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Transforming HR and Japan

I had the honour to participate in the official launch of the partnership between Excelity Global and a new Japan-based payroll outsourcing organisation called Socialynx where I act as an advisor.  Over 100 HR professionals attended to hear presentations on HR transformation, outsourcing and see a demonstration of the Japanese version of Excelity employee self-service.  The highlight was the Q&A session where the panel (which included me) fielded questions from the audience.  The discussion reminded me that Japan still is at the very beginning of their HR Transformation journey.

HR in most Japanese organisations has not transformed, very few of them have adopted the organisation structure of Business Partners, Centre of Expertise and Shared Service as designed by Dave Ulrich.  Very few companies development and implement more advanced talent processes such as performance management.   Even the deployment of employee self-service is limited with most HR departments taking responsibility for maintaining employee data and performing transactions on behalf of the staff.  Why is it that Japan is behind on HR transformation?

I would like to offer the following observations, based on over 20 years of working with Japanese organisations and clients. 

Language – Many senior HR staff in Japanese companies do not speak English.  And unfortunately, many of the conferences, best practice case studies, white papers and similar are written in English.  And while some organisations, Deloitte as an example, translate some of their white papers and materials into Japanese it is limited.  In many multinational corporations HQ in Japan, you will find English speaking Japanese HR professionals, but they will most likely be the more junior staff.  This takes me to my second observation.

Seniority – Many Japanese companies still have strong hierarchical organisations, and more junior staff will not challenge management, drive innovation and change without expressed approval from their bosses.  And in many cases, their managers either do not see the value of change or potentially are threatened by HR Transformation because they do not understand it.  I had an HR person say to me that his boss felt that every HR person should spend several years doing administrative work, so they know how to do it.  This type of leadership and management style, which is common in Japan, will not transform HR.

Performance Management – many Japanese companies, do not do performance management for several reasons.  First, it is still years of service that is the predominate criteria upon which someone gets promoted and second, even if someone was not performing it is not very easy to remove them from their role.  Even the ability to differentiate pay and rewards based on performance does not exist in most Japanese organisations.  Due to these points, there is limited value perceived in doing performance management.

HRIS and Employee Self Services (ESS) – Many multinational organisations that are HQ in Japan do use HRIS solutions such as SAP, SuccessFactors and Workday.  And even with the implementation of these new HR and Talent Management solutions, there is limited deployment of ESS and even less of Manager Self Services (MSS).  HR still provides very “high touch” HR services in many organisations and completes the administrative tasks or does the transactions for the employees and managers within the company.

These and I am sure other areas contribute to Japan not transforming the HR function.  Is there anything that can be done to help Japan speed up their journey to better HR service delivery and a focus on strategic HR?

Personally, I think several things can be done and here are a few examples: -

Pick an area of HR and transform – Taking the big bang approach does not usually work in most organisations and even less so in Japan.  Choose a process that creates a quick win like moving to e-learning as a primarily learning channel versus classroom.  Or move to recruitment online that does both internal and external applicants for the position.   Whichever area is broken and where there will be a universal “thank you for fixing” is the first focus for HR transformation. And then go step-by-step to transform the HR function.

Implement new HRIS or roll out more functionality in your current HRIS – move to full ESS  and MSS so that employees and managers are empowered and also held responsible for ensuring the employee data is accurate and that transactions are completed on time. 

Find a trigger mechanism for change – sometimes the best way to start HR transformation is to create a trigger mechanism.  Implementing a new HRIS or outsourcing some or all of a process.  Each of these decisions will force HR to re-design processes and work towards a more transformed state.

I don’t believe that there is one thing that will help Japan move faster to a transformed HR function.  It might be possible for Japan to “leapfrog” other countries if they allow their ability to continuously improve and drive efficiency and effectiveness to be applied to HR.  Japanese companies have shown, in many other areas, that they can be innovative and transform.  The approach to production lines and quality control, especially in the automotive industry, was the brainchild of Japan.  Now is HR’s time to have those same skills and innovation applied.

Mary Sue Rogers


Posted On : 04-06-17

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