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Strategic mindsets and decision-making autonomy in U.S. and Japanese MNCs.

An area of increased importance for MNCs is managing the inherent tension between headquarter control of global operations and the local autonomy of subsidiaries. Success in today's global competitive environment depends upon the corporation's ability to achieve simultaneously global integration and regional differentiation (Bartlett and Ghoshal, 1989).

There is increasing recent research examining the needs of multinational corporations: 1) to create and coordinate global strategies for subsidiary operations based in diverse geographic locations, and 2) to allow and encourage foreign subsidiaries to create and to implement their own strategies for local markets and local social, political, economic, and legal environments (Bartlett, 1986). Doz et al. (1981) also report on this dual tension and need for MNC managers to balance global strategies with country specific strategies.

Other researchers, such as Bartlett and Ghoshal (1989), similarly find that organizations competing in complex global and local environments need to adopt a 'transnational mentality' where there is a balance among area, product, and functional management perspectives. They note that survival in the new era for MNCs requires a broader international strategic focus and achievement of "global efficiency, multinational flexibility, and worldwide learning -- all at the same time" (p. 137). Managers of MNCs must develop multiple perspectives (or mindsets) that allow for both strong country-by-country geographic strategies and for strong global strategies that create manufacturing rationalization, product standardization, and low-cost global sourcing whenever possible.

Perlmutter's (1969) call for geocentrism is the precursor to the now-called-for transnational organization (Bartlett and Ghoshal, 1989). Chakravarthy and Perlmutter (1985) expand upon the strategic planning needs of the geocentric form of MNC organization where dual structure planning is required (i.e. simultaneous global integration and national responsiveness).

Other theorists such as Leontiades (1990) and Nonaka (1990) have pointed out differences among national orientations towards addressing the evolving role of MNCs in today's global markets. Leontiades differentiates between U.S. and Japanese MNCs by referring to the former as purveyors of 'stakeholder capitalism' and the latter as initiators of 'collective capitalism'. Nonaka's analysis points to the U.S. firms as 'multinational' and the European firms as 'multidomestic', with the Japanese, in contrast, characterized as 'global suppliers'. Such conceptualizations point to national orientations in developing adaptive strategies and resolving the dual requirements for differentiation and integration in MNCs.

Recurrent in these studies is the perceived need for MNCs to develop adaptive structures, strategies, planning processes, and administrative cultures. Yet, little empirical research has been conducted to test whether significant differences exist in the strategic mindsets of senior managers of MNCs with differing parent company headquarters. The purpose of the present study is to test empirically whether MNCs tend to differ in the extent of their use of global or local country strategies by origin of parent company and to test for differences in degree of autonomy in decision making given to subsidiaries.


Cultural differences and MNCs' strategic mindsets

Differences in strategic behavior between U.S. and Japanese MNCs are hypothesized to reflect differences in cognitive styles and behavioral patterns attributable to the overall management styles and cultures characteristic of the respective home countries. Literature comparing U.S. and Japanese management styles is extensive and replete with accounts of differences between the two. These relate to cultural and educational factors, decision-making styles, orientation towards participation, and long term versus short term objectives (see Hofstede, 1980; Keys and Miller, 1984; Ronen and Shenkar, 1985).

Although no studies have directly examined the impact of headquarter-subsidiary relations on strategic mindsets, some literature exists on comparisons between U.S. and Japanese MNCs as regards parent company attitudes toward management practices in host countries. Research points to a Japanese style which is characterized by more participative decision making and greater responsiveness to the requests of local subsidiaries than in U.S. companies. Negandhi and Baliga (1979), in their comparative study of American, European, and Japanese multinationals, found the following suggestive trends in management practices:

1. U.S. MNCs were discovered to be highly reactive to changes in host countries. "Instead of negotiating discretely, they preferred to overreact and ignore diplomacy" (p. 46).

2. Japanese MNCs, in contrast, assumed a very low profile in times of conflict in host countries and waited for the tension to dissipate.

