Saturday, February 26, 2011

"Gratitude," Two-hour Meetings, and Problems with High-Pressure Sales Model in Rakuten

"What you guys are lacking is Gratitude," the sales manager lectured on, almost religiously, at the somber new grads keeping their eyes on the floor.

"The company pays you and feeds you even though you have not made any sales...your revenue-generating elder colleagues are eating sandwiches at their desks while you guys are lounging around the cafeteria for like an hour every day!" The manager continued at a mild, calm pace, sinking the new grads further into a bit of mild depression ...

Just another daily evening meeting here at Sales Development, the guys responsible for getting more shops to join the massive online shopping mall here at Rakuten.

Never mind the fact that a promised one-hour lunch break is coded in company regulations...and also never mind the fact that the Dept is openly violating the company regulations by refusing to pay overtime and weekends (even though most Sales Development personnel work longer and harder than the vast majority of employees in the company), it is need to make the employees feel SHAME, utter humiliation that one has not contributed that perhaps most clearly define what it means to be a at-the-bottom sales personnel at Rakuten.

And here I am, in the middle of this shame-feeling two hour meeting a week after shifting into the Dept from CEO Office. While everyone else fought to keep their sincere tears from flowing out, I was sitting there flabbergasted (perhaps even more at work than off work)...) than words such as this can actually be considered righteous and justifiable in a country (and a company, well at least in theory) believe in democracy, egalitarianism, and human rights...

Oh yeah, btw, I forgot to mention that the two-hour meeting I am referring to here did not even start as anything about the bad sales record of the new graduates. It was about correcting the mistakes made for a daily routine job of passing out daily reports to all members of the Dept in the morning. The guy who screwed up this morning had to bow repeatedly in front of the entire new grad class, promising, in tears, that the mistakes will not be repeated again.

His mistake? he forgot to remove a Post-it note on one of the daily reports he handed out. I mean, I am all for accuracy and preciseness when doing every basic task, but having the managers stare at you from the back of the room, looking as if they will stone you the next moment, could surely be an emotional scar (and one of many reasons for some serious mental backlash). Then, somehow this intense apology gave way to managers lecturing on the need to feel "gratitude" (and shame).

Then, the next morning, I participated in that daily routine of handing out daily reports for the first time. All the copies were present (no need for photocopying), all the maps are included (no need to find who and where to distribute each copy), and all the directions are written on the Post-it notes...and for some reason the managers assign a dozen new grads each day to take care of a task that can easily be finished by one person in less than 40 minutes.

Really, the underlying issue is not about the difficulty of the task, the gratitude, the shame, or the new grads not trying hard enough to get sales. Its all about motivation and interest. The ultimate downside of a company placing employees in random depts (especially a depressing place like sales) without considering the employee's desires is to take away their excitement and interest for the particular line of work to which they are assigned. And that is especially true if the line of work is something no one actually respects (like sales, lets be honest here).

Surprisingly, after talking to many people both inside and outside the company, I do occasionally meet some who would LOVE to do sales...I ask, why are they not hired and/or placed here in Sales Development to replace these new grads who have been making a 100 calls a day (literally) without any results for almost a year? And to point at the heart of the issue, does the company even have a right to decide the specialism and career of each employee, often against his/her will, simply as a result of a short-sighted thought of the HR manager? It is something the company need to seriously think about as it seeks to become more globally competitive....

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Juxtaposing Everyday Conveniences and Reality Escapism in Japan

So, as I was continuing my graduate school applications (seriously this time, for my career beyond Rakuten and Japan), I was looking for a scanner around my neighborhood to turn some documents into PDF. Asking around no less than a dozen internet cafes (they are supposed to be convenient, no?), convenience stores, photo shops, bookstores...basically anywhere that I can imagine having a scanner of some sort for business use. In the end, I had to give up and wait for discreetly using the one in my company....

I suppose this is another episode of convenient Japan being inconvenient. It is these times that I miss the underground economy in China where services and products of every sort can be found literally anywhere. But probably the key difference between the Chinese shop owners and the Japanese ones I visited today may be that the Chinese ones would do anything to come up something (whether be to buy a scanner, think of alternative ways of getting the PDF, introduce the nearby shop of a friend, etc), while the Japanese ones would simply say thanks as the disappointed customer walks out the door.

