The Japanese know that they have to get globalized and digitized. They have been trying to catch up for several years but they are still falling behind. Piotr Grzywacz, an innovator working for Japanese companies, was interviewed by Monika Redzisz
Monika Redzisz: A Pole teaching the Japanese how to be innovative? That’s unusual.
Piotr Grzywacz*: Why? Japan is a land of paradoxes. A statistical Japanese, especially the one living in the countryside, rarely uses a credit card. Even in Tokyo small shops or restaurants do not accept digital payments although some use Chinese payment systems to make the lives of Chinese tourists more convenient. The Japanese know that they have to get globalized and digitized. They have been trying to catch up for several years but they are still falling behind.
How do the Japanese compare with the Poles in terms of innovation and new technologies?
Recently, in Warsaw, I participated in a debate on digitization in Poland. I was struck by prevalent negative opinions suggesting that we still have a long way to go. Maybe it’s true, but our programmers have been performing very well in global rankings. I recently studied a ranking (Hacker Rank) in which the Poles were in the third place and lost only to the Chinese and Russians. Programmers are our export goods. Nowadays in Japan great efforts are focused on digitization, but it’s a very hard task.
Most renowned Japanese companies, such as Sony or Toshiba, used to manufacture goods under government contracts. In a way, it was a bit like socialism: big companies, huge investments, many workers, long lead times. Today, in the era of the internet and artificial intelligence, technologies can be created anywhere, on a virtual platform, and developed extremely fast. That requires a completely different approach to the question of risk and prototyping. Small, fast and modern American start-ups are a complete opposite of traditional, big and slow Japanese companies.
The Japanese society is characterized by a silo-like approach. Their mindset is: “My group, my company and my department are the most important”. Where does that lead to? For example to their unwillingness to share information. “These are our data, they belong to our department, we have acquired them, why would we share?”. Meanwhile, today documents are stored in the cloud. All resources are shared. We can get access to any information we want in no time. This situation is very hard to accept for the Japanese.
Small, fast and modern American start-ups are a complete opposite of traditional, big and slow Japanese companies
Is there anything in the Japanese culture that it makes it more difficult for them than for us?
We have always been good at doing business in the so-called grey economy. The Japanese obey the law. If there are no legal regulations, they got a problem. Last year, the right to rent your own apartment was finally enforced. Before that, there had been no rules governing that matter. Such platforms as Airbnb have been successful almost everywhere in the world but not in Japan. The Japanese had to wait for appropriate legislation.
What is changing now in Japan? What is the young generation like?
A lot of things are changing. In 2015 a reform of the labor market was introduced. Just before that, media widely reported the suicide of a young girl employed in Dentsu, the world’s biggest advertising agency. She was overworked and overtired. The Ministry of Economy and Trade has been making great efforts to change working conditions in companies. The labor code has been amended, the maximum overtime limit has been reduced. That and similar incidents result not only from legal regulations but also from a very hierarchical Japanese culture. Harmony in a group and adaptation to a team is extremely important. “If my boss is still in the office, I can’t go home. That would be very rude”. Or: “I can’t do remote work, because it would be impossible for my boss to assess me”.
But things are starting to change, slowly. Start-ups with a different corporate culture have been emerging. This is why I decided to set up a consulting company. I think it is time to educate the Japanese in the field of innovation and digitization.
Is changing habits a necessary prerequisite to implement innovation?
Yes. We spend a lot of time educating managers, explaining, for example, that sharing information is a good thing. Leaders usually include older people, which doesn’t make things any easier for us. They were employed in their companies for life. They joined their firms right after they graduated from the university. They knew that after ten years of work they would automatically become managers and get a higher salary. They also knew that after another ten years, they would lead an even bigger team and get an even bigger salary.
It reminds me a bit of the People’s Republic of Poland and the then-popular saying “Down you lie or up you stand, either way you’ll earn a grand”.
Exactly. But young people don’t want to work like that anymore, they don’t want to wait for their promotion that long. Start-ups’ rules differ entirely. It is irrelevant if you are young or old, if you are a man or a woman. What really matters is how you work.
Google has identified three best types of people applying for a job. The first is symbolized by the letter T. They are professionals in what they do but also have broad interests. The second is described with the letter π. They know two disciplines inside out. However, the best employees are the ones represented by the letter H who have in depth knowledge of two disciplines and can make links between them.
Today, big Japanese companies would love to have such innovative employees, future leaders, who would lead them to changes. “OK, but what people have you employed over the past 20 years?” I ask. And it turns out that they have employed those who will be obedient and predictable.
Is that also the model for the Japanese to rear their children?
I’ve had the opportunity to take a closer look at many Japanese schools because I’ve invested in a Japanese educational start-up called Timeleap. It was set up by a 19-year old girl, which is pretty extraordinary in Japan. We develop educational programs for children in the field of entrepreneurship and financial expertise. We encourage them to develop their personal skills and to think about themselves.
