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The business world has high expectations for globalizing universities to better prepare students to contribute and lead as global talent. We asked David Macdonald, representative officer and president of Discovery Japan, about his expectations and hopes for universities in the global era.

Q: As the Japanese arm of a global company, what are Discovery Japan’s mission and vision?

A: Discovery has evolved over the last 30 years from the very first year of the Discovery Channel in the U.S., when the concept was spreading curiosity. Over the years, this became explore your world, and today our main concept or phrase is powering people’s passions. Whether it be on TV, on digital streaming or other events, we are trying to power people’s passions through the medium of video. So, whether you like cars, or science and nature, or food or travel, we want to make sure we have some content for you.

Right now, I think our mission for Japan is to be the most trusted platform for powering people’s passions and passionate communities, and that’ll be in the form of digital video streaming as we go forward.

Q: In line with that vision, what type of talent does your company look for in regards to the skills and competencies that you expect potential employees to learn at university?

A: I’ve been working for about 20-odd years now, and the skills needed on the job in today’s high-paced world, especially the media business, have evolved. Our expectation is that we have people who are doers. These are people who do things themselves, very much like a startup attitude, who are able to figure out what they need to do themselves and lead from the front.

That ties to a second point, which is leadership. In this day and age, whether you are new out of college or you’ve been on the job for 30 years, a certain amount of leadership, be it project-based or leading an organization, is expected as we look to develop new things and new products for consumers.

The other thing we’re looking for is global talent. The world is shrinking more and more with the internet and other forms of connection and communication. So now when I look at talent in Japan, global is always one of my keywords. Can you interact and communicate with folks from overseas? Do you have a global mindset in doing things for the Japanese market?

Q: Do you have a hiring strategy to attract talent with a global mindset and leadership qualities, for example internships or other opportunities for learning and experience?

A: In my current role at Discovery, we haven’t done that much yet for the Japanese market. One thing we were doing, which is on hold for now with the postponement of the Olympic Games, is a campus recruitment program for interns to work with our broadcast team during the games. We are a broadcaster and a digital streamer for all of Europe for the Olympic Games. Through that we needed a lot of local talent, and we had partnered with a number of universities in Tokyo and around the country. We had about 20 individuals who were part of that internship program to work as runners for a program or in other places within the organization to give them some experience of Discovery, as well as experience in the games from the inside as a broadcaster. We haven’t been able to go through with that as the Olympics have been postponed to next year, but hopefully that’ll kick back in again as the schedule becomes clearer.

Another thing, which is a little bit different, is a program we’ve been working on to retrain women to get back into the workforce after being out for a number of years. It’s not exactly new undergraduates or young grads, but rather getting women back into the workforce. We’ve picked up a couple of interns from that program. One thing I am very passionate about personally is making sure that we tap into the often-untapped female demographic of Japan.

We also have the Discovery Hackathon and other programming events to help new graduates understand what they need to do in order to get into a company. The Hackathon and these events allow us to use our brand and our creativity with another brand to help them recruit the kind of talent that they want.

Q: The university system in Japan is shifting toward a globalized footing. For example, Sophia University is developing a triangle program in collaboration with universities in the U.S. and Kenya that allows students of the three universities to attend each other’s online classes. Would you give your thoughts on these initiatives?

A: One challenge that I’ve had with Japanese students is that they often do not get exposed to some types of thinking and leadership attributes in a Japanese university that they might, let’s say in Canada, where I’m from. So, I think it’s helpful if Japanese students are more able to access and experience different ways of teaching and different ways of thinking and expressing themselves. When I look back at myself, I’ve studied in different countries, from Canada for my undergraduate to the U.K. for my post-graduate. Being able to do that online as much as you can is great. The only counter to that is a lot of what I find universities teach is unteachable, meaning that it’s not so much about going to class and listening to and interacting with your professors as much as about the communal living, the communal aspects of being on a campus and making a network that can strengthen for years afterward. I hope these programs help to bridge the gap with some of the different educational philosophies without losing the benefits gained from in-person interactions as well.

Q: What expectations do you have for universities in developing students, in terms of their skills and mindset and preparing them to work in a global company like yours?

A: I worry about too much focus on rote knowledge, memorization and passing tests versus being able to express, think and lead as individuals. In the Japan system with the senpai-kōhai, senior-junior relationship, a potential challenge that younger employees have is expressing themselves when their senpai or their senior is in the same room and they don’t feel comfortable speaking up and giving their opinion. How do we get through to students that it’s okay to have an opinion and express that in a strong vocal way? On the flip side, I see students who have stayed overseas and come back to Japan and join the company, and because they aren’t used to the usual senpai-kōhai relationship, it causes some friction in the office. I think the message is being able to develop creative thinkers and people who are able to express themselves and show some leadership no matter what their level or age.

Going forward, what I look forward to from educators and also from students as they graduate is the ability to think and express themselves creatively and not be bound by preconceptions of hierarchy.

Q: Do you think universities are matching that? Have you seen signs of students evolving or changing their mindset?

A: I had a limited but positive interaction with a university in Tokyo last year as a guest lecturer. I was quite happy that the lecture was filled with lots of questions from students really wanting to ask questions, so it was a very positive sign. I think that the need is there, people are aware of the need and will start to change further and further, but I also see that there’s still a lot of work to be done.


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