Global work orientation: A case study

Terence Brake looks at the work of Harvard professor Tsedal Neely. 

Tsedal Neeley, associate professor in the Organizational Behavior unit at Harvard Business School, recently reported on a five-year study of the global workforce at Rakuten – a Japanese electronic and Internet company.

While the global labour force will reach 3.5 billion by 2018, there will still be a shortage of skilled workers; an even more intense global competition for talent will result.  “Our ways of thinking about careers, colleagues, and collaboration will need to become more flexible and adaptable,” says Prof. Neely. 

In her work with Rakuten, she came to understand the success driver for this new type of global worker; what she calls a ‘global work orientation’.

Prior to 2010, Rakuten was a multilingual global company and each subsidiary operated relatively autonomously with its own organisational culture.  In 2010, CEO, Hiroshi Mikitani, established an English-only policy for the company’s more than 10,000 employees. Mikitani felt that multilingualism was preventing the organisation from sharing knowledge across its global operations. 


Read more about organisational development here

In addition to increased knowledge sharing, the company also wanted to increase its overseas revenue to help offset Japan’s projected GDP decline (as a percentage of global GDP), and also enlarge its global talent pool.

The linguistic and cultural challenges of the policy were experienced differently depending on people’s backgrounds and locations. Two groups had the most difficult transitions:

  • Japanese employees – they were already fluent with Japanese concepts like kaizen (continuous improvement), but found becoming proficient in English challenging.
  • American employees who were fluent in English struggled with cultural work routines and expectations from Japan.

Interestingly, it was employees from countries like Brazil, France, Germany, Indonesia, Taiwan and Thailand – those who had to adjust to a new language and a new culture – who had the easiest transition.  Neeley calls them dual expats (expats in their own countries). It was these employees who most demonstrated the characteristics of a global work orientation. These characteristics are:

  • Embracing positive indifference – ability to overlook many cultural differences as not being specifically important or attention worthy, while being optimistic about cultural engagement and adaptability.
  • Seeking commonality between cultures – ability to find commonalities that draw people together, e.g. a French employee finding that his Japanese colleagues are also results-oriented and driven to analyse processes for ongoing improvement.
  • Identifying with the global organisation rather than the local office – ability to feel a sense of belonging to the larger organisation, e.g. sharing its values and goals. This ability helps nurture job satisfaction, commitment, and performance.
  • Seeking interactions with other, geographically distant subsidiaries – Neeley reports that Rakuten employees in Brazil reported the largest number of voluntary interactions with other subsidiaries at nearly 52%. The US reported the lowest voluntary interactions at about 2%. When interactions are high, there is a greater ability to build trust and share a common vision among global coworkers.
  • Aspiring to a global career – some people in the study had long-standing ambitions to work globally; for others, the desire was triggered when they began to learn English. 

If you and/or your colleagues want to develop multinational careers, paying attention to these five attitudes and behaviours is a good place to start.


About the author

Terence Brake is director of Country Navigator


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