Ken Okamoto-Kaminski is a Japanese JPO working for UNDP in New York as an Analyst in the Integrated Talent Management Team of the Office of Human Resources, Bureau of Management.
What was your motivation in becoming a JPO?
I was born in a multicultural family with Polish refugee father (who emigrated to Sweden) and half Korean and half Japanese mother. I still remember the magic world of my childhood made of Japanese and Polish fables. That they were told in different languages and gave a natural foundation for my Eurasian identity, have I realized much later.
After our family moved from Tokyo (where I was born) to Sweden, the third language and more journeys have broadened my little world. Then the frequent family reunions with our kin living on both sides of Eurasian continent followed. They brought a sense of adventure: bowing was mixing with handshakes and hand-kissing, while potatoes were replaced by rice. Gradually, I discovered the socio-economic and political factors behind my extended family's differing lifestyles.
Though I spent my formative years in Japan, I have continued visiting kin living in Poland, Korea and the US. Many of my kin were displaced and had to immigrate to the US for political reasons. The others remained in Poland throughout the social and economic transition period. After the cold war ended, I visited them frequently and could see many changes in the town and countryside they live in and their living standard each time during the 1990's. It was amazing to see how changes in political, social and economic systems could change my family members’ lives for the better.
These first-hand experiences affected my decision to study in the Department of Economics at Meiji University in Tokyo. It was after completing the first year of studies I entered the United Nations University's Global Seminars Summer Program that I followed up with one-year overseas studies at the University of Adelaide in South Australia in 2002.
Though most of my schooling and undergraduate studies were completed in Japan, it was “Down Under” where I learned that our world wasn’t divided by countries and continents, but linked together through macro regions like, Australasia.
Before completing my Economics degree in Tokyo, I had a chance to attend my second United Nations University's Global Seminar in 2003 that gathered under one-roof students and senior policy makers for a one week long brainstorming sessions. Each of the Annual Seminars focused on different global issues and the role of the United Nations in addressing and meeting these challenges at the community and policymaking level. While during the first UNU Global Seminar my perspective on global development was determined by my Eurasian field experiences, during the second Seminar my perspective was enriched through my regional field studies of Australasian politics and economics.
What inspired me most was not only a great variety of opinions expressed during these UNU Global Seminars, but also that both formal debates and informal discussions during our meals were actively encouraged. Living and working together for a week brought us naturally closer as the people. Before, I had even realized, I became a youngest member of an emerging multicultural community. And learning how different individuals could interact together through a team work was an important learning experience for an undergraduate student (as I was at that time).
I could freely brainstorm over any potential solutions with a fellow participant, who was a young Japanese Parliamentarian, or an Asian female community organizer, or a multicultural American exchange student. The UNU had taught me early that in the UN System, the ideas were more important than one’s ethnic heritage, religious or gender divide.
These UNU experiences have motivated me even more to search for educational institutions outside Japan that could continue prepare me for the future work for the United Nations.
Upon completion of my degree in Japan in 2004, I studied Master’s degree in Sociology at Oxford University's St. Antony’s College. As our College Warden was Sir Marrack Goulding (a retired UN Under Secretary General, USG) I had an opportunity to learn first-hand from an experienced field officer-turned an international civil servant who had served as USG under three UN SG from 1986 to 1997. At St Antony's, both Junior and Senior College Members shared daily meals to develop a sense of community and bound our multi-ethnic membership together. It was through these formal and informal college interactions with our members and Warden Goulding that I had learned how important it was to gain extensive professional experiences in various countries before applying for a position in the UN system.
After completing my master thesis, I worked in a professional services firm in London for several years. As the firm I had joined has been active in over 150 countries, my earlier UNU experiences of multicultural teams and cross-cultural approach for practical problem solving were very helpful. I was assigned to a multicultural team which helped employees of multinational organizations and globally active corporations with a range of practical issues related to cross-border mobility: professional knowledge sharing, re-training, recruitment, retention, taxation, payroll, pensions, etc.
As many of my Polish, Japanese and Korean family members worked in different countries including myself, I have learned first-hand that it is always difficult when people need to work away from where they grow up – especially when the language, legal / economic systems and cultures are different. I realized that the need to continuously re-develop the required skills to be suitable in the particular labour markets have not only affected my extended family, but a high percentage of migrant families and corporate expats.
While each case I was assigned by my firm to work with differed in details, all cases had one common denominator: a human security in our rapidly evolving global economy. So, dealing with practical needs, like job security, readjusting social security net, and identifying potential conflicting legal requirements for transferred corporate employees and their families who came from many different countries was professionally challenging. But it was also something that I had passionately felt about and was motivated to solve because of my own family's experiences.
