Open doors are the key to the future


Many Japanese visited Los Angeles during the Golden Week holidays to watch Shohei Ohtani play for the Angels. I was one of them and was impressed with not only his performance but also how he behaved as if he had been there for a long time. Watching him play in front of so many fans (the stadium was almost full even though the game was on a weekday) made me think of the significance of keeping an organization open to attract the best talent and stay competitive.

We often encourage young people to step into a new world and open themselves up to new experiences. For that to happen, the country or organization that they’re interested in must be open to people from the outside. Meanwhile, the cry for a country or organization to make itself great through protectionist measures appears to have recently gained momentum throughout the world.

I have no intention of discussing here the complicated issues of refugees, immigration and integration that are often on the priority list of politicians and governments. I want to discuss the benefits of encouraging the free flow of people by country, city or company both from the individual and organizational point of view.

For individuals, it provides an opportunity to design their own identity if they can start a new phase of their life in a new field. We often “label” people, and individuals may find it difficult to get rid of their label if they stay in the same place. Going to a new place and into a new field gives them a chance to start anew on their own. Stepping into a new field also gives them an opportunity to assess their strengths and weaknesses in the specific but wider field of their interest. Likewise, it provides a chance to identify their hidden talents and develop their capabilities.

On the other hand, it could be a challenge as they may feel insecure and that they don’t belong there, leaving them feeling uneasy for a while because they are out of their comfort zone. In fact, in Japan we have a term that describes the light depression that many young people feel this month of the year just after finishing the first month on a new job or at university. It’s called “May depression.” Many new graduates who have started their first job in April have come back to campus to have a chat with me in May. I did not realize why at first, but it was their way of mitigating their concern and fear by returning to the familiar place where they had spent the last four years.

What are the benefits for a country or organization encouraging free movement of people? If a country or organization wants to attract people from outside, it needs to continue making efforts to be the best place in their field of interest. People are attracted to places where their talents are appreciated and developed. Once a place is perceived to offer a friendly environment for talented people to pursue their aspirations, people with similarly high aspirations and potential for capability development will come. A virtuous cycle will kick in, and the place will become even stronger as competent people with strong interests gather to create healthy rivalries and positive competition among themselves.

On the other hand, if a country or city builds a wall to drive away people from outside, it will lose the vitality and energy to stay at the top. Good people leave and others follow.

The same holds true with an organization. Many companies advocate “open innovation” with people from outside of the organization to stay competitive in a fast-changing business environment. To make sure this leads to tangible benefits, organizations must continue making their place and project attractive enough for outside experts to find value. Open innovation is flexible and adaptive, and not fixed or permanent.

If these are the benefits of open entities with free flows of people, why the recent surge in protectionist sentiments and the interest in a wall? We see a similar tendency among some companies that advocate open innovation but have difficulty implementing it.

Let us go back to the story of Shohei Ohtani, who was named Rookie of the Month for April in Major League Baseball’s American League. He seems to be free from May depression. Why did the 23-year-old Ohtani go to the MLB, even though he was a superstar in Japan? It is simply that the MLB is the best and most competitive place for baseball, with excellent players from around the world. He wanted to be in the best place so he could develop his talent to the full. Though it is still only a few months since he began his U.S. career, he has been phenomenal and is expected to become even better in that environment.

We can take a look at Ichiro Suzuki, who at age 44 has had a stellar career in the United States, to see how MLB provided him with the best opportunity to develop his talent. If the MLB had not been open to him and he had stayed in Japan, I doubt his performance would have reached this level.

The MLB is open and remains the best place for baseball as it keeps attracting and retaining the most competent players. Following the same logic (though national governments may have other issues), I question whether the U.S., with the administration of President Donald Trump so keen on building a wall along the American border with Mexico, will stay the best place for innovation, entrepreneurship and new business model creation. The open policy of the U.S. made it the best place for these activities. Organizations such as the MLB are open to outsiders, regardless of their origin.

Turning our eyes to Japan, can we say that Japanese companies are open and receptive to free movement of people like the MLB? My answer is unfortunately “no.” They may not advocate building a wall, but the fact that many of them have had relatively little interest in recruiting the best talent from around the world indicates they may have an invisible wall. Such a policy may have resulted in the difficulty Japan has had in making its population diverse and realizing open innovation.

My suggestion to individuals — regardless of their nationality, race or background — is that you seek the best place in the world in your field of interest, go there and develop your capability by interacting and competing with the best people there. Stay away from an organization that is not open, as your talent will be wasted.

To countries and organizations, my suggestion is stay open and keep trying to stay at the top. Once you close the door and protect what you have, you are doomed to lose your competitiveness. After all, people with high potential are the key to competitiveness, and they will be driven away if you shut the door to your place.

Yoko Ishikura is a professor emeritus at Hitotsubashi University and an independent consultant in the area of global strategy, competitiveness and global talent. She is a member of the World Economic Forum’s Global Future Council.

Open doors are the key to the future
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