns which breeds excellent horses.  The people live by rearing animals and tilling the soil.  They speak a language of their own, which is very difficult to understand.  At the end of the five days one reaches the capital of the kingdom, which is called Yachi (Kunming), a large and splendid city.  Here there are traders and craftsmen in plenty.  The inhabitants are of several sorts: there are some who worship Mahomet (this is how Polo refers to Moslems), idolaters (Buddhists), and a few Nestorian Christians.  Both wheat and rice are plentiful; but wheat bread is not eaten here because in this province it is unwholesome.  The natives eat rice, and also make it into a drink with spices, which is very fine and clear and makes a man drunk like wine.

For money they use white cowries, the sea-shells that we use to make necklaces for dogs:  80 cowries are equivalent to 1 saggio of silver, which is worth 2 Venetian groats, and 8 saggi of fine silver may be taken to equal 1 of fine gold.  They also have brine wells, from which they make salt that is used for food by all the inhabitants of the country.  And I assure you that the king derives great profit from this salt.  The men here do not mind if one touches another’s wife, so long as it is with her consent.

Before leaving this kingdom let me tell you something which I had forgotten.  There is a lake here, some 100 miles in circumference, in which there is a vast quantity of fish, the best in the world.  They are of great size and of all kinds.  The natives eat flesh raw — poultry, mutton, beef, and buffalo meat  The poorer sort go to the shambles and take the raw liver as soon as it is drawn from the beasts; they then chop it small, put it in garlic sauce, and eat it there and then.  And they do likewise with every other kind of flesh.  The gentry also eat their meat raw; but they have it minced very small, put in garlic sauce flavored with spices and then eat it as readily as we eat cooked meat.

Let me tell you further that this province produces a sturdy breed of horses, which are exported when young for sale in India.  And you must know that it is the custom to remove two or three joints of the tail-bone, so that the horse cannot flick the rider with its tail or swish it when galloping; for it is reckoned unsightly for a horse to gallop with swishing tail. The horsemen here ride with long stirrups after the French fashion. Long, that is, in contrast to the short stirrups favored by the Tartars and most other races who go in for archery, since they use their stirrups for standing upright when they shoot.

So there it is,  an excerpt from the first notes of Kunming made by a western visitor to China.  To go deeper into Kunming’s history, we need to do what we as historians should have done from the start: listen to the Chinese themselves.  Next week, I shall attempt to do just so.

