In Harvard Business School has a ‘Japan problem’ (Fortune.com, Jan 29, 2015) John A. Byrne reports that “MBA applicants to the prestigious business school from Japan have dwindled to a precious few. Harvard is beefing up its admissions presence in Tokyo to counter the trend.” Read more here.
The Harvard Dean, according to the article, blames the dwindling numbers to the insularity of Japanese students. But there may be other real reasons for the pointed avoidance of students of the American MBA program.
(Also in the same vein, see Latitude News’ “MBA presidents not big in Japan“)
An older report suggests why MBA holders sometimes clash with Japanese corporate culture…
SPECIAL REPORT: INTERNATIONAL EDUCATION | M.B.A.’s in Japan Struggle for Respect
By MIKI TANIKAWA
Published: November 24, 2010
“TOKYO — For many businesspeople looking to re-invent themselves by getting an M.B.A., there is one well-worn question: How much more will I be worth after obtaining the actual degree?
In Japan, the answer is not simple — nor is it a given that one’s perceived value will increase at all. In fact, most companies have been known to look askance at such an accomplishment, sometimes placing recent M.B.A. recipients in unrelated fields, or trying to re-acclimate their Japanese employees who have spent years overseas earning a degree.
“They believe in business know-how gained on the job, not in the classrooms,” said T.W. Kang, a Tokyo-based businessman who holds an M.B.A. from Harvard Business School. “They’d say you can’t learn it there. You have to learn it with your feet.”
But, partly in an effort to counter those perceptions, some business schools themselves are working to make their M.B.A. degrees more relevant.
Administrators of Japanese business schools like Hitotsubashi University’s Graduate School of International Corporate Strategy and Globis Business School, both in Tokyo, say they seek to offer a business education that takes into account the local corporate culture.
Hitotsubashi’s dean, Christina Ahmadjian, said that students at her school are required to take a course in “knowledge creation.”
“Students read about the philosophy of Zen Buddhism, among many other things, and learn about how leading Japanese companies have innovated through sharing of ‘tacit knowledge’ — knowledge that is best communicated through long-term, close, personal relationships,” she said. “This is the polar opposite of the Wall Street view of things.”
This evolving approach to M.B.A.’s comes at a time when there is something of a boom for a mid-career business education in Japan.
Since the Ministry of Education began accrediting graduate schools meant to train business and management professionals seven years ago, more than 30 schools have sprung up in large cities like Tokyo and Osaka, typically run as evening and weekend programs stretched over two-year to four-year periods.
The growth in Japan has been fed by two major factors: A weak economy has pushed more professionals to seek degrees and certificates to improve their job prospects, and big Japanese companies have largely stopped sponsoring expensive overseas degrees the way they once did for their employees.
“Japanese companies have drastically reduced the number of people they send overseas,” Ms. Ahmadjian said about acquiring M.B.A.’s.
Despite the boon to the schools in Japan, the history of questioning the value of M.B.A.’s continues to present a hurdle, consultants and others say.
Mr. Kang, who has served on the boards of both Japanese and American companies, said the majority of Japanese managers at large corporations viewed business knowledge learned at school with suspicion and skepticism, bordering on disdain.
This notion runs deeper at engineering-driven, manufacturing companies, he said.
“They have so much trust for craftsmanship and believe that business school theory compromises that concept,” Mr. Kang said.
A friend of his, a chief financial officer of a leading Japanese company, recently shared an anecdote with him: During a lecture on financial management given by the chief financial officer, one engineer got up and asked, “Is it O.K. to pursue profits?”
That question — already settled in most business cultures — is characteristic of Japanese engineers, whose job it is to overcome technological hurdles rather than seek profits.
“Japanese shokunin, or craftsmen, feel satisfied if they realize and beat next-to-impossible expectations that customers demand of them,” Mr. Kang said.
Ms. Ahmadjian raised a similar point. “Many Japanese managers cling to the belief that the same ‘Japanese system’ of management that drove Japan’s economic rise decades ago is still appropriate and that everything from the U.S. is somewhat corrupt and wrong,” she said.
But she said that she perceived a growing interest in a more integrated approach, one that includes both Japanese and American principles. “A model of management is clearly emerging in the aftermath of the financial crisis — and it is going to be a combination of both.”
The phenomenon of questioning the value of business degrees took off in the 80’s and 90’s, when large Japanese companies were still sending their young employees in droves to American and European M.B.A. programs. To some skeptics back in Japan, “the M.B.A.s were considered a high-class English class,” Mr. Kang said.
When some students came back, a common practice was to place them in a most unrelated business arena, like domestic sales, furthest from what they learned at overseas schools.
The idea was to reorient the employee who may have become too westernized or become overconfident with their M.B.A. knowledge.
That issue, however, is fast disappearing, said Ms. Ahmadjian, partly because Japanese employers have found the practice counter-productive.
“I think those days are over,” she said. “Now, corporations use the returning M.B.A.s more effectively and immediately.”
