The big questions you wanted to ask

I’ve always enjoyed engaging with people on LinkedIn so recently I was very excited and grateful to see that I’m now directly connected on this platform with over one million founders, entrepreneurs, business leaders and thinkers from around the world.

To mark the milestone and think about where we go from here, I asked what the community would like to have me address—sort of a LinkedIn version of Reddit’s popular “Ask Me Anything.” It was terrific and humbling to receive so many questions. I’ve picked up some of the most representative questions and taken a shot at answering them.

“I would love to hear your viewpoint regarding technological change, specifically future technology platforms and how AI, AR/VR and IoT will shape the world.” Gajender

Let’s focus on AI here because it was a common theme among many who asked about technology.

I predict a future in which AI will be a dominant force in our lives. It is the next evolution of the way technology impacts human existence. Twenty years ago, the internet was the technology platform that was going to change everything. Then ten years ago, it became the smartphone. Now AI is moving into that role and the pace of change is accelerating. I think we’re talking about a change that will take place in the next three to five years.

Anticipation of the change is already framing our behavior at Rakuten. Our Ichiba marketplace in Japan leverages AI to predict product sales, classify products, analyze user ratings and reviews, and improve recommendations and search for customers, while our C2C e-commerce platform Rakuten PriceMinister in France has developed deep learning algorithms for the purpose of image recognition. Another exciting example is Rakuten Viki’s Learn Mode feature, which utilizes artificial intelligence and natural language processing to help users to study foreign languages while watching television programs.

We are seeing the emergence of AI as the new platform, and Rakuten is one of the few companies globally that has enough data and enough talent to make the most of this in a responsible way.

It’d be interesting to read about the programme and directives that Rakuten applies to help its non-Japanese employees accommodate to Japanese corporate and business culture. Often the cultural gap is enormous and knowing that Rakuten has many foreign coworkers in Japan, I wonder how the issue is handled.” Zsofia

It’s great to see a lot of interest in the topic of corporate culture because I believe it is critical to success – and often overlooked in the global corporate community.

One way to ensure a strong corporate culture is to clearly state the company’s values, make sure they are visible and available to everyone who works there, and then consistently reinforce them in everything we do.

In our company, Rakuten Shugi (Rakuten Basic Principles) forms the foundation of Rakuten Group and is an important way of thinking that guides all officers and employees. With these principles as the base, I make sure to connect with everyone in the group on a regular basis to reinforce them with additional commentary and I expect the same of my management team. In my new book, Business-Do, I look at how the Rakuten culture applies to how we behave at work and conduct our business.

“When you first posted the article about changing the official language of Rakuten from Japanese to English, I read it in a heartbeat. I even included that as a success story when giving a presentation. If you have any other insights or stories about the effects of English, I’d be so happy to read it.” Serkan

At the time in 2010 when I first announced my plan for Englishnization at Rakuten, many said I was crazy. Since then, we have seen enormous and wide-ranging benefits from this language effort. Through Englishnization, we’ve been able to improve our communication as a global company and we’ve been in a better position to recruit the best and the brightest to work with us from around the world.

It has not always been easy. Many who had only operated in a Japanese language environment worked very hard to master English and many struggled to meet the standards we set as a company. But today, even some of our critics have embraced the Englishnization process and look to us for guidance.

Harvard Business School professor Tsedal Neeley also recently released a book on our experience and success with Englishnization.

“I would like to ask you the key quality that sustained you throughout your journey of becoming the CEO of Rakuten.” Ajay

In many ways, the qualities that influenced my business success have roots in my childhood. My parents supported me and allowed me to be confident, to test my own judgment, to try new ways of approaching things. My father once said, “I never wanted a home where the parents would simply instruct their children, commanding them to study and so forth. I recognized that each child has their own character and I tried to teach without holding to any set pattern.”

In addition to my parents’ influence, my passion for playing competitive tennis as a young man had a big impact on my approach to business. It was inside my university tennis club that I began to see the value of testing rules and reinventing new ways to be successful.

Finally, one of my favorite college professors gave me excellent advice:  He said, “Study your entire life. Study everything.” I am still on that path: always trying to learn new things. (Right now, I’m experimenting with a new app on my phone to help me learn Spanish.)

“I just got back from a Family trip to Japan. Cafes, restaurants, hotels – businesses in general across your Country provide extremely high/unbeatable levels of customer service! Can you share some insights/best practices regarding this topic?” Robert

In Japan, the core principles of customer service can be expressed through the word “omotenashi.” In Japanese, this word literally means “hospitality,” but in reality it has a much deeper philosophical message. It implies a sense of selflessness, a full commitment to providing everything necessary to ensure the customer’s utmost comfort. More than just a word, omotenashi is a concept meant to encourage the service provider to reach the height of possibilities in customer satisfaction, including the very anticipation of customer wants and needs.

At Rakuten, we embrace omotenashi in our current business practices, as well as our innovation activities. We are exploring, for example, ways that omotenashi can be achieved through the application of AI to initiatives such as chatbots. An AI bot is capable of deep learning, and, as a result, high accuracy in making responses that are tailored to customer profiles. It potentially represents a shift from FAQ and email-based customer care to interactive dialogue. Thanks to AI, a chatbot could offer immediate responses, even to vague requests.

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