Tuesday, 16 November 2010

Business Meetings in Japan

If you're used to doing business in the US, business meetings between Japanese companies seem very strange at first. In the US, a meeting generally lasts several hours and is planned well in advance. The discussion is focussed, with an agenda and a deliberate progression towards a conclusion. At the end, though there are generally no formal minutes, there are action items and agreements. You know what you've achieved, whether it was a lot or a little.

When I first started working closely with my Japanese colleagues, I just couldn't understand what was happening. Meetings, even at a high level, can happen at short notice. They're rarely longer than an hour. And at the end, as a Westerner you have little idea what has been discussed, and no idea at all what has been concluded. It's just like a cosy chat amongst old friends. Very often, it's not at a formal conference table, but sitting in armchairs around a low table. For this reason I call this meeting style the "Fireside Chat".

An OL ("office lady", a kind of general administrative assistant, invariably female and fairly young) brings in drinks - hot tea in winter, cold barley tea in summer. The head people from the respective teams start a conversation, others join in occasionally, showing due respect. At the end one of them looks at their watch and says, "ah, I think it's time to finish" (actually what they say is a lot less explicit than that). Everyone stands up and files out to the elevator, performs the ritual elevator bow, and the visitors depart. "What was that all about?" you're left thinking to yourself.

Since business does get done in Japan, just as effectively as anywhere else, you can't help wondering how this works. Of course the well-known Japanese dislike of conflict plays a part. But there are as many reasons for business partners to disagree in Japan as there are anywhere else - price, specification, availability, all that stuff - yet they evidently do get resolved somehow.

In the end I realised that geography has a lot to do with it. In the US, such meetings typically involve a plane journey, often an overnight stay. They're expensive and it's important to get the most out of them. In Japan, most large companies have their offices in Tokyo. It's rare that it takes more than a half-hour taxi or subway ride to get there. So meetings are cheap, and you can afford to do them quite often. They don't need to be so focussed, it's OK to let things kind of evolve naturally over several of these apparently rather loose discussions. That coupled with the natural Japanese way of doing things just leads to this completely different style.

Of course, as with everything in Japan, it may be that I've missed the point completely.

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