Ricoh Accelerator 2019 is coming to a close, but this program is neither a one-time event nor a temporary campaign. The real goal is for this program to run continuously and create a constant state of innovation and new business development. It could be said that this is an effort to change the nature of the organization and the corporate culture. In that sense, the people appearing in this interview are the hidden protagonists. If the participants and supporters of the accelerator program are the protagonists on the stage, these are the people who make the show possible from behind the scenes by working on reforming the way the organization is structured and run. We asked four people from the Legal Department, the Human Resources Department, the Public Relations Office, and the Integrated Design Center, who are participating in the program as members of the program’s administrative office, about the significance of this program.
A “good” era of instability that forces companies to change
――Please tell us about your roles in this program.
Shuichi Takeda (Integrated Design Center, Intellectual Property Division) I have been participating in the program since January 2019, just when it was launched. I was approached when the administrative office was struggling with issues related to design and concept making and began looking for someone who knew about design.
At the start of the project, the whole administrative office worked together as a team to think about how to express the concept and vision of the project, and to create them. These days, I continue to work on the design tasks that come up every now and then.
Atsuzo Tomii (Legal Department, Accounting & Legal Affairs Division) I joined the office in October 2019, taking over from another legal staff. We provide legal support for the 13 teams of the Ricoh Accelerator Program in their efforts to develop new businesses, including checking whether there are any legal issues, and determining the type of business to formulate contracts accordingly. My engagement varies depending on what each team is doing, and sometimes I end up being involved quite deeply.
Mami Motooka (Human Resources Department, Human Resources Division) We support everyone who participates in this program as the Human Resources Division. In what way should they participate, and how should we evaluate them? We examine such questions that go beyond the existing HR system, and make adjustments accordingly. I put the most effort into making sure that the participants do not experience any eventual disadvantages from an HR perspective. You could say that I act as a contact point for the different specialized departments.
Yukiko Sahashi (PR Department, Business Planning Division) I am the contact point for PR matters. I became involved in January 2019. The program was to be announced within the company on February 6, the anniversary of the founding of the Ricoh Group, and I became in charge of that. We only had a month then and it was really hard work. Since then, I have been helping with external press releases and internal communications. Since it’s work that relates to Ricoh’s branding, I sometimes liaise between the relevant sections or work with departments working on social network messaging.
――What did you think when you first heard about this program?
Motooka There was someone from the Human Resources Division participating in the program already, but I actually put myself up through the in-house second job program when it was decided to have more people from the division involved in Ricoh Accelerator Program. I’ve always been interested in business and new business development, so I wanted to get involved. In that respect, it’s been really interesting and beneficial to be part of the team.
On the other hand, as a person from HR, I also got some new insights from that perspective. Personnel management in such a large company, with an enormous number of employees, must be carried out in a fair and equitable manner. However, in the case of the Ricoh Accelerator Program, HR needs to consider different ways of doing things for the program to move forward. I do feel it’s necessary to come up with new approaches.
Takeda I feel that a good era has come, a good era where we can enjoy instability. I had been designing the exterior of copiers for about 10 years before I became involved in helping create internal systems like the Ricoh Accelerator Program 2 or 3 years ago. I believe these kinds of efforts are a sign that Ricoh is no longer sailing in calm waters. We have entered a precarious period where we have to do something, as our sales figures of our existing businesses keep declining every year. So, there’s a growing momentum to do something new. You could say that Ricoh now has an opportunity to make use of design skills in its widest sense of the term. I think instability has also brought us into an interesting phase where we can be at the forefront of change in society and in the company.
Tomii Well, Ricoh is a big company, isn’t it? It also has a long history, having been in business for 84 years. In such a situation, legal affairs tend to become a repetition of the same things. It could be a renewal of a contract or something that is an extension of existing businesses. But the Ricoh Accelerator Program is entirely different. All the teams are trying to do something completely new, so it’s very fresh and fun for us as legal staff too. It’s especially interesting for me to be able to work with young people who are taking on new challenges.
How to overcome a situation where the existing methods don’t work
――I believe this is a new kind of work which requires a different approach. What kind of difficulties have you encountered?
