Language strategy

Michael Alan Hamlin

Posted on May 9, 2012

Every company, regardless of where it is located, needs a language strategy to facilitate communication across global networks encompassing employees, suppliers, and customers. Writing (A preview, with a video.) in Harvard Business Review this month, Harvard Business School assistant professor in Organizational Behavior Tsedal Neeley argues that because English is the global language of business, industry leaders are making it the default corporate language as well.

“More and more multinational companies are mandating English as the common corporate language,” Prof. Neeley says. They include Airbus, Daimler-Chrysler, Fast Retailing, Nokia, Renault, Samsung, SAP, Technicolor, and Microsoft in Beijing. And those are “just a few” of the companies” attempting “to facilitate communication and performance across geographically diverse functions and business endeavors.”

What about cultural heritage and identity? Prof. Neeley provides two perspectives. The first is that companies have little choice in a global economy but to adopt English because one out of four people worldwide speak the language—1.75 billion. And English is the fastest-spreading language in human history. “Companies must overcome language barriers—and English will almost always be the common ground, at least for now,” Prof. Neeley concludes.

He cites an example involving two French companies, probably because the French as everyone knows are as culturally sensitive as they come, to the point of banning English idioms from television, motion pictures, and advertising. Imagine, he suggests, two teams from the two French companies meeting in Paris. The client company has multinational operations, and pulls in key decisions makers from around the world for the meeting.

Unfortunately, the selling team speaks nothing but French, and so the decision makers on the client’s team can’t understand the discussion. Sound farfetched? “This happened at one company I worked with,” Prof. Neeley recalls. “Sitting together in Paris, employees of those two French companies couldn’t close a deal because the people in the room couldn’t communicate. It was a shocking wake-up call.”

The Japanese come close and probably surpass the French in some aspects of cultural sensitivity, but that didn’t stop the CEO of Rakuten, Hiroshi Mikitani, from mandating that 7,100 Japanese employees adopt English as the company’s language of business. He gave them two years to demonstrate competence on a formal scoring system. Those who failed—the two years was up in March—risked demotion or dismissal.

Mr. Mikitani undoubtedly knew that the Japanese are among the poorest speakers in English in the world. In 2009, the year before the innovative CEO mandated the use of English throughout Rakuten—Japan’s largest online marketplace—Japanese scored the lowest among 34 advanced economies on the Test of English as a Foreign Language, which all international students who intend to study in the United States must take.

That hurdle underscores the urgency of Mr. Mikitani’s concern that his employees conduct business in English. To convey just how serious he was, Mr. Mikitani made the announcement in English, and “overnight, the Japanese language cafeteria menus were replaced, as were elevator directories,” writes Prof. Neeley. Although Mr. Mikitani was heavily criticized at home, today “three out of six senior executives in his engineering organization aren’t Japanese; they don’t even speak Japanese.”

That statistic illustrates how diverse the company has become, and in Prof. Neeley’s assessment, how powerful it has grown because Rakuten is able to attract and put “the best talent from around the globe” to work. Prof. Neeley says that about half of Rakuten’s Japanese employees speak at least adequate English for internal communications and another 25% communicate regularly in English with partners and coworkers in foreign subsidiaries. He doesn’t describe the perhaps impending fate of the remaining 25%.

Second, Prof. Neeley argues that “the more people you can communicate with, the better positioned you are to spread your culture and your message. If people can’t understand what you’re saying, they can’t engage with your company or your brand.” One other thing: The capability to coherently communicate a culture and heritage can actually enhance a brand. Country of origin has many dimensions as a brand attribute.

Of course, instilling an English-only policy isn’t easy. When Prof. Neeley asked Mr. Mikitani what advice he gives to other CEOs, “he was emphatic about discipline. CEOs need to be role models. If they don’t stick to the program, nobody else will.” Part of instilling discipline for Mr. Mikitani includes conducting one-on-one performance reviews with top Japanese executives in English.

“If you forgive a little,” Prof. Neeley quotes the Rakuten CEO, “you’ll give up everything.

Prof. Neeley cites three reasons companies should adopt English-only policies: Competitive pressure, globalization of tasks and resources, and M&A integration across national boundaries. For CEOs of companies of all sizes in the Philippines, Prof. Neeley’s message is clear: Nothing but English in the workplace. It’s not just the IT-BPO industry that has to excel at spoken and written English.

(Michael Alan Hamlin is the managing director of TeamAsia and a Manila-based author. His latest book is High Visibility: Transforming Your Personal and Professional Brand. Write him at and follow him on TwitterFacebook and LinkedIn. Copyright © 2012 Michael Alan Hamlin. All Rights Reserved.)

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