(The following is an interview with an HR magazine in Brazil regarding Sun Tzu and business.)
HR Mag: Why Sun Tzu call his book The Art of War?
In Chinese the title, Bing Fa, has an array of meanings, but it translates better to “Military Procedures” or, more broadly, as “Competitive Methods.” The Chinese character translated as “war,” bing, does not mean “war” in the western sense of fighting battles, but describes the concept of competition between nations. The Chinese character translated as “art,” fa, means a set of skills, procedures, or methods. Sun Tzu defines Bing Fa specifically as “the skills that determine survival or destruction of an organization.”
The title “The Art of War” came to us from the first Western translation, which was the French, L'Art de la Guerre. This particular title may have been chosen because it was the title of a book by Machiavelli popular at the time (late eighteen century).
HR Mag: What was his principal objective?
His objective was to offer a detailed model of how competition works and why some are successful while most fail. One of his major purposes was to describe why smaller often forces beat larger ones, how new rivals beat dominant positions, and why the rules of running a nation (organization through planning) did not apply to the rules of competition (positioning through strategy). The later requires constantly adapting to fast-changing circumstances rather than executing plans.
HR Mag: Why did you use the title “The Art of War in all your books, too?
This is the title that people know. Almost all of my books contain the complete text of Sun Tzu’s work. Most of them add to this a line-by-line adaptation or explanation of the original text from the language of the military world to the language of the specific challenges of the business world. The original Chinese in which Sun Tzu wrote was a conceptual language, more like mathematical equations than spoken sentences. They were written to apply broadly to competitive strategy in general not to specific military techniques.
For example, in reading Sun Tzu, you will not discover what weapons the ancient Chinese used, how they organized their troops or any specific skills such as archery, swordsmanship, etc. mentioned. Sun Tzu’s only interest was in the elements that are generic to all competition, the human mind and the changing conditions in the competitive environment.
HR Mag: What were the difficulties that you had in writing your books ?
Creating a complete glossary of Sun Tzu’s strategic concepts, consistent both with the use of ancient Chinese (very different than modern Chinese) and the traditions of Chinese science and philosophy in his period. This work has taken many years and involved not only studying the ancient Chinese writings but the six main philosophical schools of his period.
This lead to the unexpected discovery that much of Sun Tzu’s work was based on a graphical system of organizing scientific concepts according to the key elements, called the Bagua. Without understanding this basis, much of Sun Tzu’s work sounds like vague aphorisms rather than the formal scientific work that it is, much more akin to Euclid than Confucius.
HR Mag: What contributions do the Sun Tzu ‘s book and yours make to the world of HR (Human Resource )?
Sun Tzu and Sun Tzu's strategy makes a clear distinction between the planning skills needed for production and the strategic skills needed for competition. Business leaders must understand that the methods of top-down planning so effective in organizing a factory do not work in the external environment of our increasingly competitive world.
In a factory, we can tell people what to do because we control the environment. In competition, we cannot tell people what to do because we can never control the environment. Every situation is different and people must be trained to recognized and respond to their situation not look for any answers in a book of rules. People on the front lines dealing with the public must know how to make creative decisions that serve the organization’s mission.
We must hire and train people on the front lines very differently than we hire and train people within the protective environment of the factory or internal office. Companies grow because their people (not just their managers) are in touch with the dynamic, external environment. Companies die when they grow so big that they lose touch with that environment?
HR Mag: What message you would like to pass the HR audience ?
We live in an age where the competitive advantage of planning is dwindling and the competitive advantage of strategy is growing. The entire world has mastered the art of mass production. Very few people have mastered the art of mass competition.
HR departments have a huge opportunity to shift from training people in the standard operating procedures of the factory to the creative strategy of front-line decision-making. The organization who will prosper will be those whose HR departments train the front-lines—the salespeople, the service technicians, the customer service representatives, the credit officers, etc.—how to make more competitive decisions every day instead of just doing what they are told.