Do you speak English? Niels Dam has discovered that what used to be a nicety is rapidly becoming a competitive necessity.
The use of language becomes increasingly important as the economy becomes more and more global. In the past, international language concerns mainly came up in connection with negotiations. Today, as multinational corporations become globally integrated, language issues at all levels of the organisation are increasingly prevalent. We work in multinational project teams, take corporate training in different languages, and interact with colleagues across the globe.
As a result, many export-oriented companies have adopted English as their corporate language. This has not been without problems. Employees with insufficient language skills hide their lack of comprehension by not signing up for training seminars nor participating in activities that make them feel linguistically insecure and uncomfortable. They avoid expressing themselves in meetings and become less productive. At the same time informal networks quickly develop on the basis of language ability, and personnel with good language skills become powerful nodes in the internal communication network. In subsidiaries these are often expatriates or managers who speak the corporate language. They act as gatekeepers to important company information and are allowed to control the nature and flow of communication often far beyond their level of competency. This leads to a potential loss of contribution from employees and may reinforce a sense of isolation and exclusion.
As a result, in order for companies to compete in the global economy, it is time to stop taking language skills for granted and start treating language management with the same care and attention as brand management, knowledge management, corporate identity and company culture. How can a company do this? There are more ways than perhaps you realise:
Make language use and training a corporate support function. This corporate support unit should have some or all of the capabilities to understand the flow of communication. Linguistic audits can be used to understand the communication patterns between units and the informal networks created around them, in particular:
- the situations in which staff engage (or would engage if language skills existed) in communication across units
- the people between which communication takes place (or would take place if language skills existed)
- the language(s) currently used within the corporation.
Develop company-wide language training material and courses. Leaving language training to individual subsidiaries only invites the (mis)use of languages to obtain power. Moreover intra-corporate communication becomes inefficient if different units develop their own “corporate speak” with a different set of abbreviations, titles, and technical terminology.
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