Pursuing Diversity and Globalization
to Strengthen Sony’s Technology
September 10, 2020
Based on his time working abroad as well as his experiences working with various businesses, Toru Katsumoto, head of R&D at Sony, has stated that diverse backgrounds and ideas lead to the strengthening of organizations and individuals, and he has also been strongly promoting the globalization of Sony’s R&D Center. Katsumoto took on the role of interviewer to lead this discussion with Magdalena Wasowska and Gabriele Nelles, both of whom have been dispatched to Japan from R&D center in Europe, and Allan Sumiyama, who has ample experience working abroad and for other companies, about the strengths of Sony’s R&D and possible contributions the company can make.
Executive Deputy President, Sony Corporation
Officer in charge of R&D
Officer in charge of Medical Business
President, R&D Center
Deputy Senior General Manager R&D Center, Sony Corporation
Responsible for Security, Blockchain, AI, Human Sensing etc. Also serves as General Manager, R&D Center Europe Brussels Laboratory
Deputy Senior General Manager R&D Center, Sony Corporationager R&D Center, Sony Corporation
Responsible for Material Science, Environment Compliance, Failure Analysis etc. Also serves as General Manager, R&D Center Europe Stuttgart Laboratory 2
Senior General Manager, Corporate Technology Strategy Division, Sony Corporation
Responsible for planning and promotion of Sony’s mid and long term technology strategy. Also serves as R&D Center, Business Exploration, Technology Strategy Division, Business domain liaison Department
Toru Katsumoto: Many people are working from home due to COVID-19. How are you handling this kind of work style?
Magdalena Wasowska: There are pros and cons. A pro is that it is easy to focus on my work, but at the same time there is less face-to-face communication, so it can feel lonely.
Gabriele Nelles: I agree. It’s convenient to be at home after work without having to commute, still, for me, speaking with my colleagues would also be a great opportunity to practice Japanese, so I miss that.
Katsumoto: You both really like travelling around Japan, so it is unfortunate that you can’t do that right now.
Wasowska, Nelles: That’s very true.
Sony’s R&D from the perspective of having worked outside Sony
Katsumoto: You all have experience working in companies other than Sony. From that perspective, what do you think of R&D at Sony?
Allan Sumiyama: Sony has a lot of variety, not just in its businesses but in technology as well. In addition to being broad, in some areas it is also very deep. Based on the six months since joining Sony, I feel that Sony is extremely unique in terms of diversity in its business portfolio, and there is still a lot that I’m learning. At the same time, in terms of structure, it is still mostly comprised of Japanese males who have been educated in Japan. I also sometimes get the sense that the way of thinking is too centered on technology, which can be a concern.
Wasowska: I think everyone at Sony has vision and passion. While it’s true that many of the employees are Japanese, I think Japanese people are very respectful and value harmony. In an environment in which there are many different opinions, it can take a long time to reach a consensus, but the process of respecting cooperation and reaching consensus is very important. I think this attitude of respecting cooperation is typical for Japanese companies, but I personally think it is a very good thing. In addition, Katsumoto-san has introduced an organization system that strongly promotes diversity within R&D and allows us to engage with a wide range of people. I really appreciate Katsumoto-san’s efforts in creating such an environment.
Diversity allows for competing opinions and ideas
Katsumoto: Do you have any advice for Sony concerning promoting diversity and also creating a better environment for R&D?
Nelles: For me, diversity is about people’s mindset and cultural and educational background, which shape their ways of thinking and determining the perception and interpretation of information. Communication and the desire to learn from others are also key factors. In order to properly understand people’s actions and ways of thinking, inter-lab exchange activities might be most efficient; intercultural workshops and studying the language are also helpful to create a better mutual understanding. While the opportunities for face to face communication are limited due to the spread of the new coronavirus, it is also important to consider what kind of platforms can be used to communicate with each other in a way that is as close to real as possible.
Sumiyama: We are seeking not just diversity, but searching for a way to allow differing ideas and ways of thinking to compete. One of the most difficult things in R&D is to bring about innovation, but I think diversity is also effective for this as it helps us identifying different problems and priorities. While it can be difficult to have a disagreement with something, that disagreement is with the idea, not with the person himself. It may be necessary to have some sort of training to allow people to realize that fact and have disagreements in a positive and respectful manner. As team leaders, it is our responsibility to cultivate such environments within our organizations. I understand that diversity is a strength of Sony, so I just want to keep that up going forward.
Katsumoto: That’s true. Even when I became the head of the R&D Center, at times I felt that employees were avoiding necessary discussions in an effort to keep the peace. Currently, I think that an environment for open discussion is being created, but I would like to improve it even further.
