The Language of Global Success (and the rise of the English-only multinational)

The dream is profound  — a global company united by one language. Employees communicating freely with one another across border and culture, improving productivity and sharing of ideas.

The reality, however, is quite a bit messier than the dream.

But that doesn’t stop CEOs from dreaming.

Such as Hiroshi Mikitani, the CEO of Rakuten, Japan’s leading ecommerce company (and one of the largest by revenues globally). Here is a screen shot of the Rakuten Japan home page. The company is often referred to as the Amazon of Japan.

In 2010, Mikani announced that the company’s 10,000 employees (90% of whom were Japanese) would transition to English over the next two years, beginning that day. Professor Neeley had a front-row seat to this massive transformation, covering it over a period of five years, resulting in The Language of Global Success.

If you have any interest in the globalization of companies, this book is an absolute must read. Neeley had full access to Rakuten employees. She conducted surveys and interviewed staff in Japan as well as parts of Asia, Europe, the US and Brazil. And she has spent many years studying not just Rakuten but other English-only multinationals, such as Siemens and SAP.

The author successfully captured the cross-border and cross-cultural tensions that I often witness in my consulting engagements. And the anecdotes she collects from this 5-year Englishnization project are entertaining. For example, when an American Rakuten executive hears the big English-only announcement, he exclaims, “Thank God he picked my language.”

But the Americans eventually realize that a common language comes with unexpected challenges. As the Japan HQ becomes more English-literate, it is better able to translate its corporate culture (and rules) to all local offices. Eventually, a phone-book-sized employee manual arrives in the US office, detailing such requirements a wearing your ID badge in a specific location at all times. One can imagine how the American employees felt when they were faulted for employee badge infractions, something trivial to them but not at all trivial to HQ.

In the end, everyone became expats during this transition; Neely identifies three categories:

  • Linguistic expats: Japanese employees who now feel lost in this new language environment
  • Cultural expats: Employees who may be fluent in English but lost within this new global (Japanese) corporate culture.
  • Dual-expats: Employees who are not native speakers of English nor native to Japanese culture, such as employees in Europe.

Dual expats turn out to be the best positioned to adapt to the new “global” culture. After all, they were dealing with a mixture of languages and cultures from day one and felt no loss of status or control along the way.

Englishnization vs. Americanization

The choice of language is both obvious and contentious. English has become the informal second language of the world, but it’s important to differentiate between language and culture. Just because Rakuten chose the language didn’t mean the CEO wasn’t also choosing American or Western culture. Though he was clear that he hoped there would be a change in corporate culture within Rakuten (less conformist, more entrepreneurial), which I’m not sure occurred. By the end of the book, Rakuten is still very much a Japanese company, but one that speaks English.

And I would suggest, in the interests of fairness, that native-English speakers be required to pick up a second language. Perhaps Spanish, for the American office. Doing so would send the message that English isn’t the “best” language, simply the most practical for a global company.

Key takeaways from the book include:

  • If your CEO isn’t fully committed, forget it. There is no doubt that had Mikitani-san not pushed and pushed during the transition that this effort would have been a failure. It’s not simply a matter of sending out a memo. The CEO offered to train employees himself at one point.
  • A common language is not the same thing as a common culture.  In fact, a common language will illuminate cultural challenges to a degree not before fully seen or understood.
  • Cross-cultural training should also be included with language training. People need to understand the differences between collectivism cultures (such as Japan) versus individualism cultures (such as the United States.
  • Employees must have a shared vision of becoming a global company, no longer an assortment of local companies.

The bottom line: Was it worth the trouble?

The CEO says it was, and many employees agree. But productivity suffered along the way. And one could argue that Rakuten did what was inevitable for any global company.

The company has grown over the past five years and is better positioned now to recruit global, English-speaking talent. And the cross-fertilization of ideas between different geographies is now evident, a big plus, and perhaps the greatest upside of all.

The Language of Global Success: How a Common Tongue Transforms Multinational Organizations

Tsedal Neeley

Princeton University Press

 

Announcing the top 10 global tourism websites

While I’ve closely studied travel websites for many years (such as airlines, hotels, travel agencies) as part of The Web Globalization Report Card, I’ve not spent much time looking closely at destination websites, such as for cities, regions and countries.  That is, until earlier this year.
For this report we benchmarked 55 country, region, and city tourism websites across six continents. Of those websites, here are the top 10 overall: 
Germany emerged on top driven in large part by its support for a leading 24 languages as well as global consistency and local content.
 
The leading city website is Paris, with support for 11 languages, which may not sound like many languages, but is actually well above the average for city websites.
Which leads me to the key finding of this report: the growing language gap between travel and tourism websites, which I will write about in a later post.
Western Australia came out on top of the regional websites. Shown here, note the globe icon in the header used to highlight the global gateway — a very nice touch.
Tourism websites should lead the travel industry
Language is just one of the areas in which tourism websites need improvement. This report carefully documents the many different types of navigation strategies used by tourism websites and provides best practices that all sites should consider. It also takes a close look at localized content, social media, and support for mobile users (also a weak point).
It’s my hope that this report helps tourism organizations make a stronger case for globalization. After all, the travel and tourism industry is growing at a faster pace than the global economy and by 2017 is projected  by the World Travel and Tourism Council to account for 1 of 9 jobs on this planet. Tourism websites play a key role in attracting travelers and more than half of these travelers do not speak English.
To learn more about the report, click here.

Think Outside the Country

I’m pleased to announce the publication of my newest book: Think Outside the Country: A Guide to Going Global and Succeeding in the Translation Economy.

This book is the result of the past decade spent working with marketing and web teams around the world. I’ve long wanted to have something I could pass along that would demystify the process of product or website globalization and provide insights into languages, cultures and countries. Such as Brazil:

Too often people get overwhelmed by the complexity of it all, not to mention bewildering lingo and acronyms such as FIGS (French, Italian, German Spanish) and L10n (localization). What I always tell people is that you don’t have to speak a half-dozen languages to succeed in this field, but you do have to know what questions to ask. Hopefully this book will help.

The book is now available through Amazon or by request from any local bookstore. You can learn more here.

PS: If you’d like to order multiple copies for your teams, quantity discounts are available. Simply contact me using this form.