Software aids communication in cultural context

by Angela Jeffs

Nils Plett, president and CEO of QE Tech, is tall. While angling my camera skyward to get his picture, walking alongside requires two steps to his every stride.

As he explains, QE Tech stands for Quick and Efficient Technology. “Our software provides a revolutionary new solution to chronic problems experienced by companies and individuals in cross-cultural communications and business document authoring. In short, we offer productivity across cultures.”

We meet Monday morning in Starbucks in Zushi, en route to his development office in Hayama. “We have two people down here, and four in the main office in Tokyo’s Kyobashi. Usually I’m down here once a week. It’s easier to concentrate.”

Nils seems adept at achieving a balance. “I work hard, leaving home in Setagaya before my 3-year-old twin girls are awake, and not back until they’re asleep. This means weekends are sacrosanct; I’m with them as much as possible.”

There is also his cultural heritage, “my American dentist father meeting my Swedish dentist mother in Stockholm while teaching at dental school. That background helped tremendously in being sensitive to culture.” His father continued to practice in California, but his mother never pursued a license in the States.

Born in Berkeley, Calif., and raised in Pleasanton, Nils majored in political science at Santa Barbara. But really, he jokes, he majored in swimming. “I swam backstroke on UCSB’s college team. Why backstroke? Because I’d rather look up into the sky than swim face-down following a black line along the bottom of the pool.”

One of Nils’ courses — religious studies — focused on Japan, and because it was the professor’s last year before retirement, his attitude was near evangelical. “He kept on and on about how great Japan was, how we had to see it with our own eyes.” Inspired, Nils enrolled in Japanese courses — while at the same time training for the 1988 Seoul Olympics.

“Despite putting in everything, I missed the time standard for the Olympic trials by two-hundredths of a second. But never mind: being made captain of the college team the following year paid dividends, helped me define who I was, focus my goals.”

Wanting to find out how Japanese companies work, Nils came to Tokyo in late ’89. He spent a year teaching English and learning Japanese, then took three months off. “I traveled with a Japanese friend, who really pushed my language skills. He was very direct, saying: ‘What do you mean?’ or ‘I don’t understand what you’re saying!’ or ‘You sound like a girl. Guy’s don’t say that!’ “

Soon Nils was one of 35 instructors (only three of whom spoke Japanese) teaching intensive English courses to 800 incoming freshmen at Taisei Corp. “Offered a job in their human resources development department, I snapped it up.” That is where he met his wife. “She was seated opposite me. I liked looking at her so much every day that I decided to keep going . . .”

After three years he moved to Seiko Instruments (SII), working on manual translations, then joined Montreal’s McGill University MBA Japan program in international business taught at Sophia University. “We’d study intensively two weekends a month in Tokyo, then submit papers to Canada by fax and e-mail.”

Graduating in 2001, he founded QE Tech the following year with a colleague from the course. “Three of us worked out of a friend’s office in Aoyama, but mostly Starbucks!”

Nils was adept in pulling his experience together. “At Taisei, there were still no computers other than the mainframe. Course participant lists had to be made by cutting and pasting, which is where quick and efficient comes in. I borrowed a computer from another section so I could develop several programs to manage training courses, students and rooms at the training center.”

Even at SII, he was writing project estimates and invoices by hand until he developed a project management system. “Even at the height of the bubble in 1991, Japan was 15 years behind the U.S. in applying new technology. I wanted to enable people to be more productive and communicate more effectively.”

Everyone has trouble, he says, with cultural logic. Translating one language into another often results in what he calls “a dog’s breakfast.” So QE Tech spent 18 months developing software that assists users in creating English communication based on cultural logic and phrases that readers will understand. “We also facilitate cross-cultural and online training to help people use the software better.”

Western thought tends to be more linear. “It has a direction. When we speak, we think about the listener and choose words they will understand. We say, ‘I follow you’ or ‘I see where you are going/heading’ to signal we are listening, all of which depict motion. The Japanese language, on the other hand, tends to be more image-orientated. Kanji are a good example. Because their cues are more visual, Japanese people will say, ‘I can’t see what you are talking about.’ “

Although the software is not an easy sell, because “it’s hard to describe the benefits of a new category of product,” QE Tech — making inroads with manufacturers, professionals, universities — has just signed up a large marketing firm. “People are much happier when they get the desired response. It’s very rewarding.”

Now Nils is taking the current product a step further: “Communication is about culture, not language. An English-speaking engineer and salesman will often have problems understanding one another; working in two languages compounds the problem. So we’re branching into English-English, Japanese-Japanese as well as English to Japanese, and working with linguists to develop Korean and Chinese target languages.”

Also QE Tech is moving their product online. “Seiko’s biggest problem,” Nils recalls, “was huge amounts of information getting lost in the system. We’re developing a Web-based system that assists in saving all communication. A manager can then use the screen like a dashboard, turn a dial and see how well or badly the company is communicating.”

The initial part of the online system should be up and running in March. Users need to sign up for a subscription; companies can buy an enterprise version of the system.

Looking ahead, Nils sees QE Tech as a leading communication enabler. Within two years, it should be possible to fine-tune companies at any distance, determining the communicative culture it seeks to project to the rest of the world.

One step ahead of the next question, Nils shakes his head. “QE Tech is concerned with empowerment, not manipulation,” he assures.