The point I am making here is NOT that Chinese shop owners are more entrepreneurial than Japanese ones. After all, by all means, Japan continues to offer many more conveniences than China does and may ever do, but the self-comfort the Japanese takes in realizing such a gap is still huge may eventually become deadly in terms of Japan's future development. The shops from my on-the-ground sales yesterday offer good examples. Many seem to reject enlarging their businesses on the ground that they are completely satisfied with getting a designated local clientele.

Even better examples are the differences in the mentalities of restaurants and buses at peak hours. In Japan, the new customers are simply turned away by the owners, while in China, new seats and empty spaces are somehow found so that a few more are squeezed in. On one hand, it is apparent bad service on the part of the shops in question, but on the other hand, I cannot count how many heart-warming stories of common suffering I went through as I traveled in such fashion across China.

Many people in Japan, for obvious reasons, will be excluded by these shops and situations. And as they are excluded from profiles of welcomed clients, among many other exclusions in society, they become more and more isolated from Japan as a whole, incapable of communicating with others while having no way to get out of their seclusive negative environment. Indeed, occasionally I feel such exclusions as well, but being who I am, I will eventually escape physically and regain my emotional and mental independence.

For the regular Japanese, there is only the possibility of "escapism," the creation of alternate identities in alternate societies that can give them feelings of grandeur and achievements without the social restrictions and personal inabilities. A close examination of Japanese anime in comparison to Western cartoons is sufficient to illustrated the point. A Western cartoon, exemplified by popular ones like South Park, Simpsons, and even to some degrees, Disney ones, tend to point out and laugh at social ills.

The Japanese anime, in contrast, avoid all talks of what Japan is really like (in fact, some of the most popular ones do not even include Japan or Japanese people). Superhuman forces (magic, "aliens," extremely destructive power, etc) are omnipresent, and viewers are encouraged to imagine themselves within the anime. The purpose of the anime (as opposed to cartoons), is not to draw cynical laughter from dark humor, but to create illusions of a shiny, optimistic, heroic "other world" that everyone can become someone important.

The fact that such anime can become widely popular point out one thing about the Japanese psyche: even as Japan continue to lead the world in livability (as defined by convenience, good service, etc), the Japanese citizens are not satisfied. Rather, they are fed up with a structured society where they are forced to conform, not stand out, and suppress their sometimes wild inner personalities. But at the same time, most simply feel dismayed that nothing can be changed to reverse such forced conformity...so much for those great conveniences in life.

Doing On-the-Ground Sales Without Cultural Comprehension....

"Wow, this Kakegawa Noodles is really good!"

"Thanks..."

"Kakegawa is famous for tea right?"

"Yeah..."

"So does Kakegawa Noodles somehow related to the tea?"

"Nah, nothing special about these noodles..."

"I really hope Kakegawa Noodles can become a national brand name like Hakodate or Sapporo Noodles!"

"...."

As the chef/owner fell silent, no more can be heard from the little eatery with seven counter-seats besides the slurping noises of the serious-looking couple attacking away at their noodle bowls with great concentration. Slowly, the awkward yet intentionally excited-looking smile on my face slowly gave away to blankness.

Failure.

No more can be said of the situation. The chef stoically started washing the dishes of previous customers as the strangely energetic pop songs exaggerated the lack of any feelings in the little room. It was cold-hard trade of cash-for-grub. No ambitions, no extra services, no plan to become anything that it currently is not.

Conversation Over. Pay and get out. Just another routine, robotic "Thank you" at the door.

So, as I have mentioned in the previous post, I am officially a salesman for Rakuten starting this week. And being that rebellious seekers of "my own way of doing things," I decided to do something sales personnel in Rakuten have not do for years: doing door-to-door sales (the 30 shops that started Rakuten back in 1997 were all acquired this way)....well, with a slight modification: I go in as a regular paying customer, point out the bottleneck for buying desired products, and try to lead the conversation to Internet Shopping.

The results, well, were not desirable, so far. The noodle house I quoted above was a bit of an exception because I am still having a hard time determining why how would want to do Internet Shopping in the first place (ship dry noodles across the country, when the owner himself does not even believe that his noodles are special in any way?) But of the several shops I have visited throughout the late morning and early afternoon, the same issue seemed to haunt me.

