The cross-border flow of people and goods have been disrupted in recent weeks by the spread of the coronavirus — now designated as a global health emergency by the World Health Organization. Government and businesses have suspended travel to and from China, and dozens of countries have banned the entry of people who had recently been to the Chinese city of Wuhan, where the outbreak originated, or China itself.
The Global Risks Report 2020 by the World Economic Forum lists the outbreak of infectious diseases as a high impact risk — though relatively low in likelihood. Risk items with both high likelihood and high impact include extreme weather, biodiversity loss, natural disasters, climate action failure, water crises, human-made environmental disasters, cyberattacks and global governance failures.
It is hoped that this emergency situation will subside at some point (hopefully before the Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games this summer), and that vaccines will be developed. Given the rapid spread of the outbreak and severe downward impact likely on the global economy (including supply chain disruption), however, it is imperative for all of us to be prepared for the type of risk that disrupts the international flow of people and goods.
One concern is that the latest outbreak may fuel populist nationalism and the “our country first” mentality that has been witnessed in recent years in many parts of the world. There have been media reports of racist discrimination emerging in various parts of the world.
Given the scare over the rapidly growing number of people infected and fatalities, extremely negative reactions to certain countries and groups of people may be understandable. What is needed, however, is to explore what can be done to alleviate fear and unfounded prejudices and stereotypes against certain people and countries. Transportation breakdowns are not only caused by pandemics, they can be caused by other risks, as described above, and thus it is critical to think of alternative solutions.
Rather than suggesting mindset changes or promoting steps such as educating young people to remain open to cultural differences and ways of thinking, I would like to focus on an indirect approach to protect us from the tendency to isolate ourselves and shut down the seeds of global business collaboration.
Despite the recent surge in nationalism, trade disputes and now the coronavirus scare, the need for collaboration across national borders will only increase, particularly for Japanese companies, many of which suffer from a lack of in-house innovation in recent years. They cannot afford to do without interaction and collaboration with other parts of the world.
People should learn from the latest threat and start using simple tools such as Slack, Zoom and Skype apps (for video conference) and develop English communication skills. Though Japanese are known to love new devices and services such as smartphones and social media, how often do they actually put them to practical use in cross-border communication and collaboration? Nearly 50 percent of Japanese companies use video conferences, but they’re mainly done in Japanese.
The English language remains a barrier for global communication and collaboration at many Japanese firms. The shortage of people who can conduct business in Engilsh is a key obstacle to global collaboration. Research on Japanese companies’ collaborative efforts (or lack thereof) to search and negotiate with startups in Israel, for example, indicates that the English communication skills of businesspeople in this country leave much to be desired. Poor English skills prevent Japanese from going to where new technological developments are taking place and prevent businesses from keeping up with progress and trends.
Many Japanese prefer face-to-face interactions. Some insist on meeting in person even when traffic disruptions and other events prevent people from attending meetings. Face-to-face communication is valuable, but the mentality that no other solutions are acceptable does not lead to experimenting with new methods of communication.
As part of the preparations for the Summer Olympics, the government is recommending that companies implement remote work policies as a way of reducing commuter traffic and easing congestion. That’s one example how remote work and simple applications can be beneficial.
Only about 20 percent of Japanese companies allow their employees to work remotely, according to a Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry survey. But learning to use simple applications can lead to global collaboration without physical movement. In a few years, new devices may be under development such as Avatar (a virtual mobility tool) to address this issue even more effectively.
Many Japanese companies are hampered by a lack of innovation that could make or break their futures. They are searching for potential collaborators overseas. Even when a travel ban is in place due to emerging risks, they cannot stop their search for new ideas and technology. What can they do? With English communication skills and some familiarity with new communication applications they can continue their search and collaboration efforts.
Interaction with people from different backgrounds and expertise is useful to generate new ideas and obtain global perspectives. It affords an opportunity to be exposed to different ways of thinking and attitudes. Exposure to different approaches to common sense, to rules of society and to life help people learn the value of questioning and challenging conventional wisdom. Japanese people are often reluctant to ask questions, let alone challenge conventional practices and way of thinking. Interacting with people from different countries, with the help of simple tools, instead of simply reading about what’s happening outside of Japan, may trigger changes in behavior.
People from different backgrounds and expertise produce more new ideas, however crazy they may be. And that is what’s lacking in Japan today, where many people “read the air” and make assumptions about the expectation of other people (as in the popular term “sontaku” or reading the minds of superiors).
The key is to practice it enough to make it a habit and be able to actually use it. People are often told what to do in the event of an emergency such as a fire or earthquake, but they panic and fail to do what they’re supposed to. The best way to avoid this is simulation and constant practice.
Once simple techniques and communicate in the global language of English are learned, it becomes easier to monitor progress overseas and catch up with the rest of the world. The ongoing health emergency presents an opportunity to develop long-overdue skills.
Yoko Ishikura is a professor emeritus of Hitotsubashi University and serves as an independent consultant in the area of global strategy, competitiveness and global talent. She is a member of the World Economic Forum’s Expert Network.