employee development in japan

At a meeting I facilitated of Japanese and non-Japanese board directors of a financial services company in London, the Japanese directors had many questions about employee development in the UK, as it seemed so different from employee development in Japan. They wanted to know how the highly specialized professionals in the firm gained the management knowledge needed to reach senior management positions. The answer was that in the UK this is largely through attending externally provided courses, in contrast to Japan where this knowledge has traditionally been gained “on the job” through job rotation.

This then led to a further question – what is the incentive for employers to invest in externally provided training if employees just use this as a springboard to go to another company?

The answer to this was that British financial services companies are under increasing pressure from the regulatory authorities for managers to be accountable for not only their own conduct and behaviour but also that of their team. This means that the annual performance appraisal is not just about whether performance targets have been met but also behavioural goals. Any gaps between expectations and achievement in terms of performance and behaviour should then lead to a development conversation about what kind of training and resources the employee needs to do their job better.

With the introduction of “job type” (known as “job gata” in Japanese) employee development in Japan, this kind of approach will be needed in Japan too. It is different from seika shugi (literally “results based system”, introduced in many Japanese companies in the 1990s and 2000s) because seika shugi was more focused on performance targets and the impact on bonuses, whereas job type appraisals are both on performance and behaviours and what this means for the person’s future development.

Managers cannot just leave it up to HR departments to take the “yoko narabi” (one size fits all) approach to training each cohort simultaneously because the training has to fit the job descriptions and personal development plans.  Similarly pay and bonuses cannot be set at a “one size fits all” basis across every department either.

It may take a while for a graduate recruit to grow into the job, however, depending on the function or business they are allocated to, so it would be unfair if there was too much disparity in the way the graduate intake was treated, early on.

This is why major employers in Europe such as Unilever have multiple graduate training programmes.  Unilever offers 7 different tracks for its Future Leaders Programme for new graduates: marketing, HR, finance, R&D, supply chain and engineering, technology management and customer development (sales).

I nearly joined the Unilever marketing track (more than 30 years’ ago) but rejected the offer because I felt overwhelmed by the huge binder they placed in front of me, mapping out my first three years in minute detail. Instead, I joined a PR company as one of their first graduate recruits. I later came to regret this choice, as the training programme was entirely in-house, poorly executed and graduate trainees were treated inconsistently. Japanese companies need to find a balance between these two extremes and the Japanese yokonarabi model, both overseas and in Japan. 

This article originally appeared in Japanese in the Teikoku Databank News

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