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Podcast: Internal Comms in Japan

Podcast: Internal Comms in Japan

Jonathan Davies


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20 mins read

Thu, Apr 29, '21  

Today's podcast guest is pretty much Superman – he’s a teacher, a fitness instructor, and leads a Tech Ops and Communications team.

Meet Chris Colucci from Kikokushijo Academy, who’s here to share his 15 years long experience as a New Yorker in the field of tech and communications in Japan.

Watch or listen to the podcast right here, or scroll down to read the transcript. 

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Jonathan Davies: Good day and welcome to another episode of the Internal Communications podcast. Today I've got a guest all the way over from Japan...actually that side of the continent we've not covered yet before, so I'm really excited for this. Today we're joined by Chris Colucci. So Chris, welcome. Please introduce yourself to the audience.

Chris Colucci: Thank you for having me, Jonathan. Happy to be representing Asia, even though I don't look like I would be representing Asia. I am originally from New York in the US and I've been living in Japan now for about 15 years, so it's definitely my new home. 

What do I do? I am the Head of the Tech Ops & Communications team at Kikokushijo Academy, which is a bit of a mouthful to say. We are an after-school school, so an educational institution. We focus on returning students Japanese students that have lived abroad in English speaking countries for their families’ work, and then they come back to Japan, (that's the returnee bit), and they go to Japanese school, but they want to keep up their native-level English. Instead of going to standard-conversation school, they come to our school and we focus on those students and their needs.  

Jonathan Davies: Actually before we jump into the actual topic that I wanted to discuss, what is the reason why you're here to begin with, just a little bit about the school? Because to me, you're almost underselling it a little bit, because what you do, is really, really important, right? Essentially you're opening the world to return these students because the way you described it before to me, is that they often have a near-native or native level of English by the time they come back to Japan, and they are obviously back in Japanese society. I guess this place where English is not used as frequently, but the world's their oyster a little bit more because they've seen the Western side, how the Western side of the culture works, how the language operates, so they should have the biggest advantage on the job market. Is that kind of what it plays into? 

Bridging the gap between the East and the West 

Chris Colucci: Absolutely. You're correct. The world is our oyster and one of the roles that we play as a school is reminding them that the world is our oyster because of their unique experience. A lot of times there's immense pressure on them to fit back into Japanese society, but after living abroad for so many years it's really difficult for them to do so. 

They truly are bilingual and bi-cultural. So yes, they do have a leg up, but I think Japan has not quite fully embraced the gem that the returning student is. Obviously Japan does well on the world stage. It's got a great economy but it's well known that their language skills are not really up-to-par with some of the other nations. China, for instance, their English levels are much higher. They still get the job done, but if Japanese society at large would embrace Kikokushijo for their ability to seamlessly merge Eastern and Western culture and bridge that gap, I think Japan would be leaps and bounds ahead of where it already is.

A part of what we do is to obviously keep up the English education, but we're growing solid citizens, good people. We're reminding them that their experience isn't something that they should be ashamed of. It's something that they should be proud of. 

Jonathan Davies: I really think that's awesome. That already makes me excited to just talk to you about sheerly for a company that you worked with. That said, I would like to dive a little bit into the cross-cultural communication aspect. We have a lot of Internal Communicators that work in global companies, and what I hear a common struggle is for these people that operate the global companies is that Internal Communicators will often sit in Europe or North America or anywhere else in America, but their company will be situated everywhere else, including the APAC region. What we see a lot is engagement numbers within Europe and America being somewhat high versus APAC, where it's somewhat low.

Most of them say that this is because of cultural differences. I would like to dive into that for a second and see if maybe you have some tips for the audience, especially being the fact that you come from New York, you are situated in Japan. I'm sure that there are some golden nuggets there, so stay tuned.

But first we have to dive into the subject matter at hand, which is your job position. It’s really interesting because you actually marry tech and Internal Comms or IT and IC together. Tell us a little bit about what it is exactly that you do, how that came to exist, because you make it seem like it's effortless, like it should be this way, and I think that's really interesting. 

Introducing technology to Internal Comms

Chris Colucci: Yeah, it's funny. You said that phrase to marry the two – I don't actually see them being as separate entities, so I never thought of merging them because they were always together in my mind. So when I started at this company, what were we using?

