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

 

IKEA: The best global retail website of 2017

For the 2017 Web Globalization Report Card, I benchmarked the following 9 retail websites:

  • H&M
  • IKEA
  • LUSH
  • McDonald’s
  • MUJI
  • Starbucks
  • UNIQLO
  • Walmart
  • Zara

For the purposes of this report, the retail segment includes only those companies that support physical retail locations within the markets they serve. While Amazon is in the early stages of rolling out retail locations, I still view Amazon as more of a web services company than a conventional retail company and is therefore benchmarked against sites such as eBay and Google. The reason for this distinction is to focus on those companies that are already physically distributed around the world and may have in-country offices supporting unique country websites.

One of the great web globalization challenges that global retail organizations face is in aligning disparate offices and cultures on shared design templates — a goal that has so far eluded companies such as McDonald’s and Walmart. IKEA emerged as number one this year, edging out Starbucks. 

IKEA added two languages over the past year, raising its language total to 34; only McDonald’s supports more languages in this category.

IKEA continues to do an excellent job of supporting global consistency and depth of localization. But IKEA made a key improvement over the past year that I want to point out.

First, a bit of backstory. IKEA was one of the first companies to use a splash global gateway and continued to use one up until last year, shown here:

In the early days of global websites, IKEA was smart to use a splash global gateway. Geolocation was not yet a proven technology, so the splash page was the ideal way to ensure that visitors from around the world to the .com domain discovered their local websites.

But times have changed and people are impatient. They don’t want to land on a splash global gateway every time they arrive at your global home page. That’s where geolocation comes in.

Fortunately, IKEA isnow uses geolocation to greet you in your locale.

Now, when someone from the US visits IKEA.com he or she sees this page:

And customers in the United Kingdom see this landing page:

IKEA’s global gateway still could use improvement (an over reliance on flags). But this move to geolocation is a big step forward in global usability and a reason why IKEA is now the retail leader.

LUSH also relies on geolocation. Shown below is the landing page that LUSH greets Japanese visitors with. Unfortunately, language support is absent.

McDonald’s is the retail language leader at 41 languages yet still lags most global websites in  consistency. Shown here are three country home pages to give you some idea of how widely designs vary.

McDonald’s could save significant resources by relying on global templates. This would benefit users as well as they would see consistent navigation and branding when they navigate between the .com website and the local websites (which is a common scenario.)

Walmart continues to lag the field in web globalization best practices. But there are small signs of progress. For instance, Walmart now uses geolocation to auto-direct users to local websites. So a web user in Brazil can enter walmart.com and be taken to the Brazil website. While I applaud the use of geolocation, the failure to include a visual global gateway in the header of every web page is dangerous because users cannot easily override the geolocated setting.

To learn more, check out the 2017 Report Card.
PS: All purchasers of the Web Globalization Report Card receive signed copies of Think Outside the Country, among other goodies!