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Confidentiality and Information Exchange in Japanese Business

Email is an indispensable tool for business. However, its usage may be a little different in Japan than in other countries. Do you use reply for all? In Japan, replying to everyone is the norm. Why do you think that is?

By P. Pringle

Recent News About Information Security

Computers, internet and mobile devices enable information to be shared across the globe almost instantaneously. Recent serious leaks of global import have put information security front and center. Governments, corporations and individuals are on the lookout for ways to safeguard information while at the same time ensuring access to people with whom they wish to share information, or who have a legitimate need for the information in order to do their jobs. Information is one of the most important resources in today’s corporate environment.

Japanese and American companies share the very same concerns about information security. They both have systems for ensuring information availability, integrity and traceability. They share the same high business ethics. Their employees share high educational achievement. Both Japanese and American companies have state-of-the-art internet technology and database systems. Therefore it is easy to assume that their methods for exchanging information are the same as well. However, information exchange and confidentiality are highly influenced by cultural factors. Understanding these cultural differences can prevent misunderstanding and suspicion, and facilitate productive information flow between Japanese and Americans.

Need to Know vs. Nice to Know

For Americans, “need to know” information is information they need in order to do their jobs. Their jobs are clearly defined in their job descriptions, which set out their roles and responsibilities. Since the scope of an employee’s job is well-defined, their “need to know” information is also well defined. Therefore, as early as the first day on the job, they will have access to those parts of the company intranet that are relevant to their responsibilities. And the intranet will have just about everything they need to begin to contribute productively to their company.

Japanese, on the other hand, do not generally have clearly defined jobs or job descriptions. Therefore it is harder to define their “need to know” information. Is it the information they need to know for today’s project, or the one they are not executing but have been asked to weigh in on as part of a larger consensus? Americans often feel frustrated at numerous requests for information from the Japanese, since there does not seem to be a direct line between the requestor, their job and the information requested. “Why do they have to get so much “nice to know” information,” Americans wonder. “Why are they meddling in my area of responsibility?” Japanese are expected to have a wide understanding of their company’s activities. Therefore they need information that might not see relevant to an American.

How Is Information Exchanged?

In my experience, Americans prefer to have all necessary information in a searchable database that they can access at any time. They want to be the ones to choose what to read or not read. If they are working on a project with others, they prefer to set up a directory in a database. All members of the project can access the information. If there is email communication among project members, new data is presented as a link to the database. Americans prefer information to be exchanged and stored in an impersonal format, not mediated by relationships. They should be able to access all of the information, in their latest versions, without having to ask anyone to send it.

Japanese, on the other hand, prefer a personal touch in information exchange. They prefer to send information in files attached to emails. Intranets do exist, but they do not contain all of the information. Employees must “remain in the loop,” in other words stay on the distribution list, in order to be sure to get the latest information they need to do their jobs. Personal relationships play a big role in information exchange. Japanese constantly work on their in-company relationships and know who the “go-to” people are.

Americans who are not familiar with this practice are often shocked at the number of people in a distribution list when they get a request for information. “Who are those people?” and “Why do they need to know this stuff?” they wonder. Coming from a “need to know” culture, Americans respond only to the sender, rather than hitting “Reply All.” If the response is time-sensitive, there is an unnecessary delay before all interested parties get the required information. The American’s intention is to be careful, but is seen as uncooperative. When they are made aware of how the consensus system works in Japanese companies, Americans feel more comfortable sending important information to people they do not know.

Confidentiality Systems

For confidential information, Americans prefer hard and fast access restrictions based on workable rules. Information is classified into degrees of confidentiality. Security clearances are structured according to “need to know” criteria. Information is valid only if it is received through official channels. Traceability systems are put in place to keep records of who has access and who made revisions.

Japanese companies also have formal access restrictions. The information classifications tend to be stricter than American systems, sometimes so strict that it would be very difficult to get things done if they were followed to the letter. Individual Japanese managers have some discretion to share confidential information on a case-to-case basis. They do not take this responsibility lightly. Informal information channels operate on the basis of trust and long experience. For the most confidential information, the rules say never to write it down, but to communicate orally, in person. Now that we are discovering the limits of internet security, these rules seem truly visionary!

When Information Sharing Is Not a Good Thing

Sharing the wrong kind of information with the wrong people can be a very serious thing. Americans who work for Japanese companies in the US should help the local assignees by making sure that they are aware of the rules regarding antitrust.  Japanese working in the US are especially at risk because there are a great number of opportunities for social interaction in a small expatriate community. It is a very good idea to join a local Japan-America Society. Local chapters can be found https://www.us-japan.org/resources/ussocieties.html. They sponsor periodic information sessions by the Japan External Trade Organization (JETRO), which provide the facts Japanese need to protect themselves and their companies.

Share Assumptions and Create Common Understanding

Information sharing is a great source of misunderstanding and inefficiency in Japanese companies operating abroad. If you feel that information access is a problem in your organization, the most effective way to solve it is to work with a trusted facilitator who is experienced in working with mixed groups of Japanese and Americans. The groups work together to identify their assumptions about their information-sharing processes, as well as what is working and what isn’t working. They agree upon some rules and practices that everyone can follow. For Japanese and Americans to work together smoothly, common ground on information sharing is indispensible.

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