Firm Level Differences

Different historical backgrounds and industrial structures make it inevitable that Japanese and U.S. corporations approach technology and innovation from different perspectives. Experts have noted the following firm-level characteristics and differences.7

Organization and Geography of R&D

Japanese firms have tended to locate their divisional laboratories within or beside production facilities whether in Japan or in off-shore production sites, and maintain more of their technology development at the plant level, particularly incremental improvements in processes or products. However, Japanese corporations, like their U.S. counterparts, typically locate their basic research laboratories at some remove from their factory sites. The geographic, organizational and social distance between basic research and manufacturing is likely to increase as the pressures for globalization increase.8 In the United States, the location and relative emphasis of R&D vary greatly from firm to firm, but there has been a general movement to link R&D more closely with the needs of customers.

Long-Term and Short-Term Perspectives

The Japanese task force members and others have remarked on the tendency of corporate research in large Japanese companies to be persistent and to take a long-term perspective in speculative areas. This is seen as an important means of reducing technological and business risk for the company.9 R&D organizations in Japanese corporations allocate percentages of their budgets to "seed" research that is intended to encourage individual researchers to look into potentially promising areas that may or may not be tied to the company's shortand medium-term strategic plans. By contrast, U.S. companies that focus on quarterly financial results and short-term product development are thought to be more conservative and risk averse than those with a relatively long technological time horizon.

R&D's Role in Setting Corporate Business Plans

Differences in the degree of integration between research and business divisions in Japanese and U.S. corporations influence the role that R&D organizations play in carrying out fundamental business plans. Over the past two decades, Japanese firms have increasingly made their R&D organizations the centers of diversification efforts. While some leading U.S. industrial corporations have looked to acquisitions to diversify their businesses and technologies, Japanese firms have more often utilized internally sourced diversification, perhaps because acquisitions are much more difficult to accomplish in Japan.

For example, Sumitomo Electric Incorporated (SEI) began in 1897 as a family copper smelting business combined with silver extraction. By 1931, it was manufacturing copper wire and cable. The manufacture of cable for the transmission of information is the defining market for SEI. SEI's technology strategy is based on diversification through innovation to ensure that its position in a well-defined market is not threatened by unexpected innovations outside the industry. This strategy led SEI to recognize the emergence of optical fiber as both a threat and an opportunity to be acted upon. As a guiding principle for diversification, SEI has a 50/50 program. The program maintains a 50:50 ratio between the company's main business and its

The National Academies | 500 Fifth St. N.W. | Washington, D.C. 20001
Copyright © National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.
Terms of Use and Privacy Statement