In 1989, I started to help American commercial carpet tile company in Georgia as Japanese language interpreter. Then in 1991, I joined this company and then came back to Japan. I have been inside of business scene in Japan since then. This is the story of what I have seen before, during and after the social change research became popular within business community in Japan.
Social change is often associated with governmental and academic studies of societal issues (Penn State WC, 2014), but I feel business in the modern world is ultimately tied to everything about societal change. If we are to make a living, we will be involved with some kind of business. Business affects how a country is run, because no politician in the advanced country in the world is free of business contact.
In 1991, Japan was at the end of bubble economy. At the time, companies were ignoring the possibility of losing huge amounts of money. But it did happen, and when the bubble busted in 1992, like with most other companies, our accounting department was scrutinized. It turned out that there was much waste going on in Japan branch. Many consultants came in to deal with this waste. Some of consultants were hired for one time only projects, and they were seen as rescuers, professional people who knew best. Their research and solutions were based on traditional scientific ways that the objectivity and detachment from emotion was important. With this method, they did not understand the background of why and how the company ended up where they were. They were paid regardless of how the companies fared after executing their recommendations. Our company and just about all companies I knew at the time ended up losing huge amounts of money despite of, or in some cases because of taking the action recommended by the consultants.
Some of the consultants joined our company as hired guns. One was a CEO, who’s job was to re-organize, or re-engineer our company and turn it around within a few years. From what I saw, this was a common practice in 1980’s and 90’s in the US and Japan. Sometimes they conducted participatory action research to change, seeking out and working with people who have been working with their company for many years. Sometimes, they operated as action researcher who would gain respect and recognition sometimes beyond the business world and make big money by success in taking action based on their research, or integrating their own value through research result. These hired gun consultants may have momentarily brought the company impressive financial turn around, but ultimately after they left, companies went back to its own ways. If a company was based on sound philosophy, it hung on to and strengthened its core. In this process, a new leader emerged to carry it on. Unfortunately, that did not happen to my company, but I have seen it work with some other companies. It worked with Nissan when it was bought out by Renault and Carlos Gohsn was placed in leadership role in Japan, and with IBM when Louis Gersner became its Global leader (Gohsn, 2001, Gerstner, 2003).
Yes, the social change research can be both good and bad, and sometime, traditional research method works better (Penn State WC, 2014). For real life issues in business, I encounter activist research all the time. It is best that we listen more rather than just close our ears to try to think of ways to push through with our ideas, because we can never be certain that our way is the best way.
Brydon-Miller, M. (1997). Participatory Action research: Psychology and Social Change. Journal of Social Issues, 53(4). 657-666
Gerstner, Louis (2003). Who Says Elephants Can’t Fly? Leading a Great Enterprise through Dramatic Change. Harper Business.
Ghosn, Carlos (2001). Saisei heno chosen (Challange to Revitalize in Japanese). Diamond Publishing Company.
Pennsylvania State World Campus. Applied Social Psychology. 2014. Retrieved from: https://courses.worldcampus.psu.edu/sp14/psych424/001/common/homepage.html