We had a server. When you think server, you might be seeing something a little bit more grandiose than what we were using. We were using a Mac mini, which was used to store and access Microsoft Excel, Sheets, and Word documents. That meant that if one person at one school had the Excel spreadsheet open, someone else at another school couldn't open or edit it.

I'm not talking 10-15 years ago. This was four years ago. My first thought was, ‘Okay, we need to get ourselves on the cloud and we'd be using collaborative documents.’ That was step number one. So, I transitioned the whole company over into Google Workspace, at the time G Suite.

When I began, I was working closely with the vice president of the company who, for a small company, he wore many hats and still does. I was just looking at all of the different things that he was doing. A lot of them involve communications, like communicating with staff members, teachers, assistants, and other head teachers. 

I basically saw his methodology and it was primarily in-person and email, which is personal, at the in-person bit. But the email bit is a little come and gone. There's no database of information. There's no wealth of knowledge, but accumulating from one year to the next, that people could point back to and look at. I viewed my role as helping him with the communication bit at the same time that I was helping all of the admin folks get organized there. And to me, technology was the one solution that solved both problems. I guess you could say you give someone a hammer and everything looks like a nail. To me, everything can be solved through properly administered technology.

So that's where it began. 

Jonathan Davies: Interesting, so you looked at a communication problem as a technology consultant and then, great, you've got the basic going on, but you sold that problem essentially, right? You've got your technological infrastructure, which sounds very advanced, but you've got the technology to do what you need it to. You're also taking care of communications right now, right? You're an Internal Communicator. It's not just the tech side. 

Chris Colucci: Yeah, absolutely. My initial thought was that we need an internal website for our company. I started researching internal websites and we were already using Google Workspace. Google Sites was the easiest thing to begin with, so I just started slapping that together. But it was so new and foreign to our company. That concept of posting announcements rather than sending an email. I quickly realized that whatever the platform is, that's not the largest hurdle right now.

Right now, the hurdle is to change people's habits and thinking that, ‘Oh, this is something that might be useful, not just this week or next week, but perhaps next year to go back and reference. The technology was there but the biggest hurdle was just convincing folks that there is a need for a slightly more thoughtful communication in a public way.

One of the reasons why it was a hurdle is the company was doing fine without it. But I wasn't trying to go from ‘Okay’ to ‘Good’. I was trying to go from ‘Good’ to ‘Great’. I had to convince them that we needed a new path. 

Jonathan Davies: So how did you ever start convincing them? Because that sounds like tricky business, especially when there's no actual pressing need for it?

Chris Colucci: Good question. The solution I came up with was not scalable – it was to do everything myself. I was just literally asking every single person, ‘What do you do in your job? Tell me about your job description. What are the things that you do that other people might benefit from knowing cross-department?’ I just posted and created everything on their behalf. That ended up resulting three years later – two different Google Sites merged together with over 10,000 pages of information. It was a lot, but it was definitely worthwhile and obviously I wasn't alone that whole time. As the process came along, people started to see value in it and started to take an active part themselves. 

Jonathan Davies: I think that's interesting because we speak a lot about the soft skills and essentially the hard skills of an Internal Communicator. And as activity and productivity that’s a big one. Internal Comms gets overwhelmed with requests, and everybody who's listening to this has heard this a million times before, so it becomes very difficult to put yourself in a position where you can be a little bit more proactive instead of reactive. Kudos on taking that approach, because you said ‘I'm just going to do this and I'll prove it’ worth it.

Chris Colucci: Yeah. It was the only option. 

Jonathan Davies: Do you think because you maybe came out initially a little bit from the tech side, that you've had that assertivity within you? Or is it just something that's part of Chris Colucci or is it the company that really puts you in that position? 

Chris Colucci: I would say, a little bit of column A, little bit of column B. My background prior to  joining this company is as a teacher for years at the international school level, teaching history, anthropology, psychology. During that time, I also was a group fitness instructor. I started my own gym in Tokyo. These three things sound like completely opposite worlds, right.

