One of the most significant decisions any international company must make is how they want their employees to communicate with each other. Developing a corporate language strategy is key to breaking down communication barriers and building a truly global and collaborative organization. This strategy must start from the top of the organization and cascade down to every single employee.
Today’s multinational businesses face a multitude of challenges as they seek to grow internationally, integrate acquisitions and develop their workforces. One such challenge, according to the Harvard Business Review, is which language do they operate in and how do they ensure their staff are prepared to operate in this language.
It is worrying to note that many international companies appear not to have a language strategy at all. Too often employees aren’t receiving the necessary training to bring their language skills up to scratch. In these organizations, uncontrolled multilingualism tends to lead to a chaotic and inefficient work environment.
So what can your organization do to prevent this from happening?
Consider lingua franca
International companies must define a lingua franca or common language that is used amongst its employees.
This gives the organization the ability to communicate effectively across all of its office locations.
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.
However, it is also important to recognize that local offices must be staffed by people who have the ability to speak the local language.
Are we positively discriminating language over other competencies?
A common mistake many multinational organizations make is how they assess the value of an employee’s proficiency in a language. While important, language skills may be clouding the judgment of managers, who may be subliminally overvaluing language skills over leadership skills or team cohesiveness.
Some of the more effective international companies recognize this potential pitfall.
These organizations may identify prospective employees or future leaders by their other skills, even if their language skills are limited.
In this scenario, they prioritize leadership skills and provide additional training and tools to subsequently improve their language skills.
Thus, many of the most successful international companies prefer to retain entry-level hires with strong potential leadership skills even if there is a need to improve their language skills, rather than to rely on an employee who simply has good language skills but may not measure up beyond language.
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What about other languages?
Although there are some employees who embrace language learning, it is also fair to note that at least as many professionals who find language learning to be a daunting prospect, especially if they are monolingual adults.
However, organizations that are serious about being a truly international company place a high value on language learning for high potential employees, especially if they are candidates for an international assignment.
The Modern International assignee is keen to develop skills such as language competency that give an immediate return on the international stage.
Case study: IBM’s language strategy
Harvard Business Review cites the language strategy of IBM, which identified eight important languages in addition to English.
Placing a high value on the importance of undertaking an international assignment comes with an expectation that another language will be learnt if the assignee is destined for a country where the main language spoken is not their native tongue.
Organizations that are serious about making their international assignments a success will support their language learning employees by making the training valuable and as accessible as any other skills training programme. Thus, language lessons are paid for by the organization and are held during working hours, often in the employees’ offices.
Understand the culture
Finally, successful international companies recognize the importance that culture plays. Although proficiency in a foreign language allows the employee to communicate verbally in another culture, cultural awareness will provide the employee with the ability to find the best style to communicate effectively within the local culture, both verbally and non-verbally.
Choosing how directly to speak, what eye contact level is appropriate and how to read between the lines to pick up nuances such as what was intentionally left unsaid are all important examples of cultural skills to learn.
Employees who have developed a way to adapt to local cultures by adapting their leadership styles reduce the number of misunderstandings and disagreements, and give people a platform to discuss these differences safely when they do arise.