An Interview With Ruth Dela Cruz, IBM Corporate Service Corps, Team Indonesia 3

When you go into a bookstore in America or the UK (yes, they still have them), you will find one rack of shelves with business books and another rack with technology books.  Most of the remaining racks, and two of the three walls, will be packed solid with varying genres of fiction.  If you ever get the chance to visit India or Singapore or China, make a point of walking into a bookstore there. You will find one shelf of international literary classics printed in English, another shelf of the same works in a local language, and a third shelf of literature native to the country.  The rest of the store will contain books on how to succeed in business, technology, a foreign language, or some other capitalist endeavor.  These cultures are driven to succeed; they don’t have time to indulge in fiction
As an American, I always have a certain amount of envy when I encounter someone from another country who can rightly claim to be one of those directly responsible for their country’s future.  Don’t get me wrong, there is no country in the world I would trade my passport for; I am deeply proud to be American.  But there are so many bright and talented Americans, people who are making bold innovations in every possible field of endeavor, that the times I feel directly involved with my country’s success are few and far between.  But in many of the places I have traveled:  India, China, Thailand, and Singapore to name a few, I routinely get the opportunity to work with people who are critical to their country’s success every day.  The passion such people feel for their country, and for the importance of their own role in their country’s development, is truly humbling.
Ruth Dela Cruz is one of these people.  She is an IBM’er from the Philippines, clearly identifies outsourcing as one of the chief mainstays of the Philippine economy, and obviously derives great satisfaction from being a part of that success.
Not that Ruth is all work and no play.  Her blog Ruthilicous is a chick-lit romp through the bustling halls of Philippine retail excess, and she haunts those halls with unholy glee.  And the blog has clearly struck a chord; she sports hundreds of thousands of hits, and I am left with the impression that retailers sometimes try to curry her favor by sending her samples of their wares to evaluate.
Ruth served in the IBM Corporate Service Corps as part of Team Indonesia 3 in Makassar, and is now an IBM CSC facilitator in the Philippines.  And somewhere between the office and mall, I was fortunate enough to chat with her and get her to tell us a bit about her experience.  So here then is my interview with Ruth.  If you enjoy meeting her, be sure to pop over to her blog and say hello.  As before, my questions are in plain text and Ruth’s responses are in green.
How long have you worked for IBM, and what is your role?
I have been with IBM for 4 and a half years. My current role is a Mobility Practitioner. Basically, I assist IBM US employees and executives during their assignment/relocation to another country (mostly Asia Pacific). I provide them guidance on the assignment policy, their entitlements and allowances, and I also authorize third party vendors to assist them in immigration, taxes, settling to the work location/country and shipment of their goods. Most of the people don’t understand the work that we do, but let’s just say that we are here to ensure that our assignees can focus on their jobs during the start until the end of their assignment.
What made you decide to apply for CSC?
I always want to do something meaningful but because of busy schedule and all other things that I do, I just couldn’t find time to do it, So when I found out that a manager in our team was sent to Tanzania for the CSC, I got interested and applied. Luckily, I passed and I was sent to Indonesia with 9 other IBMers from different countries.
Was it hard to win the support of your management team, given that they would lose you for a month?  How did you go about convincing them that this was a good idea?
My manager is very supportive, from the time that I told her about my interest, to the time I applied and accepted the assignment offer, up to when I was already in the host country and got back home in Manila. I moved to a new role in the same organization and I received the same support from my current manager. Even the Geo Lead of our organization was excited about this journey. When I shared my experience to the whole team, a lot showed interest and plan to apply in the next cycle.
Tell us about your deployment project.  What was your team asked to accomplish?
There were 10 of us in the team, and we were grouped by partners. I and Cheryl (USA) were assigned in the local hospital. We helped them in designing a project plan on how to implement a green hospital. The others were assigned in the Transportation Office, Marine & Conservation Team, Education Department and Local Library of the city of Makassar.
Were your day-to-day job skills of any use?  Did you have to learn new skills?
Yes, especially effective communication, collaboration and time management, as well as creating and conducting presentations. I learned new skills such as consulting and understanding cultural differences.
What were your team’s finished results?  How were those results received?
We created a project plan for the hospital, including recommendations on how they can implement the goal (green hospital), Change Management and creating a Mission Statement that would be their guide including establishing short-term and long term goals.
We saw that the hospital employees are very interested because they asked alot of questions. They are forward thinkers and passionate about the program…
What was the most surprising thing that you learned from your CSC project?
It is about cultural differences. There were perceptions in my mind regarding certain religion or race but by interacting with the people I met, I got to better understand the differences and appreciate one’s unique culture and tradition.
Do you remember anything in particular that touched or moved you?
Our visit to the Juvenile Detention Center where we taught the kids how to use computer and search information in the internet. They were so happy to see us. Their lives were probably changed because of our visit, but they never know their stories changed our lives forever.
And what was your single most rewarding experience?
IBM helps me reach my goal – that is, to show people that one need not be a celebrity, executive or in a top position to be influential and make a difference. The whole experience is rewarding. It was my first time to travel alone in another country and to live with people I just met. It was amazing that despite differences in religion, skills, age and race, we got to  understand and support each other to reach the same goal. If there is one thing that is common among us, it would be the IBM values. But we discovered new things, swam in the deep sea, sang songs, and traveled together. I learned to enjoy each moment of my life. Oftentimes, if I think of the IBM CSC Indonesia 3 assignment, I wonder if everything was just a dream – a beautiful dream. I wonder if I would see and be with those amazing people from Brazil, US, India, Mexico and Austria. The IBM CSC is one experience that I will never get tired of sharing. 

what makes a good candidate for the CSC?

I think a good candidate, or should I say, a good IBM CSC volunteer is someone who understands that his/her responsibilities doesn’t end after the assignment. He/she has to live with the learnings and values he/she has embraced from the experience. Oftentimes, it is not about how good you are in your current role, but how you relate to people, and how you adjust in the new environment, with different people you just met (and probably would not see again). A good IBM CSC volunteer knows how to embrace change and appreciate differences. 
Thanks very much for sharing your time and insight with us Ruth!
Time allowing, there are a number of things I’d like to get done here on the blog in the coming week.  I did a third interview with Delaney Turner, but this one was done over the phone and I need to transcribe it.  I want to talk more about the DOT and some of the other work they do.  And finally, I’ve started reading about Kunming in history and would like to share some of the things I’ve found with you.  So I hope to be talking with you all soon.