Teaching in the classroom to coaching a class, and then Internal Communications. But in reality, it's all the same thing. You're trying to get people from one spot to another, to an end goal. You have to coach them and throughout the process of change, habits need to be formed. Some habits need to be let go, new ones need to be created. I just took my previous experiences in the classroom and as a fitness coach, and I just applied them in this position here. I didn't look at this as something that I wanted to do, I looked at it as ‘We will all benefit from this’.

I coupled that with talking to each person individually, as often as I could, even though it was time-consuming and I figured out what their needs were and I made sure that I spoke to their needs, so that they can see the benefit to themselves. 

Jonathan Davies: So that's actually a very nice tactical approach to stakeholder management – take everybody and ask them what's in it for them, because it's the what's-in-it-for-them-factor.

That's going to win people over, right? If you're just saying, ‘Hey, here's something sorted out. It's not going to work.’ But if you said, essentially what you did is you scoped people's problems, which is clever because you scope out people's problems and then you give them the solution. They're automatically going to buy in a lot quicker, right?

Chris Colucci: Yep, indeed. This is probably one of the reasons why communication teams that are not on-site are not in direct connection with the people that they're creating communications for, they might struggle. Because they don't really have that insight that would come from having frequent conversations. Understandably so, at scale, that's hard to do. But if you can do it, it's worth it. 

Jonathan Davies: I know you're not in a situation, so maybe this is a little bit of a tricky question, but what would you say to people who are not in a position where they can speak with all their important stakeholders in-person? How would you go about those approaches? Because it's not like you can talk to people. 

Chris Colucci: Yeah. In larger companies, you have to rely on the leaders at every level, within the organization. You have to inspire others to believe in the same thing that you're believing, but you're just approaching it one individual at a time.

You take a director of a certain region and you speak to them and you ask them, ‘What are some things that you think your region could be doing better?’ And it might be a communications issue. It might be this and that. Then you explained to them some approaches that you've seen work in the past in other regions.

Now what you've done is you've figured out what issues I've had. You've related to it. You've made them feel heard. You've talked about another scenario, something similar. You've shown how that was successful there, and at this point you haven't actually even offered any advice.

You're just having a conversation. They might then turn around and ask you, ‘Hey, got any ideas? And then as soon as you have that person's buy-in, that'll take care of however many hundreds or thousands of people after that. Even at a large scale, it still has to happen from the individual level. 

Jonathan Davies: So basically you don't get leadership buy-in, you get a leader to buy in and then you move on to the next leader. You create that snowball effect, right? 

Chris Colucci: Yeah. I found that this is helpful. It's definitely time-consuming and difficult. If there's anything I've learned from the fitness world, is that anything that's time-consuming and difficult is probably worth it.

Jonathan Davies: Now I'm seeing what you said and those things may seem unrelated, but they actually come together.

Chris Colucci: Absolutely. 

Jonathan Davies: So there's that other topic I really want to pick your brain on. Knowing that, I want to be obviously aware of the cultural sensitivities and that stuff, so this is coming from a good place, a place where we hear a lot of people that work in global companies have kind of struggled to get the APAC side as engaged as the EMEA and American side. My assumption usually is that in Western Europe or Europe and America, the culture is: if you stand out, it's a good thing.

Whereas in APAC it might be a bit different depending on which countries in APAC, because there's also massive differences. How do you feel about that? What have you observed, being an American that went to Japan? And what kind of tips would you give to Internal Communicators in global companies that maybe aren't situated in the APAC region, but they're still trying to get them engaged?

The intercultural conversation: High and low-context cultures

Chris Colucci: This is an excellent topic. We can talk for hours and hours about this topic alone. It's a tricky one and I must say I have probably committed every cultural football you can imagine in 15 years of being here in Japan. One thing that's really helpful to know is that it's okay to recognize general differences in communication styles, across cultures, if the goal is to foster better communication. One of the ways we use that – Japan is a high-context culture. That is to say a lot of their communication is based on the assumption that a lot of context surrounding the conversation is already understood.

So what does that look like? That means a lot of times things aren't said, but understood. Tone, variance and voice. These things go a long way in community between people. The opposite of this is a low-context culture. A lot of Western countries or English speaking countries fall in this category: the US, Canada, etc. These are cultures that what you say is what you get. They value lots of information. In those types of conversations, you can imagine that information is less likely to fall through the cracks, whereas in a high-context culture information may fall through the cracks.

