BUILDING A GLOBAL BRAIN : Simply Sending Managers Abroad Won't Make Your Company "Global." What's Needed Is a New Way of Thinking That Permeates Your Corporate Culture

Article excerpt

Fourteen years ago, Omron was an "international" company headquartered in Kyoto, Japan. Today, it is a "global" corporation based in the same city. The difference isn't just semantics. Omron has undergone a real transformation in the way it thinks.

The electronics manufacturer has a significant presence-and a multitude of offices-on each continent (save Antarctica). But until about six years ago, it had always assigned Japanese managers to head them. When the company understood that its growth did not depend solely on Japanese markets, it began to rely more on local expertise in each geographical area around the world and to blend the insights of local managers into its corporate culture. In short, Omron began to develop a global brain.

By 1999, its new way of thinking had made a noticeable difference in operations. For example, Omron established a corporate language- English- and used it even in meetings in Japan, says Frank Newburn, president and COO of Omron Electronics, the North and South American division. The use of one language among all executives enhances communications and reinforces the global nature of the business.

Omron also has established a global knowledge database and holds global planning meetings in its offices throughout the world. It even standardized its software to eliminate compatibility issues and ensure a smooth exchange of information among its offices worldwide.

These changes provide visible evidence of a deeper shift in the way Omron's employees think about problems and opportunities.

This shift has affected the very fabric of the company's culture. But affecting that change required more than sending Japanese managers abroad. Those managers and top executives had to integrate all the issues that affect management decisions from the local leadership in each country, including their business know-how and approaches to solving problems and identifying opportunities. People at all levels in the company had to broaden their perspectives to begin the process of integrating approaches to management issues that were successful in Europe, South America and North America, as well as in their home countries.

Developing such a broad global perspective and putting it to use is at the heart of a global mind-set, says Vijay Govindarajan, professor of international business and director of the "Global Leadership 2020" management program at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire.

Executives who develop a global mind-set give ideas from developing nations as much credence as those from leading Western nations. As a result, they and their companies are no longer tied to one business model or way of thinking and can use best practices from throughout the world to respond to local challenges. In the end, they can offer something extra that those with more limited thought patterns cannot provide.

John Stopford, professor of international business at the London Business School, says that such a global outlook helps improve business performance. "The ideal is to have a team in which all are cosmopolitan in outlook, as this saves the costs of great argument trying to persuade the parochial members that best practice at home is not necessarily the best for the present and future."

Developing a cosmopolitan team is the tricky part, however, because a global brain can be hard to define. Lisbeth Claus, professor of international management at the Monterey Institute of International Studies in California, comments, "Too often we talk about a global mind- set like we talked about quality 30 years ago, saying 'I know it when I see it.'" But as Govindarajan points out, a world view does have some recognizable components. They include multicultural values, basing status on merit rather than nationality, being open to ideas from other cultures, being excited rather than fearful in new cultural settings, and being sensitive to cultural differences without being limited by them. …