Huge international companies aren't always as technically literate as you might think . . . especially when it comes to implementing IT policies. As president of one of the world's largest companies, Minoru Makihara has a huge task ahead in trying to move Mitsubishi successfully into the digital age. On one level, the nuts and bolts of the information age - namely PCs and the Internet - could help him efficiently tie together the trading giant's vast array of business interests, from aerospace to tea. But as technology empowers new companies and removes geographical and economic barriers that have traditionally worked in Mitsubishi's favour, his company has to keep pace By Rob GuthIDG: Do you see the Internet and intranets as a means for coordinating your global activities and a strategic tool for connecting your international network of companies and partners?
MAKIHARA: It's certainly going to, if we can use it. I think that's a big "if". It's certainly going to make our global network a much more efficient, a much more productive, type of organisation. At the same time, not just the Internet, but the advances in the information technology will change a considerable part of the business we are conducting in the old, traditional way.
Part of our - let's say, old type of business - will remain . . . But the growing part of Mitsubishi will be new, taking advantage of information technology - Internet, intranet and so forth and so on. Unless we take advantage of that, it will affect our business future, too. If we take advantage of it effectively, particularly ahead of others, it will give us an edge.
IDG: For Mitsubishi, the Internet could be a useful tool, and given that, many people see the Internet as lessening the power of middlemen, a potential threat. How will you make sure that Mitsubishi adjusts to the era of the Internet?
MAKIHARA: That is a very wide open question. First of all, I realise, and most people in Mitsubishi corporation realise, the big challenge - that somehow we have to make a great effort to cope with it. There are various things going on within the corporation in terms of introducing things like Lotus Notes, taking advantage of advanced information technology . . . and trying to restructure our business organisation. This has just started.
Harvard University Professor Lewis Branscomb's book The Uncertainty of the Certain Future is a very interesting title for a book, and I think that it's true. In the end, people, sort of as a concept, know it is going to be a different world, but they don't know exactly what it is going to be, so we have to keep preparing.
IDG: Mitsubishi is involved in many electronic commerce projects. What is your vision for Mitsubishi moving into electronic commerce and performing electronic transactions over the next decade?
MAKIHARA: The uncertainty of the certain future . . . Japan is behind - I would say considerably behind - the United States in this field. In the United States, for example, the banking systems take much more advantage of information technology than Japanese banks. We're probably five or six years behind. Electronic commerce will still take a few years to take off in the United States. So I would say that 10 years is about the time when we'll either be moving in that direction or not.
IDG: Does all the press that Japan is behind the US in terms of IT usage worry you?
MAKIHARA: Yes, it does. Japan is supposed to be a very strong economic power, but . . . the information revolution is taking place - like the industrial revolution - whether you like it or not. People after the industrial revolution wanted to destroy machines that could take away their jobs. Now the same thing could happen - people say, "Let's not use the Internet, because it's going to take away our jobs" - but nevertheless the Internet is coming. Somehow each country has to move into that field.
As I look around, I see Singapore ahead of Japan; I see Hong Kong ahead of Japan; even Malaysia can leapfrog.
IDG: Though it had a slow start, Japan's PC market has taken off, and the Internet is growing. With all the recent excitement around information technology, do you see Japan as becoming very IT-proficient?
MAKIHARA: I don't know, but as I see it, it is a very difficult task to get our company as it exists now, its sort of age/personnel structure, into a very flexible sort of information-oriented organisation. We will struggle with Lotus Notes to begin with. English right now is the de facto language on the Internet.
Japanese people, at least middle managers, are not used to keyboards - not used to English. Now Singapore, Hong Kong, are very much English. Korea - very much English . . . Chinese top leaders - the young leaders - they all speak English.
IDG: So it will be difficult to transform Mitsubishi to an advanced user of IT?
MAKIHARA: Well, it really, theoretically, shouldn't be in our case, because all our people - for example, our 6,000 Japanese staff - I imagine they all joined the company thinking of the possibility that they will live abroad so they should be speaking a foreign language. They should be able to use the keyboard. If they have an allergy to keyboards, why did they join Mitsubishi?