Training December 2015

HQ invariably gets it wrong about Japan

Why localisation is key

  • Risks exist in using global approaches to train staff
  • Cultural understanding is key for successful delivery
  • Using training to achieve higher productivity is the target

One of the dubious delights of running an international business in Japan is dealing with the Mother Ship or it’s regional hub spin off.

Trying to explain Japan to those who don’t know it has always proved tremendously character building for me. Having left the corporate treadmill to work for myself, I mistakenly thought I had kissed goodbye to all that pathetic nonsense. Alas, the long arm of ignorance regarding Japan continues to reach out and challenge me.

Today, I live the frustration vicariously through my clients here in Japan. They have to deal with their version of hell—HQ or regional hub “know-nothings” located outside Japan.

Joint ventures and partnerships are a fun time. Japan is low on the detailed contractual side of the equation. In Japan, the basic idea is that we don’t need reams of legal language because the venture will or won’t be a success based on how well we can trust each other and work collaboratively.

If it doesn’t work out, then we should walk away and not bother with courts, litigation, claims and compensation. We need to focus on the bigger picture of success and how to achieve it, and so a handshake is all we need.

A typical day in the life of the Japan representative is explaining to HQ why the Japan business is not tracking as expected when the agreement was previously concluded.

In one client’s case, the original expectations proved to be a misalignment of skill sets and targets. The Japanese side had the sales force to cover the market but not the expertise to cover it appropriately. Sales were uninspiring compared with the original expectations in the business plan.

What was the Mother Ship’s solution? Fly in the Americans from HQ to berate the Japanese at board meetings about their poor sales performance. Shame them into action to sell something. The local representative was encouraged to keep the pressure on by using these same name and shame tactics between board meetings: the verbal-beatings-will-continue-until-morale-improves type of approach.

The US HQ-led strategy was going down a treat with the local Japanese partners, of course, as trust and collaboration rapidly disintegrated.

Training delivered locally, to those selected from within the existing sales force, was the better solution. This sounds like a logical step, but convincing HQ to do so was painstaking. The HQ’s view was to send in trainers from the regional hub, which in the Asia Pacific generally means Singapore or Hong Kong.

Who did they choose to send to Japan? The HR team was the preferred option which, excitingly, meant a rapid fire, fast-talking Chinese team member coming to Japan and conducting the training in English.

“It’s okay, the team can speak English”, is how HQ normally sees it whenever language and cultural issues are flagged locally. That assumption of English capability is extremely optimistic in my experience.

Machine-gun style delivery of English, combined with an unfamiliar accent and no cultural sensitivity, is just one of those genius combinations that many an HQ unleashes on the innocent and blameless.

English comprehension of 50–60% is the maximum we can probably expect from staff up until lunchtime, after which it rapidly spirals down. This is not a very effective way of training local staff in Japan. Delivering the training in the mother tongue, with cultural understanding, is the base line. On top of that, having trainers who are highly skilled is where the leverage can really be applied.

The whacky ideas of HQ are often amusing, at least for the first 15 seconds of hearing them, but the global training approach has proved fraught with failure. “The training was completed, check the box”, is not an outcome. Taking the training and applying it to deliver higher productivity is the only acceptable outcome. This is a bit difficult, though, if you can’t understand most of the training in the first place.

Globally delivered training in English rarely produces any residual value for firms, so you have to wonder why HQ keeps repeating the same mistake? It doesn’t have to be like this. It’s time for organisations to wise up and listen to the local representative’s advice on what works best in Japan.