The Japanese culture does not share this approach. In school, kids have to listen to their teacher. There is no room for self-promotion which is so popular in America, where children bring their toys to school and talk about them during show and tell classes. That is out of question in Japan.
Many people grow up in that reality, graduate from good schools, come to work and… you have to show them the ropes, explain everything step by step. They are totally dependent on others. According to the survey conducted by AON, the Japanese are the least engaged employees. Only 37 percent of them are dedicated to their work, compared to 70 odd percent in America.
Young Poles are positively motivated: they want to get a better position, they want to stand out. On the other hand, the motivation of young Japanese is more often negative: they are ready to change their job but only because they don’t like their boss
Maybe it has something to do with their remuneration? In Poland, there are gigantic discrepancies in salaries if you compare different jobs and different fields of activity.
There are no such disproportions in Japan.
But that is also the reason why the Japanese do not share our Polish need for standing out.
Are we really primarily motivated by money?
I think so. Poles still remember communism and poverty.
The young generation don’t.
Young Japanese are different as well. When they apply for a job in a company, they don’t expect to stay in that company forever. But if you compare them with young Poles, they seem not to know what they really want. Poles are still ambitious. They want to improve their skills, the want to learn, they attend courses and they study abroad. Young Poles are positively motivated: they want to get a better position, they want to stand out. On the other hand, the motivation of young Japanese is more often negative: they are ready to change their job but only because they don’t like their boss.
What about gender equality?
It is still a very conservative society, but some changes are visible. You can see femtech – technologies that are developed for women and that have until recently been totally neglected.
Not long ago, I met a young Japanese woman who unfortunately got a job in Google. I regret that because she had a great idea for a start-up that would focus on women’s sexuality. It is very important to end the taboo around this sphere in Japan.
Google… Aren’t you concerned that the best centers, such as Silicon Valley, lure the cleverest ones while countries like Poland, which are unable to offer similar development opportunities, research and money, are deprived of talents?
That vision is too catastrophic. Surely, similar situations are common, but, on the other hand, there are Poles living in Poland who often work for big foreign companies.
The community of digital nomads is on the rise. They work wherever they want; lots of them live in Bali, for instance. With modern technology, your work is less and less dependent on where you live. Three years ago I was in a Maasai village in Kenya. Their houses are still made of cow dung but the village chief is a motivational speaker and delivers its presentations even in Japan!
There are more and more opportunities to live and work in a small village in the mountains, provided that a house we live in is connected to the internet. I’ve been thinking about it myself. I have a house near Jelenia Góra where I was brought up. No one lives there. My brother, who was the last member of my family, died last year. Maybe I should organize a co-working area out there. Internet connection is fine.
With modern technology, your work is less and less dependent on where you live. The community of digital nomads is on the rise. They work wherever they want; lots of them live in Bali, for instance.
You lay the groundwork for innovations in Japanese companies. Apart from your house near Jelenia Góra, do you have any other ties with Poland?
Last year me and my business partners from Japan decided to develop business innovation relationships in Europe. We accompanied a group of Japanese entrepreneurs and investors in their trips to Estonia, Finland, Malta and Poland. We are looking for new technologies and interesting inspirations. I think it is a good moment to increase the number of Japanese investments in Poland and Polish companies in Japan.
What would encourage a Polish start-up to try its hand in Japan? Because of the distance between Japan and Poland and because of cultural differences between those two countries people don’t even bother to consider the idea.
Well, Japan is still the third economy in the world. 126 million people. Big market, a lot of money. They are looking for investment ideas. Tokyo with its 11 million inhabitants is probably the most diverse city in the world. It has its own Wall Street, Silicon Valley and a fashion district. Unfortunately, the Japanese usually stay focused on a narrow field they specialize in. We are trying to help them and to build bridges between institutions, enhance cooperation between ministries and universities and between start-ups and big companies.
What is the most difficult part?
It’s the language, I think. Although I picked up Japanese very fast, it was difficult for me to communicate for the first two years. In Japan, you need to read between the lines. The Poles are very straightforward, they do not hesitate to say what they think and how they feel. Whenever they have a conversation, they are focused on themselves. They want to express themselves as much as possible. The Japanese are mainly concentrated on their interlocutors. This is why you may sometimes experience misunderstandings. The more the Poles talk, the more the Japanese are concentrated on listening, which may be perceived as being withdrawn. Whenever you have a conversation with a Japanese, remember to have some silence in it too.
*Piotr Grzywacz, a nominee to the Ambassadors of Polish Innovation award. He has been living and working in Japan for 20 years. The founder and CEO of Pronoia start-up, which implements innovation and digitization in Japanese companies. A co-founder of Motify start-up and an investor in Timeleap. A long-time Google employee. A graduate of English, Dutch and German philology who studied in Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands. A holder of university diplomas in journalism, PR, marketing and business administration.
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