Asian Century beckons for new head

Head and shoulders of Heidi Dahles. She is wearing a woollen scarf over a beige jacket.
New head of IBAS Professor Heidi Dahles says understanding the culture is crucial when setting up a business in Asia.

A chance meeting at a Jakarta university in 1995 first connected Professor Heidi Dahles with Griffith University. Now she has packed her bags and left Amsterdam to reconnect with Griffith, this time as the new head of the Department of International Business and Asian Studies at the Griffith Business School.

She remembers the hot Indonesian day 18 years ago when she struck up a conversation with a Griffith delegation looking for potential partner universities in the field of tourism research. The group had found their way to the university where she was an adjunct researcher.

Her research at the time was also tourism focused and an academic connection was forged. She later attended a related conference in Queensland on the invitation of her recently discovered academic peers at Griffith.

The connection dissolved when the Professor of Organisational Anthropology shifted her research focus at VU University Amsterdam from Asian tourism to business management in Asia. But when the opportunity to reconnect with Brisbane and Griffith arose last year, she seized it.

With the ongoing economic crisis triggering cutbacks across Europe’s university sector, she was keen to retain her Asian networks and maintain her Asia-centric research.

“In Europe there was a push for applied research that focused on problems and issues closer to home,” Professor Dahles says. “This meant cutbacks in areas like Asian studies. But Asia had been my focus for 20 years and I didn’t want to give it up.”

“I knew there was currently a White Paper focusing on Australia as being a part of Asia. Asia is valued here. I knew I could build something here at Griffith, and honour its long history and tradition of Asian studies.”

Honouring cultural context

Her approach as head of department is not only to educate students in the functional and operational elements of business management across Asia, but also to ingrain in them the importance of honouring the cultural and social context when doing business in Asia.

“I would encourage students to have knowledge of an Asian language. Some social level language skills show respect for the Asian people you want to do business with, but students should also think of the language as an instrument to becoming Asia proficient.

“Being totally Asia-proficient, however, reaches beyond language skills proper. It encompasses social and historical contexts too.

“Understanding the culture, society and history of the place where you want to set up a business are very important, as is developing an appreciation of the differences between Asian cultures from Malaysia to India to Japan.

“Don’t go to Cambodia and start a business there if you don’t know what’s happened there during the past 30 years,” Professor Dahles says.

“Doing business with Asian companies requires an understanding of the diverse range of ways they do business, and to study one country only is a mistake. One has to be flexible when it comes to studying business management in Asia.”

Griffith University has launched a suite of initiatives under its three-year ‘New Griffith 2013-2016’ program, signifying an intensive period of change and innovation.

Experience the New Griffith at Open Day 2013 on August 11 (9am-2pm).