Smooth conversation seems to be hampered by cultural incomprehension on my side.

Sure, given that I am not a good salesman in the first place, it could have been just my incapability to successfully connect their current business situations (i.e. unwillingness to consider ambitious business expansions) with Internet Shopping and Rakuten. But somehow I also felt that the conversations did not go because they just remained so superficially at the buyer-seller level, without evoking any sort of emotional connections that would lead to the level of friendship and trust necessary to bring about honest outbursts of desire for breaking the status quo.

Remember that I did (and mostly remained just) a customer in all of the shops I entered. The local shops, of course, have local customers. By not knowing enough about the local cultures, I am just another guy with cash, not someone who can boldly propose some crazy new idea like starting a cyber-shop and expect to be accepted. Many sharing of common values have to build up trust, and I have no ability to keep such a conversation going even if both the shop owners and I have such energy, time, and inclination....

So, what is the next step? hmmm....looks like my strategy of on-the-ground sales may have to become more straightforward. Instead of acting as if I am paying customer, I perhaps should just go in as a salesman from the start and see what happens. More direct rejections, definitely, but it would give me more freedom to talk about Rakuten as it is and perhaps even raise the possibility of getting a few shop owners actually excited about going to a national or even international market.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

My Own Changing Career Path: From the "Command Center" to the "Battlefront"

Ok, perhaps a bit exaggerated to say that my career will completely change from this, but it was announced last Sunday morning that I will end my post at the CEO Office and move to Sales Development starting the coming Tuesday (making this the last weekend I got before I will have to start introducing myself a bit differently). Despite my continued speculation of where I work in the future, the sudden shift to a sales position still surprised me (not to mention flabbergasting the others who heard the story) to quite a shocking degree.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Nicknames: Forced Delusions of Corporate Equality and Cultural Assimilation

Last Monday saw a sudden announcement of a brand-new corporate tradition here at Rakuten: the forced adoption of nicknames. Yes, everyone was ORDERED to register a 7-letter maximum UNCHANGEABLE official nickname by this past Thursday. The nickname was to be searchable in official records (emails and any sort of employee list) and will become past of the name badges that the company requires ever employee to wear during their entire time on company premises.

The reason: more equal communication among all employees. Supposedly, even the higher-ups (Executive Officers and the Boss himself) have selected nicknames and are expecting their subordinates to call them by those nicknames in public. I really do applaud the sincere effort by the Boss to reduce distances among different ranks of the corporate ladder, but such a measure does nothing beyond generating a bit of over-the-lunch conversation for a couple of reasons.

(1) The implementation and execution of the nickname-calling system is and will continue to be fundamentally unequal. Obviously, it is completely ironic yet rings so true of Japanese corporate culture to see a measure of equality like nicknames to be implemented as a top-down, NON-voluntary order. The face that using your own name as nickname was not a choice is a fundamental sign of how unequal and authoritarian the action was. Oh yeah, by the way, everyone was cautioning each other to NOT openly refer to their superiors by nicknames for fear of career damage...so much for their "rank-flattening" nature.

(2) The move is an enormous disrespect to individual cultural identity, especially in a microcosm marked by presence of many different cultures with differing sensitivities. The most telling sign is how most people simply adopted English (or English-sounding) names as their nicknames. Sure, it could certainly be true that some Japanese, like the Chinese, think of English names as "cool," but because the majority chose English-sounding names as nicknames, for the individual to not follow suit is now somehow regarded as refusing to be globalized.

Furthermore, along the same line of logic, what I am really afraid of is that the adoption of nicknames as a requirement for an employee is becoming a covert method for Rakuten to force its own employees into some sort of unified conforming Rakuten employee culture. The motive reminds me of how Chinese teachers force foreigners to get Chinese names in order to be "immersed" in Chinese culture, and will certainly become intra-company social force to destroy any sort of individual identity still steadfastly held by individual employees.

