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


You can now register the Japanese equivalent of .com: .コム


And so it begins.

Verisign, the registrar that manages .com domains, has begun its rollout of non-Latin .com equivalents, beginning with Japanese:

Japanese .com domain

Now, if you don’t have a Japanese domain name, slapping .コム to the end of your company’s name probably doesn’t make much sense from a branding perspective (though absolutely from an intellectual property perspective).

But more and more companies DO have Japanese domains names (or should).

And these companies will be registering this domain, if they haven’t already.

The official land rush begins May 16, 2016. So get ready!

Japanese is only just the beginning.





Taking the Great American Pastime Global

MLB Japan logo

I was raised a Cardinals fan. But I don’t live in St. Louis anymore so I must follow the team virtually.

Fortunately there’s the MLB mobile app.

MLB mobile app

Now I can listen to the games — and Mike Shannon — in real time.

And I’m not alone. the MLB mobile app has been hugely popular.

In this All Things D interview, Bow Bowman, who runs digital operations for Major League Baseball, talked about taking its brand and digital properties global.

At about the 16 minute mark (see embed below) Bob mentions that non-US users of the MLB apps make up about 10% of all users, which was more than I expected. Most of the usage is in Asia (Korea, Taiwan, Japan) with the rest located in the Caribbean.

I took a brief tour of the non-US MLB websites.

If you visit, you’ll see links to the localized websites right above the main logo — easy to find.

MLB global gateway

Here is the home page of MLB Taiwan, note the smart use of the .tw country code:

MLB Taiwan

Also note that the team names have also been translated.

I believe the Japan website is the result of a joint arrangement, hence the wildly different design.

MLB Japan

But I love seeing the .jp country code merged into the logo.

Here’s the full All Things D interview:

PS: I’m also the proud publisher of a book that has helped many MLB players improve their game: Intangibles: Big-League Stories and Strategies for Winning the Mental Game—in Baseball and in Life.



Samsung: The best consumer technology website of 2013

Samsung logo

We studied 18 consumer technology websites for the 2013 Web Globalization Report Card.

The Web Globalization Report Card is an annual benchmark of how effectively companies internationalize and localize their websites and applications for the world.

Out of those 18 companies, Samsung emerged on top.

Samsung emerged on top not because it leads in languages or global consistency, though it is strong in both respects.

Samsung supports an impressive 41 languages, not including US English. Apple, by comparison, stands at 31 languages.

Samsung emerged on top in large part because it has been aggressive  in engaging with users via social media across a number of languages and countries.

Note the bottom third of  Japan home page:

samsung Japan

Samsung embraces a range of social platforms to communicate and engage with users — in their local languages.

Samsung also leverages these platforms to provide customer support, as shown here:

samsung support

Many comparisons have been made lately between Apple and Samsung.

When simply comparing their global websites, clear distinctions are hard to miss.

Samsung has embraced social networking while Apple has not. Samsung appears to be comfortable with a certain level of visual chaos that comes  with supporting social networks and interacting publicly with customers. There are signs on the US website that Samsung is moving towards a new Samsung Nation model in which users register to earn points and virtual goodies — as well as connect with friends via Facebook. The degree to which this model will scale globally remains to be seen though I suspect Asia will pose a challenge.

Apple, on the other hand, presents a clean and consistent design template to the world. There is nothing scattered or busy about an Apple websites (except, I would argue, for its excessive use of flags). And consistency has served Apple quite nicely, though Apple has moved more slowly from a globalization perspective than Samsung.

Regarding the global gateway, Samsung buries the link to the gateway in the footer (not good).

Tthe gateway  itself is well organized, though the flags should be eliminated. As a general rule, flags should be avoided (a subject for a future post).

samsung global gateway

Finally, Samsung has been aggressive in updating its mobile website experience.

In the past two months, it launched a new mobile-optimized website, shown on the right:

samsung mobile

Notice how social icons are front and center. Also notice in the header how Samsung detects the use of an iPhone and instantly poses a comparison test.

Sneaky but smart.

While Samsung still has room for improvement, it does so many things well that it earned out the number one spot, outperforming companies like Apple, Panasonic, and Lenovo.

Here are the 18 consumer technology websites included in the 2013 Web Globalization Report Card:

  • Acer
  • Adobe
  • Apple
  • Canon
  • Dell
  • HP
  • HTC
  • Lenovo
  • LG
  • McAfee
  • Microsoft
  • Nikon
  • Nokia
  • Panasonic
  • Samsung
  • Sony
  • Symantec

Read more in the 2013 Web Globalization Report Card.

Or you can purchase just the Consumer Technology Website report.

Also included: