The Tower of Babel, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1563 (Courtesy: Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna)
Ideas for Leaders #500

The Language Challenge for Social Media in Multinationals

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Key Concept

The growth of social media in business enables and enhances a company’s communication among employees and with outside stakeholders, including customers and partners. The diversity of languages within a multinational, however, can hamper communication and collaboration both externally and internally. 

Idea Summary

There is no doubt that social media has improved both internal and external corporate communication, especially for multinational companies. Social media has, for example, enabled corporations to increase opportunities for two-way communication with their customers at a low cost. However, customers using social media communicate in their own language, which means that a social media team must be able to understand the different languages of its customer base. For a large multinational corporation, it can be nearly impossible to find such a polyglot team, especially if the social media team is centralized at headquarters.

The language challenges for multinational corporations are not limited to external communications. Employee social networking is an asset of modern corporations, enabling greater collaboration across greater distances; this asset, however, is undermined if language makes the technology useless.

One response is to designate a single, official company language, often English since it is the most spoken and understood of all business languages. Executives with German chemical giant BASF, for example, chose English as the official language because they assumed that more people within the corporation understood English than German. (In a fairly interesting move, BASF actually launched the platform in North America, not in their headquarters, to achieve the English-first strategy.) The problem with the single official language strategy is that not every employee in the local subsidiaries understands the designated language — and even if employees do understand to a limited extent, research shows that their discomfort with the language discourages them from taking full advantage of social media. They prefer not to participate.

Business Application

Overcoming social media language while still encouraging global social media communication can be problematic.

At the external level, there is no choice but to have at least one person on your social media teams that speaks the languages of the different nationalities represented in your subsidiaries.

However, it is easier to ensure complete language coverage if you do not attempt to keep the social media team in one location. Especially since they are working with social media, there is no reason that team members cannot collaborate across global boundaries. In many cases, any additional coordination effort required by a decentralized social media team would be made up by the easier access to native speakers.

At the internal level, a single, official language is a first step to enhance corporate-wide communication. Adopting a dual-language strategy, however, might be more effective. This entails designating an official language for official interactions, while allowing the local language to be used for local projects. For example, projects involving multi-unit workgroups would be conducted in the official language. Project reports intended for distribution beyond the local unit would also be submitted in the officlal language. However, colleagues communicating with local colleagues or partners on a local project would use their primary language, the language in which they can express themselves more easily and with greater intimacy.

This dual strategy supports corporate-wide communication while also fully enabling local activity. The drawback is that intra-unit partnerships or corporate-wide learning is impossible with projects limited to a local language. Therefore, whether or not to allow communication in a local project might be made on a case-by-case basis, depending on the international involvement in the project.

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