These distinct types of management practices were also reflected in headquarter-subsidiary relationships where American expatriate executives of U.S. MNCs felt strongly about their inability to participate in decision making. "Many of them admitted that they were little more than 'peons' in terms of their head-office hierarchy ... communication was strictly formal and minimal in nature" (Negandhi and Baliga, 1979, p. 58). In contrast, the Japanese expatriate executives, "felt that they were involved in and informed about the major strategic decisions undertaken back home ... (and) that they also had considerable latitude in running their operations" (p. 59).

Awareness of local differences and a marketing focus oriented towards diversity in customer needs and profiles is also at the core of quality and process management methods which are widespread in Japanese companies. These methods have only recently begun to be applied in U.S. MNCs. The focus of attention on cultural differences and the needs for local-country adaptation among Japanese managers will tend to result in higher levels of differentiation strategies when compared with managers in U.S. MNCs. Hence, we propose:

Hypothesis 1

Japanese MNCs will pursue local-country-oriented (differentiation) strategies to a significantly greater extent than U.S. MNCs.

U.S. multinationals, as a result of their traditional orientation towards hierarchical structures and control, are predicted to exhibit this need for centralized control via a high emphasis on integration strategies. Hence:

Hypothesis 2

There will be no significant differences between Japanese and U.S. MNCs in their pursuit of global (integration) strategies.

Yoshino (1979: p. 163) states: "Japanese have extended the ringi system of decision making to international operations with virtually no alterations." This 'bottom-up' decision making system is extremely time-consuming, and creates strong pressures on subsidiary managers to bridge the gap that is created by their physical isolation from the parent company. However, the ringi system would appear, in theory, to imply that Japanese MNCs are likely to be more capable of simultaneously orchestrating global strategies from headquarters and allowing individual subsidiaries to create their own local-country strategies which are integrated iteratively over time with the headquarters global strategy. Self-renewing and process-oriented management styles characteristic of Japanese companies appear to combine simultaneous levels of differentiation and integration in strategies (Nonaka, 1990; Deming, 1987).

Ohmae (1982), in a section titled "Strategic Tunnel Vision", states: "The more severe the (environmental) pressure and the more urgently a broader view is needed, the more dangerously (business executives') mental vision seems to narrow down" (p. 77). Numerous articles in the 1980's have reported the increasing need felt by U.S. business executives to think globally. However, there is also a tendency for U.S. executives to think in either/or alternatives (Barnes and Kriger, 1986; Ohmae, 1990). Thus, we propose:

Hypothesis 3

Japanese MNCs will pursue simultaneous local-country (differentiation) and global (integration) strategies to a significantly greater extent than U.S. MNCs.

Degree of decision-making autonomy given to subsidiaries

One additional research question relates to the differences among firms with headquarters in Japan and the United States in terms of the degree to which they each respectively delegate decision-making power to their subsidiaries, particularly to the boards of their subsidiaries. The differences in reported practices between the two groups are hypothesized to reflect the parent companies' home-country culture-specific governance practices as implemented not only in the parent country, but also in the host countries where the parents have their operations.

Differences in orientation towards participation and delegation of authority towards subsidiary boards are viewed as an index of the parent company's desired overall influence on its subsidiaries. We hypothesize that the inherent tension between control and autonomy in company practices will be reflected in the responses of both the parent and subsidiary managements in the decision-making role given to subsidiary boards. These differences in the orientation of parent companies will be depicted in the degree to which full decision-making power is given to these boards (Kriger and Rich, 1987).

Delegation of authority and responsibility is likely to be a composite reflecting the following: 1) the degree of favorable orientation towards participative decision making as a management philosophy and practice in the parent country; 2) the sensitivity in the parent company and awareness of cultural differences and the importance of culture management; 3) the degree of concern at parent headquarters with short-term performance and financial indicators versus long-term outcomes; and 4) the degree to which integration and control are exercised by the parent company management on subsidiary practices through means other than the board. Christopher (1983) reports, as regards the Japanese process of group decision making:

In the human context, nemawashi involves a cautious feeling-out of all people legitimately concerned with an issue, a highly tentative process in which no firm stands are openly taken and argument is implicit rather than explicit (p. 54).

