Does your organisation have a language strategy?

August 25, 201410:30 am1759 views

In organisational life, language is the carrier of information, conveying context and meaning by tone, words and accuracy. It touches everything. Yet leaders of global organisations, whose employees speak a multitude of languages, neglect considering this in their talent management strategies. Internal organisational communications, unless optimised, can affect the culture and competitive advantage of a company.

Unrestricted multilingualism creates inefficiencies in even the most dedicated and talented workforces. It leads to friction in cross-border interactions, lost sales and other serious problems (e.g. management communication) that can jeopardise competitiveness. Developing a comprehensive strategy for managing language can help transform that vulnerability into a source of competitive advantage.

Language in Global Organisation and Teams

Choosing a lingua franca (common language), can dramatically improve how employees collaborate across borders – though it also introduces its own challenges. Decisions to adopt a lingua franca must be balanced with the need to speak local languages and adapt to local cultures. 

Proficiency — or lack thereof — in the common language can also cloud the judgment of leadership about how suitable these people are for specific assignments and promotions. Decision makers may undervalue or overvalue language skills, misjudging talent as a result.

Language strategy is critical for global talent management. Leaders have to factor language, cultural skills and cultural literacy into the hiring, training, assessment and promotion of talent. It must also be considered in managing global teams – whether or not firms adopt a shared language. In a global firm, choices and tactics vary according to the needs of each unit and region.

These differences must be accounted for more deeply, and exist within a cohesive framework that enables staff to function effectively across the organisation. Language strategy must fit with an organisations value proposition to customers, especially when penetrating various markets and coordinating efforts amongst the distributed business divisions. Languages must be infused into core talent practices, in order to explore and grow that value.

See: Talent Archetypes: Specialists, Generalists and Versatilists

Selection, Hiring & Training

When seeking and acquiring talent, recruiters of regional and global businesses must be aware of potential blindspots regarding language. First, they may allow fluency — either in a lingua franca or local language — to affect their evaluation of an individual candidates skills, growth potential and knowledge of markets and cultures.

To ensure the hiring of the most appropriate candidates, firms need to accept some limitations on language capabilities. Firms must also be prepared to provide their staff the training to meet both global and local language needs. For example, although IBM adopted English as its lingua franca, IMB has identified eight other languages as important to serving local markets.

IBM hires global professionals with the expectation investing in their language competencies. Immersive training, private coaching or online learning are all tools that cater to this organisational need for training and development. Moreover, employees know that specific international assignments can carry with them language-training requirements.

Organisations have a tendency to be over-reliant on external lateral hires — hiring someone into a position at the same organisational level or salary (e.g. recruiting a partner of a law firm by another law firm) — with a certain degree of language skill. They do this to fill mid-level roles, rather than hiring and developing talented junior candidates, with the capacity and motivation to learn new languages.

While the latter approach takes a longer investment in time, companies often note that entry-level hires can ultimately become amongst their best managers and leaders. This is because they’ve been trained from an early stage in company culture and practices.

Defaulting to lateral hires makes it more difficult to grow a cohesive organisational culture. Recruits who’ve been trained elsewhere can have trouble assimilating. Excessive churn can be another issue: As months or years go by, companies may discover that lateral hires lack other critical competencies, despite strong language skills.

For these reasons, many global companies are improving their entry-level hiring capabilities and strengthening their language training capabilities. This approach requires more patiences, but may actually help build a cohesive global business more rapidly due to decreased attrition and less of a continuous rehiring cycle.

Credit: Neeley, T. & Kaplan, R.S. (2014). What’s Your Language Strategy? Harvard Business Review

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