Work result expectation difference by cultures

I could understand how it takes a genius to discover the obvious things happening around us. Discovery is for the humans to see the truth. Truth is all around us, all the time. How blind we are. It takes so much living, paying close attention to the nature of the matter to see the truth.

The truth about difference between cultures, and how each culture has different value system. I was reading about it, but it didn’t have deep meaning to me, until I lived it in many ways, then with a single incidence, it clicked. It’s like Archimedes discovering mass when he was taking a bath. Like Newton discovering gravity when he saw an apple fall.

My discovery isn’t so grandeous, and it’s something that has been discussed many times before, as in Tobe and Nonaka’s Essence of Failure, and Yamagishi’s From Safety Based Society to Trust Based Society.

It is about the basic difference between Japanese and western culture in:
1. Value placed on work process
2. Value placed on result of the work done
3. Value of accumulated knowledge, how it is used.

I spent my first 12 years of life in Japan, and with Japanese blood and bases learned, values of work process, values of result was that of Japan. Then with those bases, I lived and learned in USA for the next 18 years work process and result value the north American way. After coming back to Japan, I joined US national company, working closely with western nationals, in their system which stressed making each process explicit using lots of words. (Except in IT, which I couldn’t figure out why.) Then when I joined my current company, I came in charge of Japanese accounts.

My English isn’t the best, but my Japanese is worse. I thought in the beginning it was the language thing. I kept on trying to produce explicit evidence of progress in work process, using report as means. But no, unless there were big problems, Japanese were not interested in how I was proceeding with my work. They were satisfied with my daily communications, for me to just show up, be there. I was sincere, acted with respect, and made recommendations according to what seemed best for the clients. And when I showed up consistently, it created results. But I was never asked to produce materials that backed up how my results were created. So I got used to doing business that way, using very few written sentences, just lots of face-to-face communication. What mattered most was the mood we had together as we worked together. This lasted for four years.

Well, the four years ended with my current international project, north Americans, British, French, Asian all involved, but no Japanese. It took me two weeks or missing the points of direction that was given to me, not understanding very well what I was being asked to do. I was processing work in Japanese way with these non-Japanese.

After being asked to “add some meat on the proposal”, “show me everything” for the 10th time, each time being asked to add some more, it hit me!! Right, they want me to be explicit about my work! These people want what they are doing to be clear, understandable process for anybody to see, not just us who do the work!! I was being amnesic. Forgotten about what western culture expects as part of the work, which is to make it all explicit so that anybody can take any part of the work process, re-create it.

I was thunderstruck. This is why the western world has been making progress at such speed, because the knowledge is not all lost when someone leaves, because at least there are bits and pieces in explicit writing that one can follow any time later.

Okay, there are various degrees of demanding explicitness in Western culture. Irish historical writing has nothing about Grace O’Malley, whereas British historian made a careful record when she visited Queen Elizabeth I. But compared to Japanese culture which is so engaged in the moment, taking so much things into consideration fearing much of total effect will be lost if one tried to logically describe each aspects, western culture is extremely explicit in recordings.

The Japanese lack of interest in making work explicit in writing is apparent from numbers of patents that are submitted by researchers. Representative of that situation is recent Nobel prize laureate Koichi Tanaka. Number of papers he has produced are very few compared to that of scientists and researchers in the west. Maybe we as Japanese will never change this cultural characteristic. Even scientists and researchers carry the artisan mentality.

Maybe this is why Japanese are and will continue to be the masters in technological incremental improvements. With incremental improvements, the team memory will carry on the progress, whereas with innovation, one person would have to accept living in explicit mode.

My little project do not need such worry, but having my full memory back in working explicitly, I think I will very much enjoy working on this project. And I think it has been a true blessing for me. See? I was able to express profound discovery, even though it is a discovery just for myself, in written words.

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