With inexorable global expansion comes the inevitable challenge of how to overcome (mis)communication issues and ensure clear and effective interactions in cross-cultural teams. English is invariably chosen as the lingua franca or corporate language of choice by many organizations as they look to grow and create dynamic working environments.
HR and L&D professionals are faced with the task of training employees to communicate and connect with English-speaking clients and colleagues. The primary gaps that have been identified include low levels of fluency and confidence.
Global business speaks English
English, as the world’s business lingua franca, is the natural choice to facilitate the exchange of information between multinational teams. There are 400 million native English speakers, according to the 2017 edition of Ethnologue.
Furthermore, the global reach of English, as the most in-demand second language, raises that number to 1.39 billion which pushes both Mandarin and Spanish into second and third place.
English is becoming a basic skill needed for the entire workforce, and it is increasingly rare to not see the language criteria specified from the outset. We are all becoming fluent in CEFR, as HR looks for a “can do” approach to communicative competence when carrying out tasks at work.
The question is no longer can you do “it”, it’s can you do “it” in English?
A possible by-product of globalization, 59% of Millennials state that they are willing to move abroad as they see themselves as global citizens.
Language learning and competence is becoming synonymous with higher salaries and more opportunities and is, therefore, more in demand.
So why adopt a global language policy?
1. Market expansion and growth should not be an option
Companies that are limited in their outlook towards language learning are putting themselves at a huge disadvantage. You may have the best sales team in the world but if they can only operate in domestic markets because they lack the necessary linguistic skills, you’re handing global domination on a plate to your competitors.
Multinational companies want to be able to roll out a one-size fits all solution, they don’t want communication issues to be an insurmountable obstacle.
2. Cross-cultural integration will get lost in translation
When it comes to international mergers, cross-cultural integration is already a huge test of flexibility, attitude and commitment.
If you add communication issues regarding language to the mix, it will result in lost opportunities to connect both personally and professionally, lost moments that could have changed the dynamics from negative to positive, and worst of all, lost time. Time that could have been invested in creating a common vision, a common goal from the get-go.
The first rule of change management is to address the people issues at every layer, how can this be done if you can’t communicate with them?
Harvard Business Review cites the case of Rakuten, a large Japanese online business, that recognized the benefits of adopting English as their official corporate language.
Hiroshi Mikitani, Rakuten’s CEO, took the decision to transition his 7,100 Japanese employees to use English. With the need to communicate with numerous global partners, he believes that English language skills allowed for the enhanced performance of his organization.
He also cited the additional benefit of contributing to his employees’ wider worldview as a result of their newly developed English language skills.
3. It gets all the team members on the same page
Its been proven that when global teams speak the same language, they are more likely to be united in their business approach, in tune with the business values, and work towards a common goal regardless of their geographical location.
Better comprehension means that any team member can reach out to the most relevant person regardless of their native language and get the necessary information first-hand.
All documentation can be accessed and understood, there is not a long waiting time for translation, information transfer is more agile, and everything is launched at the same time.
Once you’ve rolled out your policy, all information can be documented and released in one language. With this in mind, adopting English as a corporate language in the business environment is the first step towards minimizing communication issues and misunderstandings.
4. Learning a language stimulates growth and development
Instrumental motivation for corporate learners refers to tieing practical language learning achievements to financial or professional incentives, factors such as salary increases, promotion opportunities or even job relocation opportunities.
Millennials have grown up with globalization, they have been raised with high expectations and continuously told, the world is your oyster, you can work anywhere so by providing them with the opportunity to learn, they are more likely to give back to you.
5. Overcoming the challenges of adopting a global language policy
Adopting a global language policy is not without its challenges, but the fundamental belief that to thrive and flourish in a global economy companies must remove all language barriers should be impetus enough to successfully make it a business logic priority.
Getting the team to embrace the benefits of English language skills, both on a personal and a professional level, is critical.
The positioning and roll out of an English language policy must be handled with care in order to minimize resistance and resentment from those employees whose language skills are lacking or inadequate.
Here are five tips for moving seamlessly to using English as a corporate language.
i. Start at the top
Successful companies have an evolving culture that keeps moving forward, and it will fall to the leadership team and/or the stakeholders to recognize the strategic importance of global language policy and ensure that the company’s culture, values, people and behaviors are all aligned as the shift is made.
ii. Make a formal case
Convince the workforce of the need for change and provide a roadmap to guide everyone through the changes.
Expand on the advantages both strategically to the company, but also drill down to a more personal individual level where employees will buy into the investment that you are making into them. Case studies looking at success stories from companies such as global powerhouse Siemens can play a critical role in getting everyone on board.
iii. Manage expectations
Set clear goals, timelines and ultimately ensure that no one can opt out of this new policy. Fear that poor language skills will become an impediment to a strong performance must be allayed while making it clear that tools are being put at their disposal so they reach the required communicative competence.
It’s a marathon, not a sprint and effective learning habits need to be cultivated, encouraged and rewarded. Communication issues cannot be eliminated overnight.
iv. Draw up communication guidelines
The standardization of English, discouraging the use of slang, and ensuring a clear and concise glossary of commonly used terms is distributed amongst the teams, multiplies the opportunity to have a meaningful, effective, and fruitful exchange with a positive outcome for both parties.
v. Choose the right partner to deliver your language training
You want to choose a supplier that provides you with innovative and flexible solutions that help and support your company fully as it grows. The goal should be to form a long-term partnership based on mutual respect and understanding with your supplier supporting and growing with your evolving organizational needs.
Multinationals across the world are embracing English as a corporate language to overcome communication issues and operate effectively across international markets. The challenge for HR professionals is to make this process a seamless one. It is through starting at the top, managing expectations and drawing up clear communication guidelines that organizations can get all their employees on the same page as quickly as possible.