Sahashi The PR section is surprisingly strict, and information is checked very thoroughly before it is released to the public. And that is tough not just for us but particularly for those taking on new challenges, because they have to overcome many obstacles in order to spread their information. Looking from the PR perspective, I feel that the difficulty lies in the fact that we need to communicate in a way that is different from what has been done to this day. For example, in the past, PR was limited to informing major media outlets such as newspapers about our technologies and services. However, the audience we want to reach this time is different, including venture companies or the general public, so we need to appeal to completely different channels in addition to the media we have been dealing with in the past. Also, there are certain established ways to talk about Ricoh, be it about its business or about its technologies, but for this project these don’t seem to click.
And to make things even more complicated, each team has different requirements and expected outputs, so we have to think about how to respond to them. I think that it’s especially important to express the passion and feelings of the team members. In principle, PR must convey facts, but I think the depth of what is conveyed changes depending on the thoughts and ideas behind the facts. How to draw such elements out of the program’s participants, and how to express them—I believe that’s what we need to work on from the PR side.
Tomii Personally, I often get involved in new business areas that I didn’t know before, so it’s quite tough to learn about each of them. I can do my normal work within the scope of my own expertise to some extent, but there are many things that don’t fit in there. Another is the difference in approach. Ricoh is a rigid company, so when one wants to do something, he or she has to do a lot of research, get all the clearances, and so on. So you end up being very prudent, sometimes so prudent to the point that the opportunity is lost. However, this program is different in that it takes the stance that we should just go ahead and move forward, and if we don’t understand something, we can think about it as we proceed together. It’s exciting, but also very scary, to work with each team in real time and at the same time, figuring out together what can work and advising them on what kind of contract to draw up. You never know what might happen if you don’t do things properly, so it can be exhausting for better or worse.
Conventional legal practice is about having rules first, letting people do things within those rules and warning them when they go out of line. But this time it’s the other way around: the business comes first, and the legal maneuvers follow behind. We need to be aggressive too from the legal side in order to keep up.
There was already talk of doing something like this within the Legal Department. We were saying that we can’t keep doing what we’ve been doing, that we’re going to work together with others to expand our business. There is this typical situation where a new business is created but then legal says no. Why not then be involved from the beginning rather than having disputes at that point? That kind of mindset was already shared in the Legal Department.
Motooka I think that HR is also a department that people tend to avoid because of its rigid nature, but I think the most important thing for our department to do is to create an environment where everyone who participates can engage in the projects with peace of mind. Even though this program is special, there are some points that we from HR can’t overlook, such as the management of working hours and evaluation methods. I think the hard part is sorting out what can be changed and what should not be changed and considering how to deal with them individually. Sometimes we are inevitably bound by the existing ways of doing and thinking about HR.
For example, evaluation involves not only quantitative but also qualitative aspects, as with regular personnel evaluations. The accelerator program starts with refining an idea, to then formulate a pitch and push toward commercialization. This is a process that does not occur often at Ricoh, so it’s difficult to check the outcomes as well. Therefore, we make sure to go over the approach to the evaluation and the points to be evaluated, and to take steps to align these views with each participant beforehand, so that everyone can be satisfied with the evaluations. We also try to be mindful to both “value efforts to take on challenges” and “not over-value efforts to take on challenges.” You can’t take on challenges without the cooperation of those around you, so I don’t think it’s a good idea for people who are taking on challenges to be excessively under the spotlight.
To change the company organization and corporate culture
――Has anything changed in the company or in your departments through this program? Perhaps in terms of rules, structure, or atmosphere.
Takeda In terms of atmosphere, there’s still much work to do. I think the current situation is that a small number of people who had something they wanted to do, but were not given the chance to work on it, have joined the program all at once and created enthusiasm in one corner of the company. When I talk to engineers at other offices, there are many people who ask me, “What’s that?” I’d like to see the program gain a little more recognition and become more popular, so that when people want to start a new business, they can casually say, “Let’s use the Ricoh Accelerator Program because the existing framework is too cumbersome.” I think that will lead to an enhanced engagement by young people too.
For this to happen, I think the way the direct superiors of the participants view the program needs to change. It would be nice if we could move away from prioritizing certainty and adopt a system where encouraging subordinates to participate in the Accelerator Program would be valued.
Tomii I agree with that, and it would be good if the whole company could come to such a realization. In the past, it was not rare for some really good idea to be smothered before it could even reach the point of being discussed and reviewed. However, this program has contributed to a greater sense of openness and there are now more and more things that we can implement at our own discretion. It’s important that this kind of situation continues, but I hope that it will grow beyond the efforts of a few to affect the entire company. I have said that the mindset has changed in the Legal Department, but whether we can really take a step toward change is yet to be seen. I think building up success stories, even small ones, through this program is a necessary step for that to happen.
