Tomoya Nakamura in aikido gear reaches out to his right

As I read this New Year’s newspapers, headlines of an employment drain and the globalization of the manufacturing industry catch my eye. Japan can no longer compete with emerging countries on manufacturing costs. Japan should compete by differentiating through value-added technologies. In this volume, which is based on my experiences managing my division, I would like to consider the stance that management should take with regards to the various types of knowledge and wisdom which are generated in the workplace and becoming more and more important in this modern age.

Thoughts on leveraging a person’s “Knowledge Power”

GLOBIS University began offering English classes in 2006 and inaugurated a part-time MBA program in 2009. In 2012, we plan to open a full-time MBA program in English. For the full-time program, we plan to accept a group of students from Asia and the rest of the world, a big step towards our goal of becoming the No. 1 MBA program in Asia.

My job is to integrate the English programs not only in GLOBIS University, but also in our global training sessions for our corporate clients. My division is multinational, with members from the U.S., Belgium and Japan, including several returnees (Japanese who have lived abroad). Many also have MBAs or master’s degrees. With differing cultures and backgrounds, opinions can clash when we work together as a group.

Last fall, there was a confrontation regarding task assignments. There was a difference between what the manager suggested for the task assignment and what the member thought was suitable.

In general, a company is managed based on the power from one’s position. “Position Power” assigns greater power to persons in higher positions in the company. In a hierarchy that clearly delineates the president, directors, managers, senior associates, and staff, the higher positions assume higher decision-making authority, influence, and direction for the organization. Here, as one moves up the ranks, it is naturally assumed that skills and leadership also increase.

Now, in this age of great change, when it becomes difficult even to predict the immediate future, is it really possible to continue to manage divisions based on position power? After all, my organization is in the knowledge industry, which deals with the study of management! Management comprises many subject areas, such as strategy, marketing, operations, accounting, finance, leadership, and entrepreneurship. In this environment, people with the rank of manager may well be outperformed by subordinates who have received master’s degrees or doctorates in their specialty.

In contemplating this issue, I received some advice from my colleague, Mr. Hirofumi Matsubashi (who lectures in Creativity and Organization Management), reflected my own Ki (intuition), and came to the following decision. In addition to recognizing position power for what it is, I would create a new concept called “Knowledge Power,” and seek to actively leverage the subject knowledge of my senior associates. (I define knowledge power as curiosity, action, knowledge or wisdom in a certain subject.) That is, I would prioritize position power for routine work that requires experience. However, for work in new subjects that require knowledge and wisdom creation, I would value knowledge power more than position power.

Now, I have come to understand that valuing knowledge power had a far greater impact than just changing my work style. For example, a person with an MBA with a concentration in marketing may also have developed a deep understanding through a hobby such as music. In this case, this person would be assigned mainly marketing tasks but could also greatly contribute by applying his or her skills in music. In other words, valuing knowledge power means considering a person’s personality, lifestyle, and desires for growth, and then somehow creating opportunities to make his/her fulfilling contributions.

For the tasks that value knowledge and wisdom creation, I then decided to lay out the tasks on a table and let the members volunteer for them based on their possible contribution, work situation, and desires for growth.

In this manner, is it possible to really assign tasks properly? I am sure you readers have doubts. To be frank with you, I was also concerned. However, as I made a decision to utilize knowledge power, I had to seek a way to let members express their opinions freely and to choose the tasks that they believed could bring out their best. Of course, I can play the role of referee in order to adjust any imbalances in work distribution. However, in showing respect for knowledge power, I try to minimize the times in which I intervene.

People began to shine; the organization became lively, and I happened to change my perspective

After I began managing the division this way, all the members seem to have begun to enjoy their work. Although people asserted what they themselves wanted to do, they also proactively picked up work that was necessary for the group as a whole. I think that as we paid attention to each person’s strengths and weaknesses, knowledge was also created in a smooth manner.

Additionally—and I did not expect this—my perspective also changed. First of all, I had to understand each member at a much more precise level. What does this person know? In what kind of environment is he/she able to deepen his/her knowledge? What might impede any output that is derived from his/her knowledge?

Next, my definition of work also changed. Originally I had regarded work in connection to the division’s goals, and thought that what did not fit inside the division’s goals were “OB” (a golf term for “out of bounds” that includes a 2-stroke penalty). However, I learned that each person creates knowledge in his or her way. When I started looking at jobs from employees’ perspectives of trying to generate knowledge, an entirely different image of work appeared. It was as if I had been riding a motorcycle at 60 km/hour and had missed the scenery. If I had been riding a bicycle at 20 km/hour or been walking at 4 km/hour, I would have been immersed by the sweet smell of the flowers on the side of the road. (“Stop and smell the roses” is not just a cliché.)

Third, I believe that in providing an environment for the members to aim for their individual desires for growth and develop their careers, I was able to further empower them that much more.

To all the members who changed my perspective in this manner, I want to share my deep appreciation: “Thank you! You’ve given me precious advice.” To those members of management who are constantly being told to create added value from their subordinates, allow me to say this to you: if you recognize and utilize knowledge power, the Ki (energy) of the organization will flow more easily and the faces of each employee will brighten. As a result, added value should be created. (To all the managers who are already implementing this form of organizational management, I hope this column is a reassuring sign of encouragement.)

Lastly, I would like to wrap up this column with a quote from Max DePree’s “Leadership Is an Art,” one of my favorite books:

“The Millwright Died”

My father is ninety-six years old. He is the founder of Herman Miller, and much of the value system and impounded energy of the company, a legacy still drawn on today, is a part of his contribution. In the furniture industry of the 1920s the machines of most factories were not run by electric motors, but by pulleys from a central drive shaft. The central drive shaft was run by the steam engine. The steam engine got its steam from the boiler. The boiler, in our case, got its fuel from the sawdust and other waste coming out of the machine room—a beautiful cycle.

The millwright was the person who oversaw that cycle and on whom the entire activity of the operation depended. He was a key person.

One day the millwright died.

My father, being a young manager at the time, did not particularly know what he should do when a key person died, but thought he ought to go visit the family.

The widow asked my father if it would be all right if she read aloud some poetry. Naturally, he agreed. She went into another room, came back with a bound book and for many minutes read selected pieces of beautiful poetry. When she finished, my father commented on how beautiful the poetry was and asked who wrote it. She replied that her husband, the millwright, was the poet.

It is now nearly sixty years since the millwright died and my father and many of us at Herman Miller continue to wonder: Was he a poet who did millwright’s work, or was he a millwright who wrote poetry?

In our effort to understand corporate life, what is it we should learn from this story? In addition to all of the ratios and goals and parameters and bottom lines, it is fundamental that leaders should endorse a concept of persons. This begins with an understanding of the diversity’s of people’s gifts and talents and skills.

Understanding and accepting diversity enabled us to see that each of us is needed. It also enables us to begin to think about being abandoned to the strengths of others, of admitting that we cannot know or do everything.

Recognizing diversity helps us to understand the need we have for opportunity, equity, and identity in the workplace. Recognizing diversity gives us the chance to provide meaning, fulfillment, and purpose, which are not to be relegated solely to private life any more than are such things as love, beauty, and joy.

(The column author has crossed out some sentences for an easier read.)

(This article was originally published on May 9, 2011)

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