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Japanese Business Culture and Social Computing

By Trampoline Systems | Friday, June 27th, 2008

A couple of weeks ago I was in Sapporo at the Infinity Ventures Summit (the site’s in Japanese) to talk about the role of informal networks in business and show off Trampoline’s SONAR Suite. This is the largest technology innovation conference in Japan, bringing together the leading start-ups, corporations, analysts and investors. The focus was mainly on mobile and consumer internet so Trampoline really stood out as an enterprise infrastructure provider. We were also one of just four non-Asian firms invited to present.

I’ve travelled in Japan in the past but this was my first visit in a business context. The amazing etiquette involved in exchanging business cards was the first thing that struck me. In an unstructured setting like a drinks reception in the West cards are typically swapped at the end of a conversation if there’s a likely relevance for future contact. In Japan cards are exchanged at the start of a conversation with no filter for relevance. This means you get through a lot of cards and your pockets rapidly end up bulging with other people’s.

Cards must be offered horizontally with the text in the correct orientation for the recipient, held at the corners in both hands. When you receive a card you must hold it similarly in both hands and give it your full attention for a second or two before looking up or continuing conversation. You must hold the card in front of you throughout the conversation. It’s insulting to put it in your pocket, scribble a note on it or (worst of all) hand someone a crumpled or disfigured card. If you’re sitting around a table with people the correct thing to do is lay everyone’s cards out in front of you in a neat row matching their positions around the table.

What interested me most, however, was the cultural alignment of Japanese enterprises with social computing solutions. Previously I’d assumed that Japanese business culture would be intrinsically hostile to technologies that make informal groupings and networks visible, or which lead to information being shared in new ways, since there is sensitive etiquette surrounding these processes. However my experiences in Sapporo completely changed my view of this.

The connection I’d failed to make previously is that Japanese corporations have historically placed a much higher value on the informal networks amongst their employees than their Western counterparts. Within the “shushin koyo” model of life-long relationships between employer and employee, many aspects of the individual’s social life were organised and supported by the corporation. This was seen to build organisational strength and forge links outside the formal structure (both of which are also notable drivers for social networking tools in the enterprise). During the long recession in the 1990s a lot of these extra-curricular activities were cut, but a management culture persisted in which informal networks were highly valued. On the face of it enterprise social computing tools are perfectly placed to fill this gap.

In many cases products developed for a Western market will need to be modified significantly before they are suitable for Japanese customers. This won’t simply be a case of changing language in the user interface. Behaviours around privacy management and authorisation will almost certainly need to be modified to fit different cultural nuances. But contrary to my initial assumption, Japanese corporations may prove to be early and well-informed adopters of social computing technologies.

I’m indebted to Shuji Honjo for drawing my attention to the possible like between social computing and corporate involvement in extra-curricular activities.

This entry was posted on Friday, June 27th, 2008 at 2:45 pm and is filed under Organisations & Technology. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.


2 Responses to “Japanese Business Culture and Social Computing”

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  1. Ted says:

    Even as an Korean-American whose parents mostly spent time within their Korean circles, it took some getting used to the Asian style of business. (I’m still figuring it out. In Korean business settings, I often feel like the Yankee bull in the China shop.) But despite differing styles and cultural differences, you’re right about the importance of the workplace in Asian cultures and your unique products seem a great fit there.

  2. Charles,

    Very interesting observation, I appreciate reading of your experience with the informal network in Japan.

    I’ve found your comment – “In many cases products developed for a Western market will need to be modified significantly before they are suitable for Japanese customers” to be absolutely true. I think this is the case not only with social computing products but with many “hard” products as well.

    I’ve also found that when developing products for use by Japanese firms, the approach to product development must be very well thought out, and one can not just apply or “rubber stamp” an existing product for use in Japan (unless it has already been proven to be very robust in design).

    More available on this at dskouson.blogspot.com. Again, thank you for the post, very interesting topic.

    Demeron Skouson

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