30 Sep 2014
Language Investments Pay Big Dividends for Global Companies
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Tsedal Neeley

Lost sales. Friction. Inefficiency. These are dirty words in the world of business, and they are inevitabilities for companies that don’t watch their language, so to speak.

Harvard Business School associate professor Tsedal Neeley believes that to accommodate the communication challenges of a global marketplace, it is imperative for multinational organizations to have clear language strategies. Neeley has co-authored a September Harvard Business Review article with HBS professor Robert Steven Kaplan on how companies can turn language from a profound challenge into a distinct competitive advantage. While sometimes difficult to implement, Neeley and Kaplan argue that organizations that effectively marry language strategy with their global talent management process gain a leg up on the competition.

Neeley sat down to explain her thoughts in a recent interview with HBS assistant director of communications Christian Camerota.

CC: How do you take people who are working at the highest levels of their industry and ask them to learn the basics of another language that you want to make the basis of communication in your company? Aren’t they going to feel like a student in high school?

TN: I’ve written about this for years, where you have these incredibly competent employees who are experts in their various areas of work. They say they feel “childlike” when they have to switch to the working language. It affects how they contribute. Managers primarily tend to worry about things like culture and geography, but every global manager also needs to worry about language. Too often, talented professionals don’t get the support or the training necessary to bring up their level of language competence, and that is why organizations need a language strategy. It’s so fundamental and it drives the way that their global teams interact. Without appropriate levels of language skills, communication and performance suffer.

CC: You have written about English becoming the primary lingua franca in global businesses. Do you see any dangers in that proliferation? Are there cultural assumptions that are made in that process?

TN: Lingua francas have existed for centuries. English has become the global business language mostly in the last 30 years. Linguists believe it‘s the fastest spreading language in human history because of technology and media like MTV. So the scale and scope and rapidity with which English is spreading is unprecedented and staggering. Many global companies have accepted it. It is now important to equip employees, whether they’re English speakers or not, to communicate effectively in the English language in a multinational, multilingual environment. This includes helping native English speakers learn how to temper their pace and vocabulary so that they are more inclusive while others migrate to their native language. Today, all global companies need to address the language dilemma head on.

CC: Is it realistic for companies that choose a lingua franca to expect everyone in the organization to learn a sufficient amount of what may be a totally foreign language for them?

TN: Needless to say, you want the right people with the right skills on any job. Rob Kaplan and I argue in our article that you want to be sure employees’ language skills meet the demands of their work and that employees aren’t over- or underestimated based on their language skills. Interestingly, language skills can seem abstract or amorphous. In reality, for most global work you only need a relatively limited number of English words in your knowledge base -- 3,000 or 4,000 words at an intermediate level. You’re not asking people to have native-like mastery in English, which hovers around 10,000 words. You’re simply asking them to develop enough skill to function effectively.

A language strategy coupled with detailed training programs is akin to any technology or software people are trained in. People won’t flinch to make sure that their employees have the right tools and technology. Language is no different.

CC: How are talent evaluation methods driven by a language strategy? Or how should they be?

TN: A clear strategy starts from the top of the organization and cascades down to every single individual. The strategy has to be tied to the firm’s vision and, in some cases, integrated in annual reviews. This is done in a variety of ways, from making foreign assignments into prestigious postings to raising awareness about potential organizational blind spots regarding language to something as simple as managing individuals’ airtime in meetings.

Regardless of how it’s done, it has to start with managers being trained and held accountable for their organizations’ language and cultural skills, and it has to be about how global managers are leading their teams in a way that ensures there’s equity of contribution and evaluation. There’s a great deal of performance anxiety in global organizations, where people are worried about how they are being appraised, whether it is on their language skills or their job skills. It’s important to make sure people (managers in particular) don’t get seduced by others’ speaking skills. For example, in the article we discuss a manager for a global bank’s Japanese subsidiary who promoted an individual he believed to be charismatic, based on his speaking skills, only to find out later that that person’s peers didn’t respect him. His lack of leadership ability was masked by his good speaking skills.

So I hope our article will cause every reader to go back to their companies and teams and say, “We’re a global company, or a globalizing company. What is the language strategy that we have that is directly tied to the vision of our company and our global talent management?” Every manager needs to ask that question and act quickly to put a strategy in place.

CC: Are there organizations that are excelling in this area?

TN: There are many organizations that are managing language deliberately, and some of my other writings have described those. Companies like IBM have dedicated people working on their language strategy, and part of the reason is that they have 420,000 employees, representing 184 languages and 96 nationalities in many markets worldwide. They spend millions of dollars doing it – and they have to. But they also save millions of dollars by equipping their employees to perform well in English or another relevant language. That said, they would be the first to say that implementation continues to be a problem because they’re so big.

Another interesting thing I’ve learned over the years is that the language dilemma never goes away, because language is about people. It dictates and influences identity and professional competence and communication on a moment-to-moment and day-to-day basis. For as long as you have these identity and communication ties, especially when mediated through communication channels like email, there are going to be challenges.

However, if you have people who are intelligent about language, know how to manage, and know how to think about it at all levels in an organization, it can become an amazing asset.

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