Katsumoto: At the R&D Center/Corporate Technology Strategy Division Meeting held this April, we discussed that deglobalization will not lead to the resolution of the COVID-19 crisis. What are your views on this matter?
Wasowska: In a pandemic like this, I think deglobalization is not an answer. As the situation is becoming more complex, people are becoming overwhelmed with feelings of anxiety, and even the opinions of scientists and experts are being disregarded. But real protection can only come from the sharing of reliable scientific information, and from global solidarity. At the R&D Center, we research and develop privacy preserving technologies – from privacy preserving sensing to privacy preserving computations. With the strength from blockchain technologies we hope to achieve solutions which can be used in many scenarios where user data is utilized. One of the interesting cases is, of course, tracking of health of individuals and early warning in case people may have been in contact with a person infected with a virus. These solutions will be essential in avoiding spread of illnesses like COVID-19. At the same time anonymous or pseudonymous information about the spread of infection will be essential for epidemiologists to develop appropriate cure.
Sumiyama: I agree. Sustainability is defined as one of Sony’s Values, and it is important to think about what is truly necessary in order to contribute to a sustainable society. Also, as human error can occur at any time, it is important to utilize technology to avoid such errors. I think such exploration will lead to not only solutions for the current situation, but also to long-term solutions that are important for the children who make up the next generation.
Nelles: The markets are global and people are connected – deglobalization will not happen; maybe the geopolitical situations will lead to changes in the alliances, which are also not unusual looking back in history. Often, great ideas are born from these kinds of extreme situations, so right now I think it is very important for us to think up new ideas together.
How technology can contribute to a sustainable society
Katsumoto: Since becoming Sony’s CEO, Yoshida-san has stated the importance of contributing to society and the environment. What kinds of contributions can we, as leaders in R&D, make to help Sony contribute to a sustainable society?
Nelles: The issue of climate change is having a major impact globally, especially on the poor. Furthermore, there are new issues that have been caused by COVID-19, such as social distancing and goods distribution. I think that Sony’s technology can contribute even in these areas.
Wasowska: Sony’s image sensor technology is very impressive. This is a great opportunity for Sony’s businesses to use that technology to contribute to society, and it is a responsibility for us as members of society. Additionally, I think that strengthening our AI technology will accelerate our contributions to this field. While Sony is already involved in projects using AI, I hope to see further efforts focused in the agriculture field and in creating management systems for safe and secure autonomous driving.
Sumiyama: I think it’s great that the Sony Global Relief Fund for COVID-19, announced this April, is also there to support artists and creators. They are also vital for contributing to the sustainability of our business and society. Even after the resolution of the corona crisis, I want to keep supporting them through our technology.
Katsumoto: A long-term perspective is important for R&D. How will you and your teams contribute in the long term?
Wasowska: I think managers have two roles. The first is to determine the direction of the whole organization along with the other team leaders. In order to create an environment in which engineers can fully demonstrate their creativity, we need to pay attention to global megatrends and think of technologies that can have a positive impact on Sony’s business. This is where the diversity that we were talking about earlier will play a big role. The second role is that of a leader for my own team. Looking forward, I think we need to carefully consider various fields such as AI, biometrics, digital authentication, blockchain, data transparency technology, drones, robotics, and more, to determine where Sony can contribute while maintaining competitiveness.
Nelles: We just talked about people, society, the planet; building on this, sustainability, UX, and autonomous era are domains I would like to see Sony expand into. Also research for multispectral sensing technologies to support urban and precision agriculture new technologies to support human interaction, bringing people closer by providing shared experience.
Sumiyama: When dealing with technology, strategy is important from a logical perspective, but the non-logical part—thinking about what makes people feel passion and excitement—is also important. It’s my job to figure out what Sony’s engineers are interested in, and to let them imagine what success will look like.
The core of Sony is people.
Believe in yourself and keep going even if you have small failures.
Katsumoto: Finally, do you have a message for students who are thinking of working for Sony some day?
Sumiyama: When things are changing, old knowledge become less useful. So, at a time when the situation is changing drastically, such as during the current pandemic, there is a great deal of opportunity for students to bring fresh ideas. If you can find an agenda that you are passionate about, then you won’t be discouraged by small failures. And if you feel what you are doing is necessary, you can continue moving forward even if someone disagrees. I think this kind of attitude will also lead to personal growth.
Nelles: When I look back to my time as a student, I think that the interdisciplinarity and scientific exchange on a global level created a spirit of innovation. Also, in Sony’s R&D, we have to constantly strive to keep the creative spirit. Continuous learning is a permanent companion in R&D, combining aspects from various technical fields. Stay curious, be passionate, stay healthy.
Wasowska: The core of Sony is people. I think Sony is a great place for people who are looking to create a better world on a global scale and where they can make a real difference. If you are looking for such a place, please join us. Let’s work together.
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