While I enjoyed my work among global nomads and the challenges of working in our firm's offices in London, Tokyo, and Sydney, the 8 years passed very quickly. I was getting close to JPO age limit so I started to search for the vacancies. I saw a JPO job vacancy in the UNDP Integrated Talent Management team and thought this might be a place where my earlier accumulated professional and personal experiences might be useful to support people from so many different countries working at UNDP.
I also have married in between, so the decision had to be mutual and my wife has been very supportive to move together with me to a new country so I decided to apply.
What are your activities as an Analyst?
I work in the Integrated Talent Management team in Office of Human Resources / Bureau of Management and I work on various skill development and talent management projects such as managing the qualification support programme for our talents, working with policy units in developing new online learning courses to effectively share knowledge, managing the on-boarding platform to integrated newly recruited or re-assigned staff.
I am currently working on the Financial Training and Certification Programme, which is the programme to support our staff with finance related responsibilities to upskill their finance knowledge and be certified by the professional body. As UNDP is a field based organization, our participants enrolled in this programme are from various backgrounds and it is very rewarding to see many people upskill their competencies and be certified for that. It is great to see their career progress through this training programme as well as organization having more and more trained people in the talent pool.
I also had an opportunity to present my paper at the Humanitarian Innovation Conference at Oxford University which is the conference to discuss innovative approach to support displaced people. The paper was about using free online learning resources to upskill displaced people to get jobs in cloud job market which is used to outsource the knowledge based work.
During student time, I worked in various part-time jobs such as water-pipe building job in construction sites, gift packaging job during holiday season, waiter in a wine bar, furniture delivery man in a moving company, landline salesman and a multilingual telephone operator in mobile phone company. I was lucky to grow up and study in Japan as there are a lot of paid jobs which students can do and get paid during their studies. It was also very interesting learning experience as I realized each job required specific skill from me to get paid. For example, we had to learn about all the wines we serve (and pass event test!) to work as a waiter in the wine bar, the mobile phone company had also offered good trainings to learn how to use different types of mobile phones as our job was to advice customers on how to use them, and the moving company taught me on how to allocate furniture effectively to maximize the space in a van.
I was also lucky to get involved in a project where we worked to develop new competency framework for UNDP. It was interesting project where we worked closely with each bureau to define the required competencies for each job field in UNDP which makes the Job Description creating more efficient and coherent. This exercise made me think of “what if we use the same approach to support people outside of UNDP?”.
Although it was unpaid, I also had a chance to help second generation Vietnamese refugees to learn Japanese through volunteer work near my home town in Japan. Japanese language skill was vital for them to get into the cycle of learning and earning in Japanese society but some of them were lacking it which was pity for Japan as the society was unable to use the talents we have.
From these experiences, I realized that providing trainings to UNDP staff to build their competencies was very similar to my learning experience as a par-time worker in Japan or the learning experience of the second generation Vietnamese refugees in Japan to get into the learning and earning cycle.
So I decided to write a paper about using free online learning resources to support disadvantaged people getting a job. In my previous job, we were outsourcing a lot of work overseas and thus I knew there is a cloud job market which everyone can use if they have internet connection and skills required there. There is a lot of free online resources where people can upskill themselves as well. So if someone can guide them on identifying the required competencies on the Job Description advertised in the cloud job market and let them know free online learning resources to upskill that competencies, we can help a lot of people who cannot get a job with various reasons by using this Online Learning and Earning model.
I was fortunate to immediately receive feedbacks from my supervisors and senior policy colleagues and had a chance to present this idea at the Humanitarian Innovation Conference at Oxford University (http://www.oxhip.org/2014/07/hip2014/).
What is most challenging?
I feel because we work in multicultural organization with different values, it is difficult to make complex things simpler (either it is agenda, process, changing field conditions, or etc.).
What people think as important issues may vary depending on our differing socio-cultural and professional experiences. As there are so many unforeseen human and geopolitical factors to consider at the same time, I found working for the UN system to be as much professionally challenging as personally enriching.
What is most fulfilling?
Working in a truly diverse team. In the UNDP, there are people from different countries who may change your stereotype about that very country or region we have learned so much about through Internet. The work in UNDP convinced me that real diversity is not about where we happened to have been born, but what kind of person you or I have become. We often tend to think it is belonging to a particular country that makes us exceptional but it is not.
Working in UN allows one to realize that where he /she is from really does not give any information about the person and it is fascinating that one can realize this from our day to day interaction with our colleagues.
What advice would you give to a future JPO?
I feel sharing is very important here (and probably anywhere!). It could be sharing feeling, knowledge, information or even food! In our office, we usually share some sweets from each country, share our feelings about what happened in the office or in our personal life. You might not be offering things your team members want or need but still they know that you are the person who wants to share things and I think that is important.