Working with international headquarters

When Russ Finney travels to Japan as the CIO of Tokyo Electron America, he knows that many of the strategy sessions in which the biggest decisions will be made won't take place in conference rooms or board meetings, but in restaurants and nightclubs.

During the dozen years he's been in his role, Finney has learned a lot about the differences in management styles and cultures between the U.S. and Japan, including a tendency among Japanese businesspeople to make decisions in informal, after-hours settings. "Learning the subtleties in the business culture is an art, and it takes a person who wants to gain a deeper understanding of those cultural differences," says Finney.

CIOs of U.S. subsidiaries need a combination of keen observation skills, social savvy and intuition to strike up successful relationships with executives half a world away. "There are no right or wrong cultures, but some Americans perceive that the American culture should be the global norm," says Don Southerton, president and CEO of Bridging Culture, a consulting firm. That kind of mind-set will get you into trouble, he says. "The most challenged American executives are those who have the least global experience," says Southerton.

In contrast, successful CIOs pay careful attention to cultural nuances when they interact with foreign managers. Dave Rice, CIO at U.S.-based Siemens Medical Solutions USA, a wholly owned subsidiary of Siemens, recalls a conference in which a group of IT and business managers, were relaying information about a worldwide customer management system to peers in Japan. "We would say stuff, and then there would be dead silence on the other end," says Rice.

After this happened several times, the U.S. managers began to wonder if they'd lost their telecommunications connection. Then a Japanese manager spoke up and said they preferred to consider what was being said more before responding.

"The difference is that here in the U.S., it's a quick turn-of-the-crank type of response," says Rice.

One of the most striking differences between U.S. and Japanese executives is how each group makes decisions. In the U.S., management tends to arrive at decisions quickly, using a top-down approach. Japanese businesspeople make decisions more slowly and by consensus, using an approach known asnemawashi, which means "tending the roots." In Japan, a business director might float an idea to middle managers first and then try to build a consensus for it before introducing it to senior executives.

But the more time-consuming, consensus-building approach has its drawbacks, particularly in today's fast-paced business environment. "In a larger organization, [consensus-based] decision-making can be impeded by size," notes Robert Schwartz, CIO at Matsushita Electric Industrial's Panasonic Corporation of North America division.

Fortunately for Schwartz, Matsushita's chairman restructured the company five years ago, bringing greater alignment among its worldwide sales, manufacturing, and research and development teams. Those changes have resulted in faster decision-making, says Schwartz.

But Schwartz and other American CIOs at Japanese companies have learned how to adapt to the decision-making-by-consensus style. "One of the things you have to learn is when to stop pushing when it's clear that's the direction [the company is] heading in, even if you disagree with it," says Terry Brooks, general manager of the information services division at Yamaha Motor, USA."At some point, you have to stop swimming upstream."

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