Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Korea and Japan: New Technology, Old Habits

Despite world-class IT networks, Japanese and Korean workers are still chained to their desks
by Moon Ihlwan and Kenji Hall

Masanori Goto was in for a culture shock when he returned to Japan after a seven-year stint in New York. The 42-year-old public relations officer at cellular giant NTT DoCoMo (DCM) logged many a late night at his Manhattan apartment, using his company laptop to communicate with colleagues 14 time zones away. Now back in Tokyo, Goto has a cell phone he can use to send quick e-mails after hours, but he must hole up at the office late into the night if he needs to do any serious work. The reason: His bosses haven't outfitted him with a portable computer. "I didn't realize that our people in Japan weren't using laptops," he says. "That was a surprise."

A few hundred miles to the west, in Seoul, Lee Seung Hwa also knows what it's like to spend long hours chained to her desk. The 33-year-old recently quit her job as an executive assistant at a carmaker because, among other complaints, her company didn't let lower-level employees log on from outside the office. "I could have done all the work from home, but managers thought I was working hard only if I stayed late," says Lee.

These days, information technology could easily free the likes of Goto and Lee. Korea and Japan are world leaders in broadband access, with connection speeds that put the U.S. to shame. And their wireless networks are state of the art, allowing supercharged Web surfing from mobile phones and other handhelds, whether at a café, in the subway, or on the highway. But when it comes to taking advantage of connectivity for business, Americans are way ahead.

For a study in contrasts, consider the daily commute. American trains are packed with business people furiously tapping their BlackBerrys or Treos, squeezing a few extra minutes into their work days. In Tokyo or Seoul, commuters stare intently at their cell phone screens, but they're usually playing games, watching video clips, or sending Hello Kitty icons to friends. And while advertising for U.S. cellular companies emphasizes how data services can make users more productive at work, Asian carriers tend to stress the fun factor.

Why? Corporate culture in the Far East remains deeply conservative, and most businesses have been slow to mine the opportunities offered by newfangled communications technologies. One big reason is the premium placed on face time at the office. Junior employees are reluctant to leave work before the boss does for fear of looking like slackers. Also, Confucianism places greater stock on group effort and consensus-building than on individual initiative. So members of a team all feel they must stick around if there is a task to complete. "To reap full benefits from IT investment, companies must change the way they do business," says Lee Inn Chan, vice-president at SK Research Institute, a Seoul management think tank funded by cellular carrier SK Telecom (SKM). "What's most needed in Korea and Japan is an overhaul in business processes and practices."

TIME, NOT these countries, if you're not in the office, your boss simply assumes you're not working. It doesn't help that a lack of clear job definitions and performance metrics makes it difficult for managers to assess the productivity of employees working off site. "Performance reviews and judgments are still largely time-oriented here, rather than task-oriented as in the West," says Cho Bum Coo, a Seoul-based executive partner at business consulting firm Accenture Ltd. (ACN)

Even tech companies in the region often refuse to untether workers from the office. Camera-maker Canon Inc. (CAJ) for instance, dispensed with flextime four years ago after employees said it interfered with communications, while Samsung stresses that person-to-person contact is far more effective than e-mail. In Japan, many companies say they are reluctant to send workers home with their laptops for fear that proprietary information might go astray. Canon publishes a 33-page code of conduct that includes a cautionary tale of a worker who loses a notebook computer loaded with sensitive customer data on his commute. At Korean companies SK Telecom, Samsung Electronics, and lg Electronics, employees must obtain permission before they can carry their laptops out of the office. Even then, they often are barred from full access to files from work. And while just about everyone has a cell phone that can display Web pages or send e-mails, getting into corporate networks is complicated and unwieldy.

The result: Korean and Japanese white-collar workers clock long days at the office, often toiling till midnight and coming in on weekends. "In my dictionary there's no such thing as work/life balance as far as weekdays are concerned," says a Samsung Electronics senior manager who declined to be named. Tom Coyner, a consultant and author of Mastering Business in Korea: A Practical Guide, says: "Even your wife would think you were not regarded as an important player in the office if you came home at five or six."

These factors may be preventing Japan and Korea from wringing more productivity out of their massive IT investments. Both countries place high on lists of global innovators. For instance, Japan and Korea rank No. 2 and No. 6, respectively, out of 30 nations in terms of spending on research and development, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. And the Geneva-based World Intellectual property Organization says Japan was second and Korea fourth in international patent filings. But when it comes to the productivity of IT users, both countries badly lag the U.S., says Kazuyuki Motohashi, a University of Tokyo professor who is an expert on technological innovation. "Companies in Japan and Korea haven't made the structural changes to get the most out of new technologies," he says.

Still, a new generation of managers rising through the ranks may speed the transformation. These workers are tech-savvy and often more individualistic, having come from smaller families. Already, some companies are tinkering with changes to meet their needs. SK Telecom abolished titles for all midlevel managers in the hopes that this would spur workers to take greater initiative. Japan's NEC Corp. (NIPNY) is experimenting with telecommuting for 2,000 of its 148,000 employees. And in Korea, CJ 39 Shopping, a cable-TV shopping channel, is letting 10% of its call-center employees work from home.

Foreign companies are doing their bit to shake things up. In Korea, ibm has outfitted all of its 2,600 employees with laptops and actively encourages them to work off site. The system, which was first introduced in 1995, has allowed the company to cut back on office space and reap savings of $2.3 million a year. One beneficiary is Kim Yoon Hee. The procurement specialist reports to the office only on Tuesdays and Thursdays. On other days, calls to her office phone are automatically routed to her laptop, so she can work from home. "It would have been difficult for me to remain employed had it not been for the telecommuting system," says Kim, 35, who quit a job at a big Korean company seven years ago because late nights at the office kept her away from her infant daughter. "This certainly makes me more loyal to my company."


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