An interview with John Fredette from CSC Team Kenya 2

One of the things I wanted to do with this blog from the start is to tell not just my story but the stories of the people I encounter.  One of the ways I’ve been doing this is by interviewing some of the people who have already completed their CSC experience.

I’d like to introduce you to John Fredette, who works in Corporate Marketing.  John worked as part of Team Kenya 2, and has a great blog which you can see here.  I’d encourage you to take the time and pay it a visit; I really enjoyed reading his insights; he does a good job conveying how he connected with his team, his clients, and with Kenya in general.

Here is our conversation.  My questions are in plain text; John’s replies are in green.

How long have you worked at IBM, and what is your role?

I have worked at IBM for 15 years, and have been fortunate to have worked in many different roles, primarily in marketing communications. Currently, I work in Corporate Marketing on the global advertising team. In this area, I manage the US media team – which is responsible for the paid media strategy and execution for all our advertising – including television, print and digital.

What made you decide to apply for CSC?

I was very interested in the CSC from the first time I heard about the program. The idea of deploying with a diverse team and work in an emerging market is alluring to me – and coupled with my love of travel, this was an opportunity I did not want to pass up.

Was it hard to win the support of your management team, given that they would lose you for a month? How did you go about convincing them that this was a good idea?

They were very supportive, as they understood the opportunity presented – and the business/skills value that would come back with me as a result. That said, I did have to come up with a coverage and backup plan, and had a lot to catch up on when I returned to the office. It was well worth it, though!

Tell us about your deployment project. What was your team asked to accomplish?

There were 12 IBM’ers assigned to our group – and we were split up into 3 groups, working with different divisions within the Government of Kenya. My group was assigned to work with the national postal corporation – who, like many other postal entities around the globe, were suffering from declining revenues and an antiquated business model. Our task was to provide recommendations for improvement – from adding government services, to creating partnerships with banks, to organizational restructuring.

Were your day-to-day job skills of any use? Did you have to learn new skills?

It was interesting – I was the one true ‘marketing’ person on the Kenya team, so the majority of marketing & communications responsibilities were mine to own. From developing market research, to planning awareness initiatives, I brought my everyday skills to the table throughout the whole project. The challenge was the setting – you could not take the same tactics from a mature market like the U.S. and immediately apply them to an emerging market like Kenya. The principles remained the same, yet you had to be flexible in the approach.

What were your team’s finished results? How were those results received?

We ended up providing some very forthright recommendations to the client team. These involved not only new services and potential restructuring, but looking at a whole new strategy for how they operate. The team recognized the situation they were in, and were very receptive – and I’m pleased to since our deployment, they have rolled out many of the initiatives we recommended. There was some press about this recently, which can be seen here.

Article in Business Daily Africa

What was the most surprising thing that you learned from your CSC project?

Not really surprising – but I was amazed with the people of Kenya – from the government leaders to people on the street. Everyone was friendly, passionate about their country and eager to help us out in any way possible.

What was the single most rewarding experience?

Working with my amazing CSC team. We were 12 people from 9 countries, representing various backgrounds and skill sets. But once deployed, we immediately became a seamless team, working around the clock and each contributing our own unique skills. I keep in touch with all my team members today, and will always have a special bond with them.

Thank you John for taking the time to share some of your adventure with us.

John runs an active Twitter stream; I have frequently found his articles to be both interesting and useful.  You can follow him here.

The world at work: Jobs, pay, and skills for 3.5 billion people

Last month McKinsey released a report entitled: “The world at work: Jobs, pay, and skills for 3.5 billion people”. It looks at both global and regional job growth by education level, and maps those against regional population growth.  The patterns that come out need to be taken seriously.

  • 38 million to 40 million fewer workers with tertiary education (college or postgraduate degrees) than employers will need, or 13 percent of the demand for such workers
  • 45 million too few workers with secondary education in developing economies, or 15 percent of the demand for such workers
  • 90 million to 95 million more low-skill workers (those without college training in advanced economies or without even secondary education in developing economies) than employers will need, or 11 percent oversupply of such workers

So in short, there will be an enormous oversupply of unskilled workers and a similarly sized undersupply of highly edcucated workers, and both of these effects will be felt most keenly in developing economies.

Unemployment around the world will continue to grow, but there will be huge unmet demand for highly educated professionals in developing economies.  At the same time, those economies — with hordes of unemployed, and presumably angry, young adults — will be hotbeds of political instability.  Presumably the world will be a far more dangerous place then than now.

This raises a lot of questions in my mind.

  • How does a company like IBM need to set its strategic objectives to survive and thrive in what promises to be a highly chaotic work environment?
  • How does the Corporate Service Corps fit into such a strategy?
  • The report presents this evolution as inevitable.  Is it?  Are there any new, disruptive approaches that could stave off this impending gap?  I’m thinking in particular of disruptive education policies and the rise of freely available primary curricula along the lines of Kahn Academy; how can we leverage this kind of approach to make the size of the gap smaller?
  • Finally, and most importantly, what does this mean to me as a parent?  How do I advise my children as they decide how they want to shape their own lives, and help them plan their future?

None of these answers are particularly easy. But quixotic as it might be, I will have a go at it in the next post.

I strongly encourage you to read the article and download the full report, which provides additional detail on the regionalization of the issue.  You can find them here:

The world at work: Jobs, pay, and skills for 3.5 billion people

orld at work: Jobs, pay, and skills for 3.5 billion people

Meet the Digital Opportunity Trust

The job of facilitating the deployment of the IBM Corporate Service Corps each year is a daunting one.  Apart from the selection process, which I’ve already described, there are other major undertakings required to pull this off, such as

  • Training.  Many of the CSC participants do not have extensive world travel experience.  And while most of us have done some volunteer work on our own, community support is quite different from global development work.  So prior to our deployment we need to be trained and briefed on what to expect, how to behave, and on what will be asked of us.
  • Logistics.  Moving hundreds of people around the globe to a precise schedule is a non-trivial task.  Securing housing and living arrangements, dealing with visas and cross-country reporting and compliance rules are likewise significant tasks.
  • Local facilitation.  Once we arrive, we will be largely reliant on local support and knowledge for our day-to-day existence, for such basics as where to eat, laundry, medical care as needed, and also cultural guidance on the best way to engage with the people we are helping.
  • Most important of all, we are dependent on local service expertise to contact and build bridges with the communities and organizations we will be helping.

To help will all of these tasks, IBM works with a small number of NGO’s (non-government organizations) who specialize in programs like this.  The Digital Opportunity Trust (DOT), is one of the main NGO’s that IBM works with, and will be the facilitator for Team China 18’s deployment in Kunming.  To help ensure that I am successful in working with them, I went and did a little research on DOT.  Here are some of the things I found out…

  • DOT is based in Canada and was launched in 2002.
  • They are a major player. In addition to working with IBM, they help a number of other major enterprises with programs very similar to the Corporate Service Corps.  Some of their other clients include Cisco, Mastercard, and USAID.  They also work with Americorps, a domestic service organization in the USA, modeled on the Peace Corps.
  • As well as China, DOT have programs running in Egypt, Kenya, Tanzania, UAE, and Turkey.
  • Facilitating corporate service is only part of what DOT does.  Their main operation is working with recent university graduates and providing the same sort of training, facilitation and logistical support to enable those students to serve internships in which they teach IT, business, and entrepreneurship skills to communities around  the world.

This is a very well-thought-out business model; I’m really impressed.  By using the revenue they earn from their corporate clients to fund internships and teaching programs, they are effectively taking the investments that IBM and similar companies are making in their own employees, and leveraging those investments across a far greater community of both teachers and students.

By combining their efforts this way, both programs are able to reach and positively impact the lives of far more people than either would do on its own.  Businesses need to evolve at an ever more rapid pace to stay competitive.  In the same fashion, service organizations need to evolve as the needs of the of the communities they support change and intensify.  This kind of integrated program design is exactly what we need.

I am really looking forward to meeting Frank, Marianne, Leslie, and the rest of the DOT China team.