Cultivating 'Global Jinzai' Critical to Japan's International Success

Not long ago, Japan seemed to be spilling over with businessmen willing to travel the world carrying the company flag. Today, with fewer and fewer Japanese young people studying abroad, and the world becoming increasingly "flat," Japanese companies are struggling to find the talent they need to compete internationally. This has spawned a national conversation about how to develop more "global jinzai" (global talent) in Japan.

A survey of Japanese companies published in 2012 and sponsored by Japan's Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT) estimates that demand for global jinzai by Japanese companies will grow by 240% between 2012 and 2017 to 8.7% of the employed population. Because fewer than one in ten global jinzai in 2017 are expected to be foreigners, there is yawning domestic talent gap.

The growth in demand is being driven by Japanese companies' desire to expand internationally. Even domestically-focused companies and small businesses are feeling the need to become more global. As one Japanese executive focused entirely on domestic business told me recently, "I used to think I didn't need English, but I've taken international business trips, attended conferences, and realized I even need it when staying in Japan."

So what exactly is a global jinzai, and where do they come from? In spite of the non-stop talk about global jinzai, it's a bit of a fuzzy term – akin to "leadership" in English, a term which everybody knows, but for which there are countless definitions.

At the most basic level, global jinzai are "internationally-competent" employees. Based on many years of doing business with Japanese, and a December visit to Japan during which I discussed the topic with more than 20 companies, I think that global jinzai must be competent in three areas.

1) Communication. While English language skills provide the foundation, this means knowing how to build understanding with people from other countries. A former client offers a great example. While his English was poor, his ability to communicate with US business colleagues was greatly enhanced by his fearless outreach, friendly nature and earnest follow-up.
2) Cooperation. Global jinzai must be able to engage and work effectively with foreigners. In the past, overseas Japanese could survive by plugging into a web of Japanese colleagues. No more. Today, complex and dynamic teams are the norm. Success depends upon the ability to quickly pull extraordinary efforts out of a diverse team.
3) Cultivation. The consensus-oriented, long-term Japanese system has many strengths, but individuals seeking to be effective abroad (and at home) also need to attain a measure of independence, resourcefulness and resilience that comes from having to fend for oneself in an unfamiliar environment.

Of course, becoming a certified global jinzai depends upon an individual's ability to apply skills real-time in a hands-on environment. And attaining proficiency requires spending time in the field applying the skills. Japanese companies' ability to meet their global jinzai demand will depend in large part on whether they provide staff with sufficient opportunities to apply their knowledge and skills in a way that meets the needs of the company and the individual.

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