Ready or not, English is now the global language of business
Today 1.75 billion people speak English at a useful level-that’s one in four of us. Multinational companies such as Airbus, Daimler-Chrysler, SAP, Nokia, Alcatel-Lucent, and Microsoft in Beijing have mandated English as the corporate language. And any company with a global presence or global aspirations would be wise to do the same, says HBS professor Tsedal Neeley, to ensure good communication and collaboration with customers, suppliers, business partners, and other stakeholders.
But while moving toward a single language at work is necessary and inevitable, Neeley’s research shows that implementing such a policy is fraught with complications. English-only policies can create job insecurity and dissatisfaction and generate strife between native and nonnative English speakers in cross-national teams.
Companies can anticipate and plan for inevitable challenges and resistance when adopting an English-only policy. Using Japanese internet services firm Rakuten as a case example, this article outlines guidelines for proper implementation.
Adopting a common mode of speech isn’t just a good idea; it’s a must, even for an American company with operations overseas, for instance, or a French company focused on domestic customers. Imagine that a group of salespeople from a company’s Paris headquarters get together for a meeting. Why would you care whether they all could speak English? Now consider that the same group goes on a sales call to a company also based in Paris, not realizing that the potential customer would be bringing in employees from other locations who didn’t speak French. This happened at one company I worked with. 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, and the company soon adopted an English corporate language strategy.
Similar concerns drove Hiroshi Mikitani, the CEO of Rakuten-Japan’s largest online that English would be the company’s official language of business. The company’s goal was to become the number one internet services company in the world, and Mikitani believed that the new policy-which would affect some 7,100 Japanese employees-was vital to achieving that end, especially as expansion plans were concentrated outside Japan. He also felt responsible for contributing to an expanded worldview for his country, a conservative island nation.
More and more multinational companies are mandating English as the common corporate language-Airbus, Daimler-Chrysler, Fast Retailing, Nokia, Renault, Samsung, SAP, Technicolor, and Microsoft in Beijing, to name a few-in an attempt to facilitate communication and performance across geographically diverse functions and business endeavors
The multibillion-dollar company-a cross between Amazon and eBay-was on a growth spree: It had acquired PriceMinister in France, Buy and FreeCause in the U.S., Play in the UK, Tradoria in Germany, Kobo eBooks in Canada, and established joint ventures with major companies in China, Indonesia, Taiwan, Thailand, and Brazil. Serious about the language change, Mikitani announced the plan to employees not in Japanese but in English. Overnight, the Japanese language cafeteria menus were replaced, as were elevator directories. And he stated that employees would have to demonstrate competence on an international English scoring system within two years-or risk demotion or even dismissal.
The media instantly picked up the story, and corporate Japan reacted with fascination and disdain. Honda’s CEO, Takanobu Ito, publicly asserted, “It’s stupid for a Japanese company to only use English in Japan when the workforce is mainly Japanese.” But Mikitani was confident that it was the right move, and the policy is bearing fruit. The English mandate has allowed Mikitani to create a remarkably diverse and powerful organization. Today, three out of six senior executives in his engineering organization aren’t Japanese; they don’t even speak Japanese. The company continues to aggressively seek the best talent from around the globe. Half of Rakuten’s Japanese employees now can adequately engage in internal communication in English, and 25% communicate in English with partners and coworkers in foreign subsidiaries on a regular basis.