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Thursday, September 02, 2004

The Art of War as Business Strategy?

Sun Tzu's Art of War is a classic text that is touted as containing wisdom for today's military general, head of government or business manager alike. If you have not had occasion to come across this text yet, it is written almost 2500 years ago by a young scholar in the Chinese State of Wu. When the King of Wu found the text, he was so impressed with it that he made Sun Tzu his general, who ably led his army in victory after victory for the next 20 years.

About half a century ago, it was "discovered" by the West and popularized by James Clavell (author of such best-sellers as Shogun and Taipan). Management pundits like to talk about applying the principles taught in The Art of War in strategic management, in international relations and in warfare. I do not have a problem with its application in military affairs, but its wholesale, and in my view, childish adoption by business management experts to marketing, management and strategic business planning need to be tampered with caution. I crinch at the idea of businesses "conquering" customers, "colonizing" market territories and generally speaking, treating the business space as a theater of war. While some aspects of the disciplined approach taken by the military is welcome, and one might even argue, required, in business organizations, I believe that we need develop a different view that business is not entirely like warfare, that it is not all about just making a profit. Perhaps then, it would be easier to apply ethical principles in business.

From what I can gather, there are recent attempts at understanding Sun Tzu's original philosophy and its application to business by attempting to get a more accurate translation of the original and by a closer appreciation of its cultural context. Some recent works in this area can be found
here and here. In any case, I think there is something amiss about taking what was essentially a military handbook and applying all of it to business.

If we approach business as we approach all of life, with a view that everyone we touch should come out of that experience a better person, that they derive some value from the relationship, then it would make for a better world. No, methinks, business is more than merely warfare, in which there can be no real winners, but in which there are only losers in more ways than one. Business is more like a long-term love affair, where there can only be winners.

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