nikko monkeysWe have decided to celebrate in 2016 – with a series of lunch seminars for clients – the 12th anniversary of the founding of our company. The excuse is that we have completed the full cycle of the Japanese/Chinese years, back to the Year of the Monkey.

Reflecting on the trends we have seen evolving over the past 12 years for Japanese companies, the most obvious development has been the increase in major acquisitions by Japanese companies of Europe-based multinationals. Most recently, Mitsui Sumitomo Insurance Group acquired UK Lloyd’s underwriters Amlin for £3.5bn and Hitachi has just finalised the acquisition of AnsaldoBreda and Italian company Finmeccanica’s stake in Ansaldo STS, for around €800m.

Both these acquisitions are representative of a structural change I have seen evolving in quite a few Japanese multinationals. Hitachi has moved the global headquarters of its rail business to the UK and it seems the Japanese insurance majors, who have all now acquired underwriting firms based in the UK, are hoping that their acquisitions will act as pivots for further global expansion.
Clearly Japanese companies are not just buying into a market with their acquisitions, but hoping that they have also acquired global management capability. Whereas in the past there were some examples of Japanese companies using their US subsidiaries to manage the global network, it seems now that Europeans are being asked to manage operations in the US and beyond.

This is partly due to another long term trend in Japan, which is the lack of “global jinzai (human resources)”, particularly at senior management level, to manage overseas growth, but it also reflects the fact that European multinationals are used to managing companies scattered across many countries, in a virtual matrix structure. This means the heads of various business units or functions may not all be physically located in the same headquarters. European managers need to have strong, globally effective professional expertise but also good cross cultural communication skills to be able to manage teams remotely.

Europeans are comfortable with doing this in Europe and to some extent working with the US too. However working with Japan is still a new experience for most of them. They are often baffled by the fact that their professional expertise and remote communication skills are not enough to persuade or win support from Japan headquarters. Managers in Japan headquarters are only used to communicating with people who are physically present in the office. They tend to be generalists, who do not find arguments grounded solely in expert opinion all that convincing.

Unless conscious effort is made to overcome these communication barriers, Japan headquarters maybe behave like the three monkeys, who see no evil, hear no evil and speak no evil. In Japan my understanding is that this is seen as virtuous behaviour. However, in the West this is seen as ignoring problems and misbehaviour until it is too late. I foresee the next twelve years of my business as being about opening eyes, ears and mouths on both sides of the world.

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