Motooka I think it remains to be seen whether the atmosphere of the company will change and take root as a new internal culture. How to continue the program and achieve this change in the future—That’s the challenge both from the HR point of view but also from that of the company as a whole.
Having worked on this program for the past year, I have come to realize that there are many different ways to participate. One could apply, support, or act as a catalyst. There are many ways to be engaged with this program. I would like our employees to be involved in the creation of new businesses in any way they can. You learn so much from doing so in terms of how to work, think and express ideas going forward. I hope people will use this opportunity to their advantage. I believe our role is to provide the environment for them to do just that.
Sahashi I actually used to be a researcher before I began working in PR. So while I do agree that atmosphere is important, I also feel that the Ricoh Accelerator Program is great for doing research too. This program allows you to share your ideas and research with the world, when it would be difficult to do so through regular channels. It’s good to at least be able to present them internally.
Personally, I find it very refreshing and interesting that the program has created an environment where people from different departments collaborate across their fields. The other day, a team wanted to launch a crowdfunding campaign, and legal, manufacturing, quality assurance, and PR all got together to discuss it, and that was great. We in PR don’t usually have the opportunity to listen to what legal and QA have to say, so I learned a lot from that experience.
Tomii True, that was certainly something that rarely happened before. It’s a feeling I’ve never had before, that it’s faster to get together and talk about things rather than each department working independently.
――What are your expectations for the future, and what kind of challenges do you want to take on personally?
Sahashi Personally, I would like to create an environment where departments and people involved in new business development can communicate with each other more through the Ricoh Accelerator Program. That’s also the reason that made me want to work in PR in the first place. It was very sad to create something and not be able to put it out into the world and end up receiving no feedback whatsoever. If I had been able to present it, it could have maybe led to discoveries of some needs, or to some clues on how to improve the idea. This program, however, allows one to do just that and to receive feedback too. The project could make leaps forward by connecting with a partner or a customer. I believe that it’s our role to create more opportunities to communicate for this purpose too.
As for PR, I think the challenge for us now is how to change the way we present information now that Ricoh itself is attempting to change. I feel that we need to protect the parts of Ricoh that we want to keep as Ricoh, but make aggressive changes in other areas.
Motooka I think Ricoh is entering a period of major change as a company, and the Ricoh Accelerator Program is just one of the signs of such change. For the HR division too, it’s a period where we’re trying to shift things, trying to change. My role is to make sure that I bring what I gain from this program back to the HR Division. I think it’s important for HR to translate these unprecedented new efforts into ways of doing things that fit Ricoh’s internal culture.
Tomii There are things that are not against the law, but are morally questionable, aren’t there? In many cases, the Legal Department is in the position of only being able to draw the line at violations of the law, often causing people running a project to neglect the moral aspects as long as no laws are broken. But that’s something that someone should take a look at.
In fact, I think it would be good if legal could pay attention to such matters too. In fact, the line of whether it is okay to do something or not should come far before the law. I hope to be able to look at things broadly from such a standpoint, and to work on a wide variety of fields. It may sound a little abstract, but that’s what I want to achieve through the Ricoh Accelerator Program.
On the other hand, I think the most important issue for the organization is how to install this “good thing” that is the Ricoh Accelerator Program into the corporate culture. I think it would be quite difficult for such a large company with an established way of doing things to adopt something like this program as part of its culture. Going forward, it seems to be our job to come up with solutions to make that happen.
Takeda Whenever you do something new like this, you always need a designer. However, now we have relatively few designers given the size of the company, so I’m hoping that we can take advantage of this opportunity to hire more designers.
Actually, the range of work that can be done with “design” is quite wide, and people are starting to understand that designing is not just about designing the exterior of a copier or interactions, but instead also involves concept making, branding, and thinking about communication methods. I would like young designers who are in charge of product design to experience this kind of work at the same time.
I do think the design section is quite unique in this rather serious large company, and we are allowed to think freely about things. So I hope that we can bring a new perspective necessary for Ricoh, which has reached a time for change. It would be even better if that could then contribute to changing the culture of the company as a whole.