Management: Summer cuttings for cultivation

SUMMER is upon us, but not the summer doldrums. Consider these rumblings.

Shape of the future: The mad scramble to invent the multimedia age is on. MCI and British Telecom make a deal. Time Warner and US West get engaged. What's happened so far in the industry of computers, software, cable, telecommunications, publishing and entertainment is small change compared to what's coming. Winners? Losers? Who would dare guess? As Bill Gates of Microsoft told Fortune recently: 'If your business has anything to do with information, you're in deep trouble.' And that includes Gates.

The devil is in the details: When a European head of state gets the sniffles, the New York Times blankets the story for days. Yet coverage of the most dramatic change in Japanese politics in 40 years gets scant attention. The 'International' Herald Tribune offers weather reports from 40 cities in Europe, 10 in Asia. One more time: it's Asia, stupid]

Oh, come on: In Japan, tidiness, quality and presentation are the flavour of the millennium, not the month. In fact, order, simplicity and beauty are deified in Shinto, the state religion. Take the practice of flower arranging, or ikebana. Reverence for stark beauty is obvious. Moreover, the packaging of everything is a fetish - cans of soup and individual melons are presented as works of art. The bagging of a single postcard is a production.

You would also think jaywalking was a capital offence, even in the boondocks. If someone commits suicide by jumping in front of a train in the Tokyo underground, the family is fined for the disruption of service - the penalty varying according to the number of passengers delayed.

The Japanese have long been order freaks. No wonder emulating such obsessions is so difficult for Westerners.

Presentation counts (again): Hats off to Business Week for its annual cover story on product design. In an ever more crowded marketplace, design is one of the best - and least travelled - avenues to product differentiation. But like quality efforts, good design must be a way of life, not a 'programme'.

Engines of progress: I'm struck that at first glance most economies look alike. Average workers in America, Japan and India do about the same things - drive cabs, write memos, fix stuff. Except the ingenious Indian mechanic works on the street patching 15-year-old bicycles, while his Japanese and American counterparts doctor high- priced cars in air-conditioned service bays, using computerised diagnostic tools.

The difference, mostly, lies at the edge - sophisticated products and services on which the rest of us piggy-back our way to relative success. Breakthrough products depend, in turn, on an astonishingly few people.

'An ordinary man cannot develop good games, no matter how hard he tries. A handful of people can develop games that everybody wants,' said Hiroshi Yamauchi, chief executive of Nintendo. Last year, Nintendo's 892 employees generated over dollars 5bn in revenue (about dollars 6m each).

Providing a climate that produces great game designers, microbiologists, aerospace engineers and architects, then offers an entrepreneurial infrastructure that turns their work into gold - is essential.

The great divide: From 1968 to 1977, according to the McKinsey consultancy, real income (inflation adjusted) in the US grew by 20 per cent. Most of us participated equally, high-school dropouts gaining 20 per cent, college grads picking up 21. The next decade, with the information age flowering, changed all that. Between 1978 and 1987, income increased by 17 per cent, but high-school dropouts experienced a 4 per cent decline while college grads added a whopping 48 per cent. Education, anyone?

Forget miracles: Want to win in Japan? Russell Hanlin, president of Sunkist Growers, explained to the Asahi Evening News why exports to Japan amount to 25 per cent of the firm's revenue and 75 per cent of exports. 'Our success has not been achieved in one day or one year,' he said. 'It took 30 years of work. I've been personally coming to Japan for 30 years.'

Listen up, guys: 'We always dissuss things, then I'll make up our minds.' That's the word from one female respondent in an Australian survey of women's role in purchasing decisions. Women's input tipped the scales in 71 per cent of decisions involving purchase of a home computer; 88 per cent for health insurance; 91 per cent for a house; and 94 per cent for furnishings. Do your product development and marketing departments reflect such statistics?

Happy summer]

Copyright 1993 TPG Communications