Therefore, we propose:

Hypothesis 4

Japanese-parented MNCs are predicted to grant greater autonomy and participation in decision making to boards of directors in subsidiaries when compared with U.S.-parented MNCs.



A two-phase survey was sent to each of 120 MNCs headquartered in the United States and Japan. The sample of companies was constructed to comprise MNCs with total revenues of at least $1 billion (U.S.), foreign revenues greater than 25% of the total, and with subsidiaries in at least six countries. The resulting sampling frame consisted of the following by headquarter location: United States (N = 109) and Japan (N = 11). The Japanese sample was chosen to exclude the large trading companies (sogo sosha) since it is believed that these companies have unique organizational and legal structures and cultures (Lifson, 1986).

A total of 31 subsidiaries in 11 U.S. MNCs and 14 subsidiaries in 5 Japanese MNCs responded (see Table 1 for a partial list of participating companies). Forty-four percent of the subsidiary respondents were either the CEO and/or the chairman of the responding organizational unit. The remainder were senior officers of the organization.
Table 1. Strategic Mindset Project: Partial List of
Participating Companies
A. United States: B. Japan:
1. Dow Chemical 1. Honda Motor Company
2. Eaton Corporation 2. Matsushita Electric
3. Hiram Walker Resources Ltd. 3. NEC Corporation
4. Hewlett-Packard Company 4. Sanyo Electric Company
5. International Business Machines 5. Toray Industries, Inc.
6. Massey-Ferguson Ltd.
7. Monsanto Company
8. Uniryoal Inc.
9. Xerox Corporation
* Two other MNCs participated, but did not wish to be


In the first phase a survey was sent to the Chief Executive Officer of the parent company. The survey instrument included items inquiring about: the extent of use of global and local country strategies, the decision-making roles of boards and executives in subsidiaries, and selected data on the parent corporation (e.g., total revenues, assets, employees, and number of subsidiaries). If the parent CEO chose to participate he was asked to distribute similar surveys to the CEOs of three 'representative' subsidiaries in their corporation. They were requested to "choose subsidiaries from three different locations abroad (for example, in Europe, Latin America, and the Far East)" so that the sample of resulting subsidiaries would be distributed around the globe.

The survey for the subsidiary CEOs was nearly identical to the parent survey except that a few of the items were worded to focus on the specific subsidiary rather than on the MNC as a whole. Both the parent and subsidiary surveys were pre-tested in three MNCs prior to final design and distribution. Since the parent CEOs were to distribute the surveys to subsidiaries located potentially anywhere on the globe, there was no way to have the subsidiary survey be in the language of the subsidiary respondent. However, responses to open-ended questions from Japanese-parented companies indicated a comprehension of and ability to communicate in English among these senior executives.


The results of survey items inquiring about the extent of presence of local country strategies are in the predicted direction for the U.S. and Japan in both the parent and subsidiary samples. The data confirm Hypothesis 1, that respondents from Japanese MNCs would state that their companies pursue local-country strategies to a higher extent than U.S. MNCs.

The results on the prevalence of global strategies are also in the predicted direction in both samples. The mean values for the parent and subsidiary samples for the U.S. MNCs are 4.00 and 3.68; for the Japanese MNCs the mean values are 3.80 and 3.69, with no significant differences found between Japan and the U.S. in either sample. Thus, the data confirm Hypothesis 2.

Concerning Hypothesis 3, Japanese MNCs are found to have significantly higher simultaneous use of global and local-country strategies when compared with U.S. MNCs, as predicted. Thus, the results provide confirmatory evidence for the previous qualitative observations of Ohmae (1990) as regards the higher degree of cognitive complexity of Japanese strategic management skills.