Simply stated, company-wide adoption of nicknames is the latest in a cycle of actions undertaken by the unity-conscious management of the company to force all employees, Japanese and foreign, into a Rakuten-style obedient mindset codified by company ideology of Rakuten Shugi and defined by Japanese corporate traditions. Acceptance of the mindset is punctuated as the prerequisite for working at Rakuten (and corporate Japan) as an employee. A saddening personal example can illustrate this point well:

I had the opportunity to go having a Mexican dinner with some of the Indian new graduates who started the company this month. Asking them about the conflicts between their religious adherence (Hindus do not eat beef, drink, or smoke) and eating in Japan, they tell me that they have abandoned religion in favor of mingling more with their Japanese coworkers. They go to Japanese-style drinking parties (nomikai, 飲み会) and eat beef at the company cafeteria because there are nothing that is religiously appropriate.

Even as the Indian new grads tell me all these with lightheartedness, both they and I cannot help but feel sorrow. Religion is one of the most important aspect of one's culture and all of us should believe that respecting religions is the first step of globalization. As the Indians tell me how their parents do not know that they are drinking in that Mexican restaurant, I had to really fight down my inner anger against Rakuten's, and corporate Japan's, half-hearted attempts for accepting the foreign that only serve to push the foreigners emotionally further away from Japan.

Egyptian Revolution, Emergence of Nationalist Populism, and My Career in International Relations Revisited

After 18 days of street protests involving millions of common people, the secular authoritarian regime of Hosni Mubarak has been abruptly brought down in Egypt. The fact that Egypt of Mubarak, as one of the only major Arab powers to recognize Israeli existence and American power in the region, can be so suddenly brought down with street protest can only be taken a chilling sign of how much doubts the common people have assigned regional stability based on American political controls.

Washington has to be feeling uneasy even as it "chose the people over Mubarak." The disappearance of pro-American political control creates a power vacuum open for irrational Egyptian nationalists and even worse, anti-American, anti-Israeli "Islamic fundamentalists" of the Muslim Brotherhood to fill. America, while preparing further aid to help keep the newly born Egyptian democracy stable, must at the same time be fully aware of the possibility for "undesired elements" to hijack the "democratic revolution."

The most worrisome aspect for America, as well as any foreign power seeking political influences in foreign lands, is that soft power, in the form of cultural imports into other countries, can no longer add any sort of stability into bilateral and multilateral relations. Just as values of emotions need to considered in international relations, the importance of having mutual respect for local cultures can no longer be ignored for the sake of stability.

To be specific, people in most countries, unlikely the politically indifferent citizens of Japan, have strong nationalistic agenda based on strong desire to preserve their local cultures. They, thus, are unwilling to knowingly live with American influence over their own countries and American choke-hold over their nationalist destinies. For America to continue exercising global influence, it needs to stop adhering to loyalty of its own cultural values abroad and thereby remove its own cultural bias in international relations.

This lack of cultural loyalty is needed to calm international relations in the 21st century.

As the ideological and militaristic groupings of the Cold War gave way to dominance of American soft power and economic conflicts among different national interests, the people, seeking more security in their livelihoods, is becoming the primary influence in instigating foreign aggressions.

Even in Rakuten, the IT conglomerate I work for in Tokyo, tensions exist within its microcosm of different nationalities. Foreigners blame inflexibility of Japanese culture for a bureaucracy that rejects all new ideas, while the Japanese suspect motives of foreigners’ desires to “globalize” the company.

And with the media making inflammatory comments regarding other countries, most people with little experience outside their own cultures become more biased against - less willing to learn about - their “enemies.”

However, people and their governments everywhere strive for the same goals: economic security, preservation of sovereignty and established values, and freedom from overt interventions. Discussions of those interests can be facilitated without the distracting “noises” of deliberately inflammatory diversions.

My goal is to become that facilitator.

By inserting a fluid cultural element into standard international diplomatic procedures, I seek to create new methods of diplomacy in which the common people are not sacrificed by international conflicts instigated by misunderstandings and jingoism.

Rather, my career objective, like that of Rakuten, is to empower the common people. We aim to enable individuals to seek economic self-betterment and greater control of their own destinies through entrepreneurship. Yet, because of its for-profit nature, Rakuten must exclude those who need empowerment the most.

They, the poor across the world’s underdeveloped hinterlands, can only be helped by international diplomacy. By helping governments to provide better environments for economic growth and equal opportunities, I can help advance the welfare of the neediest.

