Saturday, 23 October 2010

Adapting to the Rise of China and India

Both inside and outside Japan there appears to be a widely held view that economic decline due to relative lack of competitiveness, hollowing out of manufacturing and demographic change is inevitable. This seems to me an analysis based on the current situation, extrapolated forward on the assumption that nothing will change in Japan. Whether this scenario becomes reality or not depends on choices that have to be made in the near future.

The Japanese economy has adapted to external change successfully in the past (oil shocks, currency shifts) and has consciously directed itself through internal coordination over many years Europeans complained in the 70's and 80's about METI's "laser-beam focus" targeting key industries and before that Japan surprised the world by successfully shifting focus from low cost to reliable quality in manufactured goods.

The capacity for change exists, the difficulty is in identifying how to change and this is a daunting challenge comprising very difficult choices. Encourage "guest workers" as Germany did? Allow immigration to rise? Allow off-shoring to continue, decreasing the size of the domestic workforce required? Continue to compete at all levels in manufacturing or focus on higher value-added activities? Continue to manage capital through the establishment or unlock it for use by small, entrepreneurial companies? Emphasise social discipline and absorption of facts in education or shift the focus towards the skills required to prosper in a world where flexibility and "cloud teams" are the norm.

The odd recent focus on the Galapagos effect (somewhat reveling in Japan's inward-looking economy and celebrating its creation of standards that prevent it from succeeding globally with otherwise good products) is  a step in the wrong direction.

Japan can create a socio-economic model built on existing cultural strengths (consistency, reliability, the ability to refine and innovate, for example) and can add a degree of flexibility to create an edge over emerging manufacturing and service industry competitors. Many businessmen who have worked both in Japan and outside have a similar view - the strengths are clear, but the will to make them the basis for change and growth is lacking. There is an opportunity for Japan to define standards, set benchmarks in quality and design of goods and services and play a leading role in global teams but, currently, the tendency is to turn in the other direction - to globalise manufacturing, but to become more insular culturally. 

Rather than allowing the current opportunity to be lost, Japan should look outwards, make changes within and embrace a role as a gateway to Asia and beacon of order in the region.

Friday, 11 June 2010

Yes we Kan

Mr. Kan replaces Mr. Hatoyama as Prime Minister and effectively Mr Ozawa at the head of the Japan Liberal party. Mr. Hatoyamaa and Mr. Ozawa were ousted for financial irregularities. Mr. Kan was also forced to resign a few years ago for a few missed social security payments in his student days. He then embarked on a pilgrimage around the temples of Shikoku island and has clearly atoned for his misdoings. Perhaps the LDP politicians who engineered the review of his contributions and the bureaucrats who  aided and abetted them should also go on a pilgrimage...

Hopefully, Mr. Kan can compensate for the embarrassing Hatoyama effect and allow the experiment with a non-LDP government to continue. The alternative is too horrible to contemplate.

As the owner of a Japanese business, I am praying that the Liberals will last long enough to push through the planned reduction in corporation tax. At 5% it's not world shattering, but sends a  very positive message.

Saturday, 30 January 2010

Negotiating in Japan

The end of 2009 was very busy for AKI Japan. We supported strategic negotiations for two clients and negotiated agreements with suppliers from Europe and Asia.

One interesting point arising from these various activities was the range of negotiating styles and targeted outcomes. These divided along national lines and again within national borders according to company culture. Hardly groundbreaking discoveries, I hear you say, and, of course, you're right. But I found the experience and the outcomes interesting, not least because it all happened in a short time-period. I will write about this in more detail in future.

Going into 2010 we see a lot of cross-border activity: VW-Suzuki, Peugeot-MMC, Geely-Volvo, Autoliv-Delphi Asia and possibly Nissan involvement in the proposed Daimler-Renault technical tie-up.

All these activities will involve intensive negotiations and integration activity and experience shows that the outcomes will vary widely according to the quality of the integration. plan and the skills of the integration teams. These are both elements which can be optimised as long as the cross-border element is handled correctly. This is particularly true in Japan. The words of Stuart Chambers, former CEO of NSG Pilkington during a presentation at the FCCJ last year sum this up nicely: "For two years I said that Japan was just another culture, now, in my third year, I am beginning to think Japan is more different than other cultures".

Those who take the trouble to listen to managers experienced in bridging cultures positively and who assemble and educate the right teams will succeed.