Trials of IT hiring

How to understand the sector in Japan

In many ways and for many people, Japan is seen as a technological powerhouse: an innovator of, and incubator for, cutting-edge ideas and technical knowhow.

With reports of faster bullet trains, vending machines that provide cold beer, ice cream and even chicken nuggets, and robots such as Honda’s ASIMO playing to the crowds, the general perception is that Japan leads the world in all things under the technology umbrella.

Yet, looking at corporate Japan and, in particular, at the IT infrastructure underpinning its systems, the reality is vastly different. The IT hiring manager with no knowledge of the Japanese labour market is the hardest client to satisfy for a technology recruiter.

One of the biggest issues leading to the IT labour shortage is a structural one, which most likely has been brought about largely by the Japanese desire to maintain wa (harmony). Central to this concept is the principle of creating consensus before decisions are made, to avoid any overt conflict and prevent individuals from losing face. My reference is by no means a diffusion of esoteric knowledge, yet the impact wa has had, specifically on IT, is perhaps rarely discussed.

With constant changes and upgrades in IT systems and functions, it is easy to see how IT departments at many corporations operating in Japan have fallen behind their counterparts in Europe, North America and other parts of Asia, such as Singapore and Hong Kong.

For many firms in Japan, the use of antiquated technologies and manual processes remains the norm. An overseas visitor, working in the field of IT, who walks into a local Japan office may notice striking differences.

For example, it would not be unusual to find a worker in a low-skilled job manually inputting data for half a day each Monday to produce reports that should take just minutes with automated macros. Similarly, it is not uncommon to find that a so-called automated process involves paperwork being handed to three people to sign before being faxed to a fourth individual.

Herein lies the biggest issue for many IT hiring managers in Japan. The demand for modern IT professionals by foreign firms far outstrips supply.

Change, when it comes, will be slow. In terms of accessing an available talent pool, my colleagues overseas engaged in IT recruitment have a much simpler task. For example, one advertisement on LinkedIn may result in over 200 applicants, while the same one posted in Japan may attract only four. The takeaway is that recruitment of qualified IT professionals is a lot harder in Japan, requiring more time and resources.

As with many other facets of Japanese society, the challenges facing the IT sector are rare and partly a by-product of a culture that places group consensus above all else. Perhaps there is no greater disruptor than technological innovation so, arguably, it is no surprise that a culture which emphasises harmony over discord should find itself trailing in the technology stakes.

There is no easy way to work around the challenges facing IT hiring managers in Japan. They need to be more flexible in their approach to finding talented resources, and to scale down expectations that they will find the same quantity and quality of IT talent as is common abroad.

Alternatively, if the requirements of the post are all critical and cannot be watered down, they should consider making the initial hire a contract role. This calculated risk will allow an evaluation of the candidate in the actual role, before committing to them being part of a permanent solution.

Better still, if applicants in the market are particularly scarce, engaging a trusted recruitment partner on retainer would, at the very least, ensure that all possible time and effort are allocated to mapping the market; no stone would be left unturned in the search.

Ultimately, the hiring manager will need to understand the IT market in Japan and work with a recruitment partner who understands it even better.