Why being “global” in Japan is not just about English language skills

by Anna
Published on: March 8, 2014
Categories: Japan
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Why being “global” in Japan is not just about English language skills

I had the opportunity to attend a symposium on global talent development two years ago in Tokyo.  “Global Talent Development” or “Guro-baru Jinzai Ikusei” (グローバル人材育成) has been the business buzzword for the last couple of years among Japanese companies struggling to find a way to help their businesses successfully expand globally against the background of a dropping birth rate and a Japanese economy slipping behind its Asian neighbours.

“Global personnel” or “globally-minded personnel” tend to be defined in Japan as individuals who, (a) are able to communicate effectively in an environment of diverse views, (b) can demonstrate effective leadership in order to achieve a mission as part of a global strategy and, (c) have the knowledge and ability to manage overseas offices outside of Japan. (*1)

There is a tendency in some Japanese businesses to interpret “global personnel” simply as individuals skilled in English language and with experience working in different cultures.  This has resulted in most Japanese companies being quick to set up English language training and increased international assignments for Japanese staff.

In addition, Japanese companies are also hiring more non-Japanese staff but are struggling to understand how to successfully bring non-Japanese employees onboard.  Although Japanese companies are shy about revealing figures on retention rates, my informal chats with HR managers at Japanese companies and some publicly available information indicate that high turnover rates are becoming more of a concern.(*2)

My belief is that Japanese businesses are struggling not simply because of employees with lack of English language skills, but rather because traditional Japanese culture works against the characteristics that are required for a company to adapt in a global environment. That is, in order to adapt to a more rapidly changing international environment, Japanese organizations need to be able to develop a workforce that is better at learning and adapting to new circumstances quickly.  This means that organizations need to be better at becoming “learning organizations”(*3)

So what does being a learning organization mean? In short it means,

(a) Creating a supportive learning environment that allows for appreciation of differences and openness to ideas.
(b) Development of processes that support learning and experimentation,
(c) Demonstration of leadership that supports learning (*4)

However, traditional Japanese culture can make it difficult for some organizations to put in place these fundamental aspects of a learning organization.

I’ll be writing further on this topic and expanding on the specific aspects of Japanese culture that are obstacles to creating a learning organization and practical steps to take to overcome these obstacles.  I look forward to sharing ideas and hearing how your organization is addressing the challenge of global talent development in Japan.

In case you are interested in reading into exploring this topic in more detail, I have summarized the main resources I used for this article below.

(*1) Akisato (2008) Kyuumu no kadai: Nihon kigyou wa guro-baru jinzai wo donoyouni ikusei subeki ka. [An urgent task: how to help Japanese businesses develop global personnel] Kigyou to Jinzai, December 2008. 4-9. Link to original document in Japanese here: http://www.global-jinzaiikusei.com/img/0406.pdf
(*2) Japan Society for the Promotion of Machine Industry – Economic Research Institute. (2010). Monozukuri kigyou ni okeru gaikokujin kenkyuukiahatsusha no senryakuteki katsuyou [The strategic application of foreign researchers in the manufacturing sector]. Kikai Kougyou Keizai Kenkyuusho H21-32A. Link to summary of paper in Japanese can be found here:
(*3) Senge, P. M. (2006). The fifth discipline: The art and practice of the learning organization. (rev. ed.) New York: Doubleday
(*4) Garvin, D. A., Edmondson, A. C. & Gino, F. (2008c). Is yours a learning organization? (Interview with David A. Garvin & Amy C. Edmondson) Harvard Business Review Magazine March 2008. Link to original article can be found here:http://hbr.org/2008/03/is-yours-a-learning-organization/ar/1

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