International Human Resource Management in Japanese Firms Essay

During the 1980s, commentators and researchers of almost every stripe witnessed what was invariably seen as a miracle: the juggernaut Japanese economy. It seemed a perfect system, with all cylinders-from the political coordination of the economy through industrial structure and interfirm interactions to human resources management practices and cooperative relationships on the shop floor–clicking at high, flawless speed.

In the mindset of the time, one question quickly followed: How could the American economic system, with all its contrasting warts and imperfections, hope to compete against this titan? Now, little more than a decade later, that sighting of a miracle has been downgraded rather substantially. In the words of a Fortune analyst (Powell, 2002), “Being compared to Japan these days, economically speaking, is about as low as it gets” (p. 91). The reasons for this decline are varied but include many of the same factors that supposedly accounted for its ascendance.

Now, Keeley pulls back the curtain even more, exposing a system seemingly trapped in neutral. Keeley, a Westerner fluent in Japanese and professor in international management at Sangyo University in Japan, is well positioned to reveal the inner workings of the Japanese corporation, particularly its international human resources management (IHRM) practices, without the infatuation that marked many of the earlier reports. The inescapable conclusion from this volume: These practices create almost insurmountable competitive disadvantages.

In addition, Keeley provides a deep look at the tenets of Japanese culture, the management and personnel practices tied to that culture, and the resulting business practices and organizational dynamics that characterize the modern Japanese corporation. In the process, he also offers up a compelling argument for diversity, not simply as an affirmative action accounting of staffing, but rather as a mindset of inclusion and involvement. For all those who read about the Japanese miracle of the 1980s, this book is an important corrective and should go on your reading list.

It can also be recommended to anyone interested in the cross-cultural application or transfer of management or human resources practices, or organizational behavior in a global environment. Keeley launches his analysis with the observation that “the greatest challenge Japanese companies face in expanding their foreign direct investment is how to integrate host country national (HCN) managers into the management process of their oversees subsidiaries as well as that of the parent companies themselves” (p. ). The reasons why such integration is important are clear and simple: competitive advantage in a global economy requires that a multinational company (MNC) be able to tap the talents of local HCN managers; to do this, the MNC must be able attract, retain, and develop talented HCN managers. Absent this, the MNC will forfeit local expertise as well as violate host country antidiscrimination laws, something for which Japanese MNCs have a certain notoriety.

More specifically, Keeley argues, the IHRM practices of Japanese MNCs are their Achilles heel, and this is due to the fact that “the Japanese system of management is so culture dependent that it is difficult to incorporate nonJapanese into the system, making internationalization of their organizations problematic. ” (p. 9) This theme is examined more fully in Chapter 2, looking at the issues of cross-culture management and the importance of national culture on organizational dynamics. For example, using Hofstede’s (1991) national cultures variables, it is the work group-not the individual-that is the foundation of the Japanese organization.

Japanese management techniques, such as lifetime employment, consensual decision making, and rewarding group members equally, are built upon the group. In Chapter 3, Keeley examines the three HRM practices that characterize the larger, global Japanese MNC: lifetime employment, a senioritybased wage system, and company-dominated unions. He also discusses the unique leadership role played by the personnel department. It is in this context that he reviews other distinctive features, like the long work hours of Japanese managers and the after-hours workgroup socializing that follows.

Contending that this practice is essential to Japanese management, it is not common elsewhere, and Japanese managers find it difficult to manage without it. In this chapter, Keeley also does a good job reviewing the key traits of Japanese culture that so affect their HRM practices, including: strong ethnocentrism; an emphasis on the responsibilities of a (corporate) “household” (like paternalistic familism); harmony and loyalty in the context of vertically defined relationships; and the rigid separation of public face from private, personal feelings.

Keeley also discusses how educational institutions are used as recruiting sources for corporate staffing. Although aspects of his review of Japanese culture, history, and institutions may be familiar to some, the coverage of Japanese IHRM practices in Chapter 4 is probably not. According to Keeley, Japanese firms were slow to move into investing in foreign sites and facilities, and it was not until the 1990s that Japan became a major foreign investor. Even so, only 8% of its manufacturing capacity was moved off shore, relatively small compared to the 17% for U.

S. and 20% for German firms. On a continuum of IHRM practices, ranging from ethnocentric operations at one end to fully open and integrated global operations at the other, most Japanese firms would be classified as ethnocentric. Further, management positions in Japanese subsidiaries are invariably filled by native Japanese. Over the last 30 years or so, Japanese firms have consistently employed three to four times as many parent country nationals (PCNs) in manager jobs as have U. S. or European subsidiaries.

Ethnocentric IHRM practices are also found in such other conditions as lack of local decision-making autonomy, demands for selecting and training PCN managers, substantial communication problems between PCN and HCN managers in Japanese subsidiaries, and even the pariah treatment that repatriating PCN managers experience when returned to Japan. In Chapter 5, Keeley continues his close and critical look at the interactions between culture and organizational behavior by examining communication and decision-making practices.

This analysis is supported by the findings of his survey of Japanese subsidiaries in Singapore, Malaysia, and Australia in 1994 and 1996, as presented in Chapter 6. In the final chapter, Keeley draws out the implications of his analysis. HCN managers play a limited role in the management of local subsidiaries, with most decisions made at headquarters in Japan and communicated directly to the Japanese managers on site without local HCN manager involvement.

These conditions make working for a Japanese subsidiary unattractive to many ambitious HCN managers, putting Japanese firms at a relative competitive disadvantage in the labor market. More generally, Japanese management practices are difficult to transfer to foreign operations and indeed may actually impede efficient and effective local operations.

Both Japanese culture and their business operations create formidable barriers to effective integration. In short, Japanese MNCs seem tuck in an ethnocentric mode of operation that virtually dooms them to long-term mediocrity in the global economy. Keeley concludes that in order for them to succeed in a global economy, Japanese companies must transcend their ethnocentric attitudes and IHRM policies and practices and look at diversity, not as a defeat, but as a strength. Although some firms have recently begun to acknowledge this, most show little interest. International Human Resource Management offers an abundance of information and insight into the global HR operations of Japanese firms.

In addition, it also provides an intriguing, more general assessment of the challenges involved in managing cross-culturally and the importance of effective diversity management. The book is well written. The frequent use of acronyms, like HCN and PCN, eventually becomes easy to follow. Though I found Chapter 6 on the author’s own research somewhat anticlimatic, all in all this is a fascinating tour book and is recommended without hesitation.

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