In fact, Reiji Shibata, chief executive of Indigo Blue, a human resources consulting firm in Tokyo and formerly the chief executive of a number of Japanese firms, said Japanese M.B.A. holders generally do fine in the management consulting field, but not necessarily in the general business context.
“They have a tendency to overemphasize logic,” he said. “Their approach at times leads to clashes and dead ends and deals don’t go through as a result. This is especially so when you are working with different types of customers and partners.”
Mr. Shibata, who served as head of Mercer Human Resource Consulting, a leading American human resources advisory firm, in Japan, said the less-than-stellar reputation of M.B.A.’s may have resulted from the way they had been treated in the Japanese business world in the first place. “It appears to me that they feel they are constantly under-rated and under-estimated despite their degrees,” he said. “They have it backwards. They have to show performance first before they are recognized.”
Mr. Shibata added that this condition could lead them to flaunt and accentuate their business knowledge even more, turning off their Japanese co-workers and customers. “It is a vicious cycle,” he said.
Yoshihiko Takubo, deputy dean of Globis Business School in Tokyo, said that the fact that many young Japanese company-sponsored M.B.A. recipients quit their companies may have left a bad feeling with their employers and the Japanese business community. “But many people stayed on and became successful,” he said, adding that others who left went on to become successful entrepreneurs, including Hiroshi Mikitani of Rakuten, the leading on-line shopping mall in Japan, and Tomoko Namba of DeNA, a leader in on-line auctions. Both went to Harvard Business School.
Mr. Takubo said M.B.A. degrees are useful, but for Japanese business people, some adjustments need to be made. He said, for example, that instructors at Globis do not teach that corporate managers are a class of people divorced from the realities of business. “Japanese managers have to know, understand and identify closely with the front-line,” he said.
He also teaches that brandishing one’s M.B.A. knowledge is not a good idea.
“We tell students never to use technical terms like the ‘five forces’ of sales, when they go back to work,” he said. “That is going to turn people off.”
Ms. Ahmadjian said that while Japanese employers may not yet instantly recognize the value of the business degree, they have come to value the overall experiences that come with it.
On the other hand, a study from the Thai Chukalongkorn U. in analyzing the “best-practiced” MBA programs from USA, Europe, and Asia Pacific; and based on a survey business peoples’ opinion about general business practices and MBA programs in Japan; indicated the gap between “best-practiced” MBA programs and Japanese MBA programs indicated:
– that “best-practiced” MBA were preferred / scored higher than Japanese MBAs;
– that there were positive significant relations between “their business organization has very internationalized governance” and “they agree that MBA programs have good potential to develop new business leaders”;
– that there were significant negative relationship between “their company’s training courses are unique” and “they feel that present Japanese MBA programs are irrelevant to the business practice
The questions used in the survey of administrators, faculty members, students and students’ parents opinions derived from the analysis of the “best-practiced” and Japanese MBA programs related to (1) school contest, governance and strategy (2) quality of MBA program (3) quality of students (4) quality of faculty) (5) research and development (6) contribution to the community (7) resource and administration (8) internationalization) (9) corporate connection. The second set of questions used in the survey of business peoples’ opinion regarding the business practices and MBA program. In addition, interviews used with the students from Japanese MBA program to get their opinion about their program and their needs, and also used with business executives from top listed 24 different industries to get their deeper opinions about their business practice and MBA program in general.
A 2010 study, “The Future of the Planet in the Hands of MBAs: An Examination of CEO MBA Education and Corporate Environmental Performance” (SLATER, DANIEL J.; DIXON-FOWLER, HEATHER R) finds a positive correlation between MBAs and CEO careers.
However, we could explain this correlation as possibly due to what is called the “swimmer’s body illusion” (see Rolf Dobelli’s chapter “Does Harvard make you smarter” from his book “The art of thinking clearly“), since many of the applicants for Harvard MBAs are already entrepreneurs or people in the corporate world who have already achieved some measure of success in building up and running or managing companies, businesses, and are naturally CEO material, the correlation is what Dobelli calls a false correlation and their success may not due to the excellence to the school program per se.
Watch a Globis panel discussion on youtube: “Does an MBA help or hinder entrepreneurs and managers?” “What are the secrets of Successful Entrepreneurs?” (3 parts) Dr. Mark Lee Ford, GLOBIS faculty, President and Board Director of The Moneo Company, and his entrepreneur fellows discuss the issue.
* His cited distinctions include: Professor of International Business and Recipient of Baruch Presidential Award of Distinguished Lifetime Scholarship (2002). He holds B.A. and M.A. (Economics) from Keio University, Tokyo and MBA and DBA from Harvard University. He has published in leading journals includingJournal of Econometrics,Journal of International Business Studies, andHarvard Business Review. His book,Sogoshosha: Japanese General Trading Firms(1979) aided the enactment of the U.S. Export Trading Company Act of 1982. His recent book,Amerika no Yukue, Nihon no Yukue(Wither America, Wither Japan) (2002) was made into NHK’s award winning t.v. documentary of U.S.-Japan relations (2003.