New Thinking In Japanese Firm: The Individual Counts

THE individual in Japanese business has traditionally been judged in terms of his contribution to the larger corporate team. So it surprised one overseas manager attending a symposium in Cambridge, Mass., recently when two men at the forefront of Japanese business recommended focusing on the individual as a strategy to turn around an ailing corporation.

``Up until now, when I think of Japanese organizations, I think of the family ... use of the word `we' not `I,' '' Charles Armitage, executive director of the Poon Kam Kai Institute of Management in Hong Kong, said after the first major symposium of the International Consortium for Executive Development Research, a three-year-old corporate and academic think tank based in Lexington, Mass.

But Ikujiro Nonaka, a professor at Tokyo's Hitotsubashi University, and Hiroshi Yamagata, a Yamaha Motor Company executive in Shizuoka, said concentrating on each employee helped Yamaha emerge strong from a 1983 motorcycle war with the Honda Motor Company of Tokyo.

That year, Yamaha began a companywide transformation that is still taking place. The slogan was ``Proud Yamaha by all'' and later ``Bigger Yamaha than now,'' both stressing the greater good of the company. But in 1992, a new slogan, ``Having deep excitement is my vocation,'' spoke to each employee and his job satisfaction.

As part of the corporate transformation, workers were asked to complete a questionnaire on their attitudes toward work. Answers about what kind of person should be a Yamaha employee ranged from ``assertive individualist'' to ``expressive'' and ``willing to take on new challenges,'' Mr. Yamagata explains.

``It seemed that the company valued the individual experience,'' Mr. Armitage says. ``If their organization can change, it calls into question our whole view of Japan.''

One small step for man, one giant leap for MCI?

MCI Communications Corp. is jumping into cyberspace with an Internet service for consumers and businesses.

The nation's second-largest long distance telephone company announced on Monday the details of plans to provide business and home computer users access to a broad range of services including an electronic shopping mall (safe for credit card transactions), consulting and advertising services for businesses that want to reach clients and suppliers, and a simple software system for easy use.

MCI will charge consumers about $50 for the Internet software and $20 a month for seven hours of access in cities and three hours in rural areas, where calling in will be done over toll-free lines.

The Internet is a computer network set up in the 1960s to link the US military with university researchers. It has expanded to include 25 million users in data networks worldwide.

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