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Made In Japan

I have just returned from two weeks in Japan, a very educational trip.
This reinforces my conviction that technologists need to consider as diverse of viewpoints as possible.
According to senior volunteer leaders and others with whom I met:

  1. Japanese professional employees do not change employers. The U.S. model of career advancement via a combination of promotions and transitions to new employers is quite different ... and literally foreign to our members in Japan.
  2. Young people appear to be discouraged from entering STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) fields because these professions do not earn as much as business degree recipients.
  3. Japan has been under economic pressure for some time, and salaries in some sectors appear to be declining in real terms and without merit differentiation -- which seems to be a factor with Item 2.

The easy conclusion is that Item 1 plus Item 3 lead to Item 2; and perhaps to a decline in the innovation and productivity of Japan.  I'm not sure this logic is well founded.

When I was young, "Made in Japan" was a disparaging comment -- it implied lower quality.  I can think of other countries where this seems to be the case today. However, as I drive my Prius, view my Nikon pictures, play with my Sony appliances -- I realize that this situation has reversed. We are 'outraged' at Toyota's recent problems because they are inconsistent with the leading quality image that has propelled Toyota to a leadership position.

I visited a Hitachi research lab. They showed me a data center with power management control - a key to the future of Green IT and reducing the carbon foot print with Cloud Computing, Internet Server Farms, and other such facilities. Look closely: blade servers in racks both from Hitachi; using Hitachi vitalization and load management software; with sensors from Hitachi controlling the air conditioning systems build by Hitachi ... you start to get the picture. Few manufacturers have the ability to bring together the range of technical fields that Hitachi can coordinate 'in-house' to address challenges such as data-center power consumption. That Hitachi is a leader in consumer electronics, mass transit systems and medical systems adds to the depth of their portfolio. I mentioned that one strength of the IEEE is that it also spans a broad range of fields -- one of the few professional societies that can seriously engage the range of technologies involved in smart-grid or cloud computing.  My Hitachi hosts wanted us to help connect their diverse community with professionals who understand services and emerging business models ... seeking the diversity of engagement that goes beyond just the electro-technical fields.

Japanese companies and universities are concerned about a declining population, reducing both the influx of STEM students and professionals, and also the internal market in Japan. Innovative companies like Japan Railways have diversified, moving beyond transportation into facilities such as hospitals and conference centers -- and leveraging the technology they developed for autonomous distributed systems into these other areas as well.

The economic model in the U.S. favors more focused companies, encouraging divestment of diverse businesses -- with General Electric, and more recently Motorola as examples of this. The focus is on short term stockholder value. One constraint on the concept of life-long employment in the U.S. is the relatively short life of U.S. corporations. Few U.S. corporations manage to re-define themselves, even within the scope of their traditional business, much less expand into new fields with the strategic engagement that Japanese companies apply.

The Japanese companies have significant research labs, with charters to look out 20+ years into the future. Dr. Mario Tokoro, President of the Sony Computer Science Laboratories, hosted our visit with Sony. 3-D TV and other neat gadgets were delightful, but we had too little time to discuss the research direction CSL is taking. Their new fields of interest include: brain sciences, systems biology and econophysics. Not common topics of discussion in today's computer science programs. Dr. Tokoro has edited a book on "Open Systems Science" which will be published this year. Open Systems in this context are those that are un-bounded - interacting with the outer world, with only an "internal observers" role possible for researchers. These expanded perspectives for research, and the challenges of dealing with the unbounded implications of understanding and managing open systems may be the key to the innovation essential for the 21st century.

It will be interesting to watch these business models as they progress. Which approaches will yield breakthroughs for emerging challenges and opportunities where synergy between disciplines is becoming essential?  And for individual professionals faced with the accelerating rate of change in technology, how can we stay informed to best contribute in our jobs and evolve our careers?

Comments
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This article sounds like it was written in 1985, in response to the "fifth generation" project that was all the rage back then. I'm astounded to be reading it in computer.org in 2010.

Lifetime employment in Japan has been in steep decline for at least 20 years.

"Made in Japan" ceased to be pejorative around the 1974 oil crisis.

The large Japanese labs have been open and cooperating with western counterparts for decades. (Does the name "Sony-Ericsson" ring any bells?)

In short, a disappointing and jingoistic article, not worthy of the IEEE.

David

Posted on 4/7/10 10:51 AM.

David
thanks for your thoughts... I'm sorry if my perspective does not match yours....
it also did not match my pre-visit perspective. But when leaders of one of our chapters expressed real surprise at the idea that a few of their members might have changed employers, I realized that this aspect of Japan -- at least in expectation -- has not changed as much as I anticipated.

Does anyone have some real statistics related to technology professionals and their rate of employer changes in Japan compared to that of the U.S. or Europe?

I don't see any lack of open collaboration between Japan and the outside world .. so that aspect of any paranoia is unwarranted IMHO. What I do see is a concern for the evolution of Japanese technology and even the economy as the demographics of the country change.

Posted on 4/8/10 3:20 AM in reply to David Goldfarb.

I think that it's not easy for peoples in other worlds to understand properly the mentality and thinking of Japanese peoples, unless you understand the Japanese culture.

Japanese are thought to be loyal and to be a good employee last time. IMHO, these are reasons why peoples stay loyal to a company for a long time. Japanese also loyal to their emperor. Off course, things may be different nowadays for young generation as what happened to East Asia, such as Korea.

US is a country whereby peoples coming for jobs and better living. It is very hard for the employees to stay long for one job if he can find a better elsewhere.

I do hope that IEEE Com peoples can pay a frequent visit to Asia to understand more about the peoples here.

Posted on 4/14/10 5:00 PM in reply to James Isaak.

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