Using my enthusiasm for foreign cultures and through research into new methods of international diplomacy, I would like to eventually work for the UN and other non-profit international organizations. I can then live in underdeveloped countries to assist local governments and people with help from the international community and without nationalistic biases.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

"Glocalization" and Avoiding a New Form of Cultural Imperialism by Watching TV

Amidst the continuing doubts of whether English is even necessary in a completely Japanese environment, the English-nization Project in Rakuten is continuing to move forward (albeit with slow speed and high controversy in implementing practically every step). And with even greater difficulty, plenty of individual frustrations, (hidden) resistance, the mental portion of English-nization, i.e. "thinking not exclusively like a Japanese person," is also somehow being pushed forward in small isolated patches.

However, while everyone has been focusing on defining this so-called "globalization" in Rakuten and arguing how it is practically implemented in an already established and rather conservative company structure, all are seeming to how divisive even labeling "globalization=good" can be. Just as the company is all the sudden divided into camps of those who can and cannot speak English due to English-nization, "globalization" is bound to put those "global" people on a pedestal and give them some expectation of greater authority and power.

Yet, the one key difference between the two is that while language ability can be seen on paper and heard in conversations, how globalized one is can hardly be concretely defined even as a set of standard measurements. And at the same time, since everyone has somehow claimed that the existing mentality is not "global enough," it is given opportunities for a series of pundits to define and attempt to enforce their own definitions of "globalization."

And that "globalization," in my opinion, has lead to nothing but a new form of cultural imperialism with some simple rephrasing but exactly the same implications. Precisely because every pundit who came forth to define globalization has ironically limited the "globalized way of thinking" in one particular way, there is little difference between their attempts to spread "globalization" and the authoritative and systematic cultural assimilations that were responsible for conflicts and cultural destructions.

A major factor of resistance to "globalization" has been how intolerant of those who considered themselves to be "global" toward those who they consider as "not trying to be global." In a classic example of the "open-minded" being intolerant, the "globalized citizens" have fallen into the Absolutist trap of disapproving parallel local mentalities. In the process, "globalization" gradually became another hated buzzwords to rationalize established physical appearances of class differences.

The answer to such degeneration of "globalization" may be to dispose of the concept of it altogether in favor of promoting "Glocalization" in its place. Instead of applying the same way of thinking everywhere, one is suggested to completely immerse oneself in every locality one resides in, completely taking up local ways of thinking and customs without any intention of comparing to any other locality. By seeking to understand the dominant culture in every place and not trying to arrogantly insert foreign ideas, one can truly become a local citizen in every place one resides.

So, with that "Glocalization" in my mind, I finally invested in a TV last week. Working in the same building every weekday and having a limited social circle, watching TV may be the only way for me to get an understanding of modern Japanese culture and thinking (however superficial it is). Sacrificing productivity and time for sleep have become increasingly necessary so I do not remain oblivious to current cultural developments. In such a way, TV acts as an entertaining self-motivation to accept more and more of the local culture.

Of course, TV is only the first way to understand the local culture. Just as TV limits entertainment options to only a few local options (unlike the Internet), expanding social circle while I am in Japan should also become more exclusively focused on Japanese people only if I want to understand Japan more thoroughly. And yes, as a logical extension, I must be willing to give up all of that once I feel I have strong enough of an understanding for Japan so that I can move elsewhere and repeat the same cycle.

To be a "glocalized citizen" requires complete openness to every aspect of all cultures as well as an ability to hold steady to one's own personality within a shifting cultural mix. Individual Glocalization requires adventurousness that takes one to every corner of the globe as well as willingness to sacrifice friendship and stability to pursue and understand cultures, places, and people that have yet to be heard, seen, and met. And as the world become more integrated economically and travel restrictions freed up, we can hope to see more of these "glocalized citizens" appear in all parts of the world.

A real atmosphere of "Globalization" can only be created as a congregation of "glocalized citizens." Conflict is reduced to zero as no one stick close to their "own" cultures and thoughts, while "open-mindedness" without intentions to condescendingly lecture others on how to become "open-minded" allow for all, even those who have never lived outside their native cultures, to mature as "glocalized citizens." Only in such a nurturing environment can questioning authority be truly meaningful and proposed measures for globalization be truly sustained.