Think Like an Amoeba: How Japan Manages Talent

Japanese employers approach recruitment and management of employees with retention in mind. One technique is to encourage collaboration and transparency through Amoeba Management.

When relocating to Japan for a new role, it helps to understand the prevalent talent management strategies there. In places like the United States, the tendency to showcase one’s personality and skills earned through prior experience, education, and training to win a new role is common. Japanese companies have their own methods for attracting new employees and developing their careers over time.

Studies from the journals Japan Labor Issues and Japan Spotlight have examined Japanese talent management. Each April, Japan welcomes a new cohort of college graduates eager to join the workforce. Fortunately for this young demographic, they’ll land jobs with relative ease, as Japanese companies often hire young talent straight out of college. Despite a lack of experience, Japanese employers look at this demographic as filled with promise, and hope to cultivate their skills and expertise over a long career. Long-term retention is of utmost importance, and Japanese companies want to keep employees from the start of their entry into the workforce all the way to retirement.

During this long career, employers and employees invest in opportunities to gain skills and expertise in different roles over time. Thus, getting into senior management in Japanese companies may take a bit longer than expected in other parts of the world. Along the way, Japanese employers evaluate performance after employees have been with them for a certain number of years. As a result, the average age to be promoted to a managerial position in Japan is 40.

In places where a successful career is indicated by frequent positive performance evaluations or rapid attainment of high-paying leadership positions, the Japanese model may seem slow and to emphasize tenure above all else. A study by the Economist Intelligence Unit, however, shows that Japanese employers value the ability to learn quickly and a high level of technical knowledge. For those working in Japan, such knowledge and skills are cultivated over time.

From a talent management perspective, the Japanese fill jobs based on the skills needed for the position itself rather than the attributes or personality of the candidate. In this approach, talent management looks to bridge skills gaps by matching a person to a job based on skills alone, regardless of factors like cultural fit or chemistry. Additionally, hiring from within and from large talent pools filled with recent graduates, prolongs the process of identifying high and low performers. Nevertheless, Japanese talent strategies can vary, with some companies taking both skill and personal values, such as creativity and entrepreneurialism, into consideration.

Other factors unique to Japan that affect talent management are employee reluctance to change jobs, a preference for teamwork over individualism, and reluctance to join workforce social media channels. Cultural preference for trust and privacy may keep someone from using LinkedIn or jumping into another job at another company without first building some level of the trust cultivated over a long career. Approaches to work are less individually focused, and companies tend to prefer the collective effort toward a common goal. Interestingly, Japan differs from some Southeast Asia companies where managers provide constant feedback and performance reviews, and goals flow from the collective to the individual.

Then there’s “Amoeba Management,” introduced by Dr. Kazuo Inamori, who founded global training company Kyocera in 1959. The philosophy is based upon the organization of cells as the building blocks of nature, specifically Amoebas, which expand, divide and disband through processes of management and coordination. From this Inamori developed the Amoeba Management System in which an organization is divided into small units where every employee operates under a management of awareness. To cultivate this awareness, teams create a management plan within each “amoeba,” where all members contribute and collaborate to achieve the amoeba's business goals. It is a bottom-up process that fosters collaboration and transparency to build a larger, more well-functioning system where everyone achieves their goals together.

In a study on amoeba management through Kyocera, MIT Sloan Management Review found that, “Like other decentralized management systems, amoeba management is designed to spur market agility, customer service and employee empowerment. But it is also supposed to reinforce performance management processes such as human resources selection and training, accounting and organizational development to promote positive performance. Amoeba management is further intended to promote the successful implementation of the organization’s strategy, at the overall organizational level as well as the business unit level. As such, amoeba management embodies the characteristics of a full and complete performance management system.”

Whether working collaboratively on teams, rotating roles within an organization to diversify a skillset, or becoming part of an Amoeba system of management, talent in Japan is managed with the long game in mind. Those living in or relocating to Japan for work can expect to have their cultural assumption of management challenged, while experiencing a rewarding new approach to employee development.

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