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Rakuten’s dual expats global employer model

According to a McKinsey Global Institute report, the number of people in the global labor force will reach 3.5 billion by 2030 — and yet there will still be a shortage of skilled workers. The result is likely to be intensified global competition for talent. Rather than assuming we’ll work in one location, in our native culture, we will need new skills, attitudes, and behaviors that help us work across cultures. Our ways of thinking about careers, colleagues, and collaboration will need to become more flexible and adaptable. Neeley’s study of the global workforce at Rakuten, the Japan-based e-commerce powerhouse, gave me a close-up look at what will drive success for this new type of global worker.

Prior to 2010, Rakuten had been a multilingual global company. The Japanese employees in the Tokyo headquarters communicated in Japanese, the Americans in the U.S. subsidiary spoke English, and the workers in Asia, Europe, and South America spoke a mixture of native languages. Translators were employed for cross-border communications. What’s more, the subsidiaries operated more or less autonomously, each with separate organizational cultures and norms. But in 2010, Rakuten mandated an English-only policy for its workforce of over 10,000 employees.

The CEO, Hiroshi Mikitani, realized that doing business in multiple languages prevented the organization from sharing valuable knowledge across the organization’s existing global operations, as well as those that were being newly established. The company also aspired to raise the overseas portion of its revenue in response to the projected shrinking of the Japanese GDP as a portion of global GDP (from 12% in 2006 to 3% in 2050) and wanted to expand its global talent pool. Above all, the company aspired to become the number one internet services company in the world. The English language, Mikitani predicted, could revolutionize both how Rakuten employees worked and how they interacted with the rest of the world.

The English language mandate, however, set off all sorts of linguistic and cultural challenges. These challenges differed depending on people’s backgrounds and location. Two groups had the steepest learning curve in particular. The Japanese employees, while already fluent with Japanese concepts such as kaizen (improvement) and omotenashi (hospitality), struggled to become proficient in English. The American employees, who were fluent in English, struggled to become comfortable with new work routines and expectations from Japan.

The employees who had to adjust to both a new language and a new culture — whom I’ve named dual expats in their own countries — had the easiest transition when it came to working under the new conditions of the company’s English-only mandate. They hailed from countries as diverse as Brazil, France, Germany, Indonesia, Taiwan, and Thailand, and all demonstrated the characteristics of what is called global work orientation. This type of orientation can be incredibly valuable to cultivate for anyone working for multinationals or in other global careers, and can also be used by managers to develop employees. It consists of five key actions:

  • 1. Embracing positive indifference
  • 2. Seeking commonality between cultures
  • 3. Identifying with the global organization rather than your local office
  • 4. Seeking interactions with other, geographically distant subsidiaries
  • 5. Aspiring to a global career

These five attitudes and behaviors are what make a successful global employee. Rakuten’s dual expats is a true model for present and future global workers.


Source: Harvard Business Review