That is true if you are not in tune with that culture. The Japanese style of communication works really well for the Japanese. The Western style works really well for folks in the West. The challenge is then what do you do when you come together? I think the two biggest things that we rely on at our company are awareness and forgiveness.

So awareness – as soon as you are aware that this is a style, this is a preference, with the person in front of you, then it doesn't come as a shock when it happens. You're more alert in the moment to be able to recognize, ‘Oh, okay. Maybe this person might mean this. Maybe I should clarify this.’ And the reverse is true. 

The forgiveness part is that if someone doesn't communicate in the way that you want, it's not their fault. It's just the style that works really well for them. One of the cultural points that we try to teach everyone is the platinum rule.

Have you ever heard of the platinum rule? The golden rule is treat others as you would want to be treated. The platinum rule, this is more of a management technique, but it applies to international communication: treat others as they would want to be treated. And other words figure out what works for them. If you can meet them in the middle or at least understand where they're coming from, you're way more likely to have a smooth and efficient conversation, but it has to come with awareness. So a little bit of studying, a little bit of reading, getting to know your counterparts...it goes a long way. 

Jonathan Davies: Okay. I'm going to make a shameless plug here because we once did an episode with a very talented user experience designer. The entire topic of the episode was that if content is King, then context is Queen. Those two go together and they can't be seen as separate things.

It's contextual. The context in which you receive a message is incredibly important. So it's really interesting that you said that Japan, for example, I'm based in the Netherlands. It's famous for their directness and bluntness and high amount of contact within messages. That's already an eye-opening contrast between the two. 

Okay. We're in a global company, we can't always speak in person. We cannot always do video calls because for example, it's the end of the afternoon for you and this is the start of the morning for me. A lot of context gets lost. That tone of voice that you spoke of, and that you're basically relying on in a large number of cases. 

You're using textual-based communication depending on the system you have in place. What would you advise communicators that are in a global skill that needs to rely on written communication and how can it make it more appropriate for the APAC region or specifically Japan?

Chris Colucci: That's a great question. When it comes to written communication, we have email, we have chat and even different types of chatting systems, and then obviously like official notices or things that go out that way.

Again, I would encourage leaders of each level to talk to people on their team. It sounds very meta, but talking about talking goes a very long way. I'll give you an example from my own team and then we can extrapolate out from there. On my team, we have Japanese men, Japanese women, Western men, Western women. People from all over the world, lots of different countries, lots of different nationalities, lots of different generations.

We have folks from their twenties to fifties. All of these people, if you ask them one-on-one, ‘Tell me what type of message would you send by email? What type of message would you send by text? What type of message would you post on an internal website?’ You might get different answers from every single person based on where they're from, what kind of context culture they grew up in.

Oh, and that's just their own experience that they bring from other workplaces. If you don't have this conversation there's a very small chance that you're going to get it right. Or you might think that you're using the correct channel, for what you think is right, but it's not being received that way. Successful communication is when what you think you say is what the other person thinks they hear. I'll say that one more time, because this was said to me by my philosophy professor in a university: Successful communication is when what you think you say is what the other person thinks they hear. There are a few layers there. There's what you're thinking you're saying and what's actually coming out. And then the same thing has happened on the other person's end. But in the middle is also the medium. The delivery, the way the message is delivered.

In our team, we just had a conversation about talking and we agreed upon team rules – that we're going to use email in this fashion. We'll use our intranet in this fashion. We'll use chat in this fashion, and since then it's been pretty seamless, pretty flawless. What we did is, once we had a proof of concept, once that went well, I then went to our Human Resources department and I had a conversation with them.

And again, I started off the same way: ‘How's your communication on your team?’, and then the conversation rolled from there. 

Jonathan Davies: But for that to happen, I guess you need a lot of things. First off, you need to actually ask what your people want, which is a common mistake that I see, even as Internal Communicators. If you're in a global company, let's say 5,000 people, which is even a massive global company. You've never been to every office and you never met every person, so it's very easy to think that your style of communication will work there. I guess that's the awareness part you're talking about.

