Business knows no borders, and today's multinational CIOs must overcome cultural differences, the tyranny of distance and a host of other challenges to support their company's global business strategy successfully.
Sooner rather than later, foreigners doing business in Japan will come head to head with the concept of nemawashi, an informal process of quietly building consensus for some proposed change or project by first getting feedback and buy-in from all interested parties.
The nemawashi concept makes any Japanese business meeting radically different from anything most Australians are used to. Before a formal meeting starts, participants have already drawn conclusions about the ideas to be presented, and proponents have likely sought approval for proposed ideas or projects from every person of influence involved. It was a system developed to minimize argument and maintain harmony.
Tony Newman, general manager information systems with Mitsubishi Motors Australia, who has been travelling to Japan for 21 years in a variety of roles, says it is one he admires and is very comfortable with. Like other Aussie CIOs working for multinationals, Newman knows that how effective he can be as a CIO is largely determined by the amount of influence he can build among his global peers. Learning the head office culture is, he says, an excellent place to start.
"I like the Japanese culture and I guess I have grown quite accustomed to it. I think one learns to work perhaps in ways that many Australians find strange," Newman says.
"The concept of nemawashi refers to the idea that when you want to dig a tree out, you don't just go and dig around one day and chop it down. You go out and very gently dig around the roots of the tree and then rock it a little bit, then you go back a week later and you dig a bit more and rock it a little bit, till finally on the day that you want to dig the tree out you just lean on it and it rolls over. In my experience you don't confront the Japanese. You work with them and you slowly move them in your direction. Confrontation and raised voices aren't something that I think works in Japanese culture," he says.
In this sense nemawashi might be the perfect model for Aussie branch office CIOs wanting to build influence among their global peers, wherever head office might be. With ever-growing numbers of corporations extending their activities across national boundaries, global teams have become commonplace, typically focused on using technology to break down barriers but incidentally introducing a multiplicity of cultural and people challenges.
Many Aussie CIOs are now key members of global teams grappling with ways to align technology not only across business units but also across borders and cultures. They quickly learn that being a multinational CIO demands cultural sensitivity, a willingness to be available at all manner of odd hours and an excellent command of corporate strategy if they are ever to win influence, let alone local buy-in to global projects. Without that shift, global teams will find it almost impossible to work in concert to achieve their goals, Gartner fellow Marianne Broadbent says. In fact, Australian CIOs working for multinationals must master the organization's global strategy if they are to have any influence at all.
"If I am a CIO of an international company, and I'm the Asia-Pac person, I really need to understand the global shifts and moves of my company, and not be caught unawares of what those developments are. I need to make sure that I'm hooked into the company's formal and informal networks - especially the formal ones," Broadbent says. "That is really hard for the CIOs in those organizations because there may well be shifts in the business that they may not be as aware of because those shifts are not happening in this area.
"I think that's a challenge for local CIOs who have Asia-Pac responsibilities or are the Australian IT head of a larger organization. And in many commercial organizations, that is just the way that it is."
Like many other multinational CIOs, Charlie Sukkar, SAP director Asia-Pacific with Alcatel Australia, agrees being able to do his job effectively depends on his ability to understand both short-term and long-term global corporate strategy. Just recently there was a divestment of a global product line, and it was important that the Australian operation understand the move was a key strategy in order to align its own IT/IS strategy. "It's actually vital that we understand the strategy both short-term and longer term," he says.
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