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A fluent workforce: the cornerstone for global competitiveness

The world’s largely over-saturated developed markets are increasingly forcing multinationals to look to emerging countries to bolster revenues. Brazil, China and numerous African markets are all on the radar, with organisations conceptualising ambitious entry strategies to get a foot in the door of these still-green territories that hold significant growth potential.

The prevailing consumer and competitor landscape are key considerations in these strategies, but what about the cultural landscape? Language, customs and the contemporary application of both are potent influences with the power to cripple new market entry plans if overlooked.

‘Lost in translation’ is bad for business

Efficient global workforces are those that can effectively communicate in multiple languages. This capability ensures a more cohesive working environment, limiting language-related conflict and cultural misunderstandings from the outset.

Tsedal Neeley, Professor of Organisational Behaviour at the Harvard Business School, goes as far as to say that multinationals should have clear language strategies to accommodate these common communication challenges of the global marketplace.

There are two areas where multilingualism benefits an organisation: in its human capital capacity (internal) and in its market presence (external).

The internal staffing issue is a critical one. Expanding organisations often deploy heavyweight executives to new markets based on their strategic skills without proper consideration of their linguistic skills.

As many as 40% of executive relocations fail because staff feel isolated, and are unable to socially and professionally integrate into their host communities due to communication and cultural incongruities. This costs global players precious high-level skills, as well as all the time, funding and human resources needed to replace these lost skills.

Over and above this, executives who are well-versed in the local language can directly engage their teams and their customers, streamlining business engagements and processes, and reducing the potential for costly misunderstandings induced by the ‘lost in translation’ effect. Few strategies are as effective as connecting with important stakeholders, like potential clients and the media, in the local language.

While it is true many such organisations incorporate language learning classes into their expatriate relocation packages, the vast majority do not offer programmes capable of achieving fluency for operational proficiency.

The second area, market presence, is significantly enhanced when teams and their leaders are able to grasp the intricacies of a local culture. Key to this is understanding consumer trends, particularly unique product usage, which is common in emerging markets.

