How to overcome barriers to global collaboration: technology, cultural understanding and trust

How do you coordinate a global workforce spread out across 30 countries and even more locations?

Kaoru Tanaka is tackling this collaboration conundrum head on as executive officer and general manager of Rakuten’s Corporate IT department. She spoke on a panel at the recent Rakuten Technology Conference in Tokyo about the logistical, cultural and linguistic challenges companies face when operating across borders, and how Rakuten is thriving in a globalized world.

Technology: Bringing us together, keeping us apart

“Working in a global department with teams of different sizes is quite challenging sometimes,” Tanaka said. “We have 150 members in global IT, but over 100 are sitting in Japan.”

Corporate IT General Manager Kaoru Tanaka manages a diverse group of subject experts scattered across the globe.
Corporate IT General Manager Kaoru Tanaka manages a diverse group of subject experts scattered across the globe.

Rakuten’s workforce is highly diverse, so effective communication is key. “Communicating in person is so important. You need to form those personal relationships.”

However, physical distance between team members represents an insurmountable logistical hurdle for such an approach. The next best thing? Video conferencing.

Still, as far as the technology has come, virtual meetings come with their own set of challenges.

“With video conferencing, it’s sometimes easy to create a kind of us-and-them culture. If you have a meeting which connects one room or group with another, it’s so easy to have a little chat after turning off the video. This just naturally happens, but it creates this tribalism,” Tanaka explained. “It’s the responsibility of the leader to try and change that culture, to remind the team that there is a huge advantage to being part of a global organization.”

Communicating with each member individually is also important for preventing tribalism, Tanaka said. “You need to give feedback one-on-one to build a trust-filled relationship, just as if you were working with them in the same location.”

Translate both language and culture

Joining the panel discussion—appropriately via video conference—was CTO Bjorn Laukli, who touched on Rakuten’s pioneering approach to linguistic hurdles. CTO Bjorn Laukli (right) joined the panel from San Mateo via video conference. CTO Bjorn Laukli (right) and Sunil Gopinath, CEO Rakuten India (left), joined the panel from San Mateo and Bengaluru via video conference.

“One thing that I think has been vital to our success on a global basis was when [Rakuten CEO] Mickey [Mikitani] instituted his policy of having every person in the company able to speak English,” he told the audience, explaining Rakuten’s pioneering ‘Englishnization’ policy. “That’s been instrumental in terms of us having a common platform to communicate on.”

Meanwhile, Tanaka emphasized that language was only one part of the equation.

Understanding high-context and low-context cultures

Japan is a well-known example of a ‘high-context culture,’ in which communication relies heavily on shared cultural understandings and implicit context, in contrast to the explicit style of communication often seen in more diverse ‘low-context cultures.’ For Tanaka, translating this is another crucial point in ensuring effective cross-cultural communication.

“Sometimes you need to switch from the Japanese high-context culture to a low-context culture from other countries such as the US,” Tanaka explained. “Japanese people aren’t as used to working and communicating remotely, so we often forget to express certain things in an open and direct way. In these situations, it’s important to encourage Japanese employees to speak out with confidence.”

To run a successful global team, Laukli pressed the importance of having everybody on the same page.

“I think it’s really important to have one solid vision that everybody follows,” he told the panel. “Understanding where we’re going as a company, thinking about where you are in the organization, understanding how you can contribute to growth. And, last but not least, having fun along the way.”

Tanaka sees Rakuten’s global collaboration strategy as one piece of a much larger puzzle: Japan’s economy. “Policies like Englishnization are not only for positioning ourselves to be able to hire the best global talent, but also for helping the Japanese economy,” she explained. “Japanese society cannot survive with only Japanese people.”

The way forward? Start small: “Of course, change takes time. But to start with, try to change and encourage diversity within your own circle.”

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