Then second, I guess you also need to be very much aware of all the technology that you have at bay, because it's not just about ‘Oh, we've got an intranet and we have an ESN, and we've got a chance to win.’ We've got that, but it's also about learning to categorize how each medium works.

What I'm taking from you is really interesting. Normally, when I have communication tools, I categorize them into three categories. I base those categories on speed. You've got static, which is slow communications that doesn't need updating more than every quarter, let's say, your internet page, or corporate video, something like that.

Then you've got dynamic. That's a little bit faster, but not so fast that you can't keep up with it if you're not in the same time zone though. For example, posting on your enterprise social network, or even an email, is dynamic communication. Not a great example because it gets siloed in people's inboxes. Exactly what you said before, right? 

Then the rapid side of communications is, things like Slack, Google Chat, a quick one-on-one just to get stuff done. Actually what you're saying is that, ‘Okay maybe that's the theory I would still apply’, but then would you categorize those tools based on what people actually say it is instead of you determining what it is for them? It's about going out and asking people, ‘How do you use this tool? What do you expect from this tool? What do you expect from others using this tool?’

How did you even bring that all together? Did you have a massive Excel sheet with a whole bunch of research questions that you've built together? Or was it a little bit more fast and loose?

Chris Colucci: It is probably a combination of both. We've recently actually switched over from Google Sites to another intranet. And the new intranet is very dynamic. And what we realized is we didn't have anything quite like it, so we took that as an opportunity to change people's perceptions on how to communicate because it was in a sense, a new method of communication. We did go around and we just asked people on a spreadsheet, like, ‘What do you use chat for?’ We got a list of things, and then we found out, ‘What do you think, what are chats at the merits? Where does it fall short?’

The common thing would be like, I leave for two days and then I come back, there's 400 chats. I'm not reading it, but I miss important things as a result. We're like, ‘Okay, now we're seeing the way people tend to use this’, like you said really quick. But we noticed that there were important things being buried there. So when we were making the switchover we did our research in this way. And then what we made sure we did is that when the new method of communication came out, we sold it in a way that it was directly solving all of those problems.

It's almost like we turned into a marketing team for a little bit. But we realized that that was actually quite helpful because a new communication tool is an opportunity to change the game a little bit. So that might be a piece of advice for a larger company that is struggling a little bit. Sometimes if you just come in over the top with something that is completely new, but also is proven to solve some known problems, sometimes buying as quickly will help.

Jonathan Davies: Hmm, nice, I like that. That's a really good tip. Again, I think that speaks to your Modus Operandi in general, right? Its assertivity is being proactive and it's respectful, of course. You're not bargaining through anything. You're actually helping people solve their problems, but it didn't come from you just sitting and waiting for people to help you.

Chris Colucci: Yeah, no it must be proactive. We have to be proactive. And, if anything, this pandemic that we're going through is a great example of why we must be proactive. When our school shut down, we quickly moved all of our operations online in 48 hours. We had the infrastructure to do it. If we had that mini Mac server with the spreadsheets that can only be edited by one person we wouldn't be talking here today because the school wouldn't exist. 

So it was that proactivity. It was that quadrant two, if you're familiar with the four quadrants. Something that is very important, but not urgent, is investing time in those types of activities that you don't know how they're going to pay off. But more times than not, they do. And this was one of those cases where we were investing in the future communication that we didn't know we needed. 

Jonathan Davies: Nice. To anyone listening that's trying to argue a case for better communication tools, which I know a lot of our listeners are right now, because there's one of the things that we've made very clear to everybody worldwide: You're in a quadrant two situation – that means check out the quadrants, read up on them, because I think that's a really smart tip. I do remember that may not be super urgent for some people, but it's extremely important and it's going to be a massive missed opportunity in the future for any company that's in on it.

Chris Colucci: Absolutely. 

Jonathan Davies: Chris, thank you so much. This was enlightening. I really appreciate the conversation. I like how we managed to cover technology and how we managed to cover the cross-cultural side of things, so thank you very much. I'll talk to you in the near future.

Chris Colucci: My pleasure. Happy to come back anytime.