The second set of analyses provides overall support for Hypothesis 4, i.e., that Japanese MNCs would give greater autonomy in decision making to subsidiaries when compared with U.S.-parented MNCs. Results of questionnaire items inquiring into eleven subsidiary decision-making roles indicate that:

1. Significant differences were found in 8 of 11 decision-making roles for Japanese MNC parent respondents compared with U.S. MNC respondents. These roles included: making annual operating plans and budgets, decisions on major financing, setting compensation for local CEOs, and making significant intersubsidiary transactions. Seven chi-square tests were significant at the 0.05 level or better (N = 16);

2. Three of eleven decision-making roles in the subsidiary data base were found significant: two at the 0.05 level and one at the 0.10 level (N = 45) -.

Figures 1 and 2 graphically present the differences between U.S. and Japanese respondents in a representative area of subsidiary decision making. These figures show the frequency distributions for each group's responses along four response categories, ranging from 1 = low to 4 = high decision autonomy for subsidiaries. The pattern of responses for MNCs from the two countries are clearly different.

In the decision-making area of "annual operating plans and budgets" Japanese responses concentrate on decision styles 3 and 4, indicating high degrees of autonomy. In contrast, the U.S. MNC responses concentrate in categories 1, 2, and 3, indicating a low to moderate degree of autonomy given to subsidiaries.

Similar results are exhibited in Figures 3 and 4. In the decision-making area of "making significant intersubsidiary transactions relating to sales and purchasing contracts" Japanese MNC responses cluster around the category of highest autonomy to boards. In contrast, U.S. responses are distributed primarily among categories 1 through 3, the middle to lower degrees of autonomy, with less than 18% of the respondents in both samples in category 4 of full decision making.

Thus, we find that:

1. Japanese MNCs tend to give "full decision-making power" or "ultimate formal approval" to boards in subsidiaries, demonstrating an inclination to share and to decentralize decision making towards subsidiaries;

2. U.S. MNCs have boards that tend to give, in contrast, "non-binding advice" or "ultimate formal approval", thus showing a significantly lesser pre-disposition to share decision making, when compared with Japanese MNCs.


The first part of the findings focus on the degree to which senior managers in Japanese and U.S. MNCs are disposed towards setting strategies which are global in scope or locally formulated, or both. Japanese senior managers at both the parent and subsidiary levels are found to have the highest predispositions to set globally and locally focused strategies simultaneously. Hence, we find evidence that senior Japanese managers have richer strategic mindsets than U.S. senior managers. In effect, Japanese executives appear to be better at thinking globally and locally at the same time, or, to use an analogy, they are better able to see the forest and the trees at the same time. In contrast, senior U.S. MNC managers are found to be highly focused globally in their thinking, but only moderately focused on local-country strategies.

The second part of the findings reports that Japanese MNCs give greater decision-making autonomy to boards of subsidiaries in MNCs when compared to U.S. MNCs. The results consistently indicate a greater tendency on the part of U.S. MNCs to centralize and concentrate decision making in the parent organization. These differences are to be interpreted in light of differences in management philosophy and culture in the U.S. and Japan (Ohmae, 1982; Keys and Miller, 1984; Coates, 1988).

The Japanese decision-making style reflects a much greater degree of delegation of authority and responsibility to subsidiaries. These practices are consistent with the Japanese cultural norms of participation and reliance on group decision making (Cole, 1989). The results of the present study extend these concepts to the decision-making roles in subsidiary boards. The data are consistent with previous literature documenting policies of greater responsiveness to local needs and demands exhibited by the Japanese management style (Negandhi and Baliga, 1979, 1981).

Another explanation for these results is that the management philosophies practiced in Japanese companies have their origin in the quality improvement and statistical process control methods developed originally in the United States (Juran, 1980; Deming, 1987). The differences found in the results of the current study reflect the fundamental principles of this philosophy. Typically, this approach involves greater autonomy and decentralization in decision making, a strong marketing orientation, responsiveness to customer needs, and flexibility in management practices and systems to address dynamic environments.

Focus on defining customer needs and the design of management systems and processes to address market requirements are considered crucial both to successful global and local-country strategies. In the current research, one interpretation is that boards in Japanese subsidiaries are perceived to be more capable of helping to obtain relevant local information and in determining effective policies to respond to local country conditions than subsidiary boards in U.S. MNCs. Thus, they serve as one of the agents for market-responsive management systems in MNCs with activated subsidiary boards.

