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Corporate Business Programs Shape New-Style Executives

November 30, 2000
A growing number of big corporations are establishing in-house business courses. The programs are designed to offer instruction in theory and practice to promising middle managers with the aim of producing an elite corps of professional executives.

Before and After the Bubbles
During the era of the speculative bubbles beginning in the late 1980s, Japanese firms sent a steady stream of candidates for executive posts to study abroad. Once the bubbles burst, however, they had to devote their attention to settling bad loans, streamlining their operations, and otherwise clearing away the debris and had no time to worry about training promising successors. As the ability of Japanese companies to compete internationally declined, however, they were beset by a new sense of crisis and realized that nurturing managers who could respond to the changing times was imperative. Despite this change in attitude, however, firms have seemingly had a hard time freeing themselves from traditional Japanese-style business practices, which emphasize harmony in the workplace, and making bold, merit-based personnel changes after the programs have ended.

Participants Give Programs High Marks
In March 2000 Asahi Breweries, Ltd., instituted a six-month business course. Ten of the company's managers at branch offices, factories, and research institutes took part. The participants, all around the age of 40 and newly promoted to middle management, were the focus of attention within the firm for their selection to the program.

Asahi's course featured seven three-day seminars at training facilities owned by the company, which covered everything from classes on accounting and marketing to case studies of successful firms and research into problems confronting the company. The participants were expected to approach these issues from the standpoint of top management.

Because the seminars were organized as venues for discussions and presentations, the participants had to make all preparations in advance. Required reading was said to be on the order of 60 books. Participants remained at the company until late at night and spent their weekends at the library, devoting an average of four hours a day and 700 hours total to their preparations as well as to reviewing what they had learned or discussed. On the final day they had to give presentations on the theme "the future direction of the Asahi group's 90 firms" to an audience that included top-level executives from the president down. The program was given high marks by all the participants, who said they appreciated the opportunity of making reform proposals to people at the top and gaining a broad perspective on the company as a whole.

The computer giant Fujitsu Ltd. also launched a training course in April 2000, creating a lavish program costing 10 million yen (90,900 U.S. dollars at 110 yen to the dollar) a person. Participants comprised 10 people from the head office and 5 people from subsidiaries in Australia, Britain, and the United States. During the first two weeks, the group stayed at a first-class hotel near Silicon Valley in the United States and attended lectures given by Stanford University professors and others. At the end of July, presentations by the participants were made in London. Company officials emphasize the effectiveness of the program in sending a clear message to employees of the type of future executives they want--those with a global business sense, English-language ability, and firm leadership capabilities.

Nurturing Executives a Priority Task
Such business programs are catching on in big companies in all industries. One reason for their spread may be the loss of confidence among managers in the face of prolonged poor business showings in the post-bubble years. Even though they worked their way to the top in their fields of specialization, such as sales or technology, most have been unable to cope with rapid changes in the business environment--deregulation, the globalization of operations, the institution of global standards, emphasis on stockholders' rights, and consolidated management--because they never had to take the initiative in making important decisions.

Many people today say that Japanese companies suffer from a "deficiency of leadership for corporate reform." Nearly all top managers recognize this shortcoming, and a growing number now view business courses as a high priority task by which young talent with exceptional abilities can be chosen, given a wealth of experience, and turned into an elite corps of professional executives.

At the same time, however, many top managers find it nearly impossible to disavow themselves of Japanese-style business practices that emphasize seniority and harmony in the workplace and make daring changes in personnel based on merit. The issue now confronting the people at the top is whether they can go beyond the nurturing of elite executives and actually turn out company presidents.

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Trends in JapanCopyright (c) 2000 Japan Information Network. Edited by Japan Echo Inc. based on domestic Japanese news sources. Articles presented here are offered for reference purposes and do not necessarily represent the policy or views of the Japanese Government.