Japanese Snow, Japanese IT Management and Kasumi Ga Seki Cloud

July 26, 2009


“First snow
falling
on the half-finished bridge.”

– Haiku by Matsuo Basho

Photo:  Path to an open air Hot Spring bath (Rotenburo)

12-15-05_1635

Snow plays a very important role in Japanese life.  People romanticize snow and雪国, yukiguni or snow country in enka singing. “Yuki mi” or snow watching, gives an excuse to drink sake and ponder about the impermanence of everything and nothing. The hexagonal shape of the body and roof of yukimi lantern is designed to capture the snow on its roof, and instill a sense of purity and serenity to the viewer. The Sapporo Snow Festival, one of Japan’s largest winter events, attracts about two million people to Sapporo to see the hundreds of beautiful snow statues and ice sculptures which line Odori Park, the grounds at Satoland, and the main street in Susukino.  For seven days in February, these statues and sculptures (both large and small) turn Sapporo into a winter dreamland of crystal-like ice and white snow. Yasunari Kawabata’s “Snow Country”, captures the Japanese “kokoro” in a novel that won the Nobel Prize.

Japanese snow also features in a trade controversy as the following excerpt states:“The oldest forms of barriers are tariffs (taxes or “duties” on imports) and non-tariff barriers, such as quotas (quantitative restrictions), both of which are imposed at the border.  Other less visible trade barriers include more indirect, inside-the-border practices such as official acceptance of collusion among domestic businesses, distribution systems that discriminate against foreigners, and restrictive government procurement practices.  One of the most notorious instances of unduly restrictive safety and health standards was the onerous set of technical specifications that Japan imposed on imported skis in the 1980s on the grounds that Japanese snow was different from that of other countries.” [1].“Japanese snow” since has become a euphemism for “collusion politics” and “crony-capitalism” that have been associated with Japanese business especially during the peak of Japanese success globally.  Often, western vendors complained that their products had to be validated to meet unreasonable demands that stem more from low risk tolerance of Japanese management or high reluctance to embrace anything that they are not used to.

Collectivism and the need to bring a whole group of people together who have disparate vested interests to agree upon any action, creates a natural barrier to innovative approaches, technologies and ideas from outside. Even within a company, “groups” exist and “soto and uchi” play a very important role on how decisions are made.  The telecommunication division views computer division as “soto”.  Domestic market division looks at the global market division as “soto”.  In reality, the collectivism is practiced as a hierarchy of groups who cooperate within the group but fiercely compete with outside groups.   At any level of the hierarchy, the subgroups are loyal to the main group but fiercely compete with outside groups even within the same company.  This is one of the reasons why the institutional knowledge dispersed in different subgroups of a company becomes ineffective in delivering synergy.  This also explains why every Japanese technology company that has communications, chip and computer expertise, has not been able to leverage the synergy to successfully develop convergent technologies inside Japan.  Ironically, in the US Silicon Valley, where individualism reigns supreme, companies collaborate with each other to harness complimentary expertise to create synergy in the products they develop.

History shows the uniqueness claim has been a double edged sword.  While it may have protected some interests in the short run, in the long run, it has isolated Japanese technology from global markets and also prevented efficiencies that stem from innovation to permeate in the Japanese fabric faster.  Example of the effect of “uniqueness” is the recent turmoil in Japanese mobile manufacturing sector.  By embracing their own unique way of implementing the mobile communications, they have missed out on global expansion and are now trying desperately to catch up on Iphone revolution. Is recent withdrawal of Japanese manufacturers from mobile phone business when Iphone is creating a record in growth a direct result of Japanese uniqueness play?

In my update of the “current issues in Japanese Management”, I am investigating how the current generation of Japanese leaders embraces innovation. I am especially interested in how the current generation is approaching IT management and what the west claims to be the “next big thing” called Cloud Computing.  Japan’s Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications, plans to build a massive cloud computing infrastructure to support all of the government’s IT systems. The Kasumi ga seki (literally means the fort of fog) Cloud, named after a Tokyo district where the IT infrastructure will be housed, will be built in stages from now until 2015. The goal of the project is to consolidate all government IT systems into a single cloud infrastructure to improve operation efficiency and reduce cost.  The major components of IT operation costs are:

  1. Computing equipment,
  2. Communications equipment,
  3. IT operations management software and
  4. Processes and People who support IT

While the equipment costs have gone down dramatically over the last two decades, the software and people costs have not.  Ironically, while their hardware revenues draw fewer margins, the vendors who sell computing and storage devices have looked to increase their revenues and profits through selling software management systems and service offerings often at exorbitant rates in the form of systems engineers, process consultants and health check experts. Unless, the escalating software (often called shelf-ware because it is not very useful and gets stored on a shelf) and services costs are brought under control through new innovation similar to what happened with telecommunications network and service management automation, consolidation of IT in Kasumi ga seki only moves the problem from many places where it exists today to one place by 2015.

True cloud computing productivity improvements will only come from innovation in hardware and operating systems that allows application software to dynamically adjust its computing, network and storage resources to meet changing workloads and business priorities, software that is self configuring, self healing, self managing and self optimizing and processes that totally eliminate human latency involved in troubleshooting and diagnosis.  More self-serving vendor driven management systems (suggesting to put other vendor products behind their’s) and processes without a fundamental architectural transformation will not lead to drastic productivity improvement. If the Japanese management is not ready for such innovation, the kasumi ga seki cloud will be only a half-finished bridge before the first fall of snow.

I am looking for input, comments and collaboration and invite anyone with appropriate insight to participate in my research.

[1] Stephen D. Cohen, Robert A. Blecker, Peter D. Whitney, “Fundamentals of U.S. foreign trade policy: Economics, Politics, Laws and Issues”, Westview Press, 2003 Edition 2, p96

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