26 Sep 2016

What’s Your Company’s Language Strategy?

Communication is an essential part of any organisation. This means that your organisation’s language decisions will be far-reaching, influencing professional competence and daily co-operation and dictating elements of your organisational identity.

This is why one of the most important decisions your organisation makes is how your team should communicate with each other and with the outside world. Developing a language strategy at global level is a critical part of building a collaborative organisation with an ambitious global focus.

Yet surprisingly few organisations have a language strategy in place, even when they operate internationally. Without a cohesive strategy in place, individuals and offices will make their own language decisions that can lead to inefficient outcomes or, at worse, chaos. Developing a comprehensive language strategy for your company can help transform a potential source of weakness into a key strength.

One of the first things a company needs to do is establish the internal language that it’s going to use to communicate with its employees.

This ensures that all new hires have some level of knowledge in this common language, or they receive support to achieve enough knowledge of it to participate.

This common language may not be the one all the offices and teams speak all the time. It may just be the language of cohesion, of international meetings, and the one head office uses for key documents.

At team or office level it can be far more efficient for everyone to speak the relevant local language. In fact, insisting on the globally common language being spoken may be counterproductive. It’s important to recognise that employees may lose confidence operating in a language they are less capable in. An effective language strategy will often clarify that everyone can operate in the most appropriate language for any particular situation.

Resourcing language skills

Another important part of any language strategy is identifying how to bring language skills into the business and which areas of the business need language skills in particular. The human resource team needs to be closely involved in the language strategy as their role is central to its effectiveness. In terms of the hiring process, it’s important that language skills are assessed properly during recruitment activities. Hiring teams need to understand how much fluency is really required to do a particular job.

UK companies aren’t known for being enthusiastic about investing in language skills.

It’s common to see recruiters requesting candidates have language skills but offering no additional remuneration to candidates that do compared to those without. It’s rare to see employers offering to support an employee to develop their language skills, whether it’s with financial or practical assistance such as time off for lessons. One common mistake is to constantly seek to bring language skills in from outside the business rather than training existing junior team members in language skills to reap the benefits as they progress through the business.

Senior buy-in

To implement a language strategy into your global organisation, it’s essential for there to be language awareness and buy-in at all levels. Language strategy needs to be understood and pursued in all parts of the organisation, with senior and managerial buy-in being critical.

Your organisation’s language strategy also needs to be backed up by budget.

This supports any language or cultural training that needs to happen, and also allows for any further support needed to support the strategy. This might include hiring language consultants or conducting employee surveys, or publishing information relating to the language strategy. Your organisation also needs to determine the financial value of languages to your company and tailor remuneration to it.

Appreciating the value of languages to your organisation involves motivating your employees to improve their language skills in a mutually beneficial way. Some organisations do this by ensuring overseas postings are seen as prestigious and career-enhancing but carry the expectation that the employee will learn the key language for that posting.

Organisations that really value language skills don’t insist workers bear all the burden of learning them. This not only means sharing the costs of language learning but making sure the employee has time to learn, either by releasing them from work for lessons or bringing lessons into the workplace during working hours. Expecting your employees to fit language learning in outside of working hours when they are least fresh and fit to learn is not helpful to their progress.

Operating in most of the world’s countries and across many dozens of languages, IBM has invested a great deal of effort into its own language strategy. The giant organisation makes sense of the profusion of languages it deals with by identifying eight key languages on which to focus at regional level. It also invests in training employees in language skills where necessary. IBM also ensures any health and safety training is provided in the worker’s own language, and employment contracts are also written in their native language.

If your company has global ambitions, it’s best to develop a language strategy early before the situation becomes chaotic.

A solid language strategy can help turn a potential source of weakness into a source of strength, just by managing language skills effectively within the business. Don’t let problems develop just because your organisation is multi-lingual. Develop a sound language strategy that will serve your business in any market in which it operates.


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