Furthermore, differences in the financial environments of the two countries should be considered in interpreting the differences in their respective governance practices. Japan is one of the most protectionist countries with respect to home-market policies, while the U.S. is relatively non-protectionist. Non-protectionist government policies force corporations to develop more efficient organizations and strategies for facing increased risk and international competition. U.S. MNCs appear to adopt governance strategies that fit their own social and cultural realities. Giving subsidiary boards less decision-making power and autonomy in U.S. MNCs when compared with Japanese MNCs may be necessary for the implementation of more formally coordinated and controlled global strategies.

Differences between U.S. and Japanese MNCs exist in terms of patterns of ownership, financing, and accountability. An emphasis on longer-term planning horizons is characteristic of Japanese industry, in part, because financing tends to come largely from banks rather than via equity markets. In contrast, U.S. financing is based to a greater extent on stock ownership and public control of corporations. This leads to short-term profitability as an important criterion of corporate excellence in the U.S. More centralized policies in MNCs reflect this orientation towards shorter term corporate performance as a measure of overall success. Since Japanese MNCs are freer from such short-term constraints they can focus on longer term organizational objectives, more flexible policies, and greater decentralization of subsidiary decision making with greater reliance on cultural norms for the exercise of indirect, but effective, control.

Finally, in discussing the strategic mindsets of senior executives in Japanese and U.S. MNCs, it should be noted that the variables studied in this research are not sufficient to define fully the complexities underlying Japanese decision-making styles, cognitions, and practices. The results show that senior executives of Japanese MNCs espouse that they give a high degree of decision-making autonomy to their subsidiary boards. At one level, the results can be interpreted as evidence of greater delegation to local governing bodies; however, Japanese companies might simply tend to exercise different forms of control. Indeed, Japanese companies tend to place Japanese managers in senior positions in their overseas operations (Yamaguchi, 1988). The findings in the present study, when combined with this reasoning, present a picture of simultaneous control and flexibility in Japanese management systems.

As articulated by Nonaka (1988), a middle-up-down management approach practiced by some Japanese companies (e.g. Honda) enhances information creation. The role of top management is seen as providing direction and vision, while middle management plays a key role of reconciling upper-level abstract concepts with the more practical, grounded experiences of lower levels. In this sense, the empowerment of middle management in Japaneses MNCs, as described by Nonaka, might be equivalent to the empowerment of subsidiary boards, as one body among several, reconciling directives from headquarters with local operational demands.


An area for future research is to investigate the extent to which senior executives in U.S. and Japanese MNCs have differential abilities to simultaneously globally integrate and locally differentiate at differing places along the value chain. As Porter (1986: 18) notes: "... there is not such thing as one global strategy. There are many different kinds of global strategies, depending on a firm's choices about configuration and coordination throughout the value chain." Future research should extend the findings of the present study by investigating differences in the extent of global strategy at different places along the value chain of firm activities.

The strengths of the current study lie in the high level of access to CEOs and senior level executives in major multinational corporations and in the comparative differences found in the respective strategic mindsets and patterns of decision-making autonomy in Japanese and U.S. MNCs. In addition, with complexity increasing in global markets there are subtleties in local market niches that must not be overlooked or forgotten. This study adds empirical evidence to the previous call for organizations to transcend the current tendency for executives to adopt either/or values and modes of thinking (Barnes and Kriger, 1986; Quinn, 1988). By adopting and developing richer, more diverse cognitive mindsets it is likely that more subtle nuances of strategy will be implemented.


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Mark P. Kriger, Associate Professor of Management, School of Business, The State University of New York at Albany, Albany, NY, U.S.A.

Esther E. Solomon, Associate Professor of Management, Graduate School of Business, Fordham University, New York, NY, U.S.A.
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Title Annotation:multinational companies
Author:Kriger, Mark P.; Solomon, Esther E.
Publication:Management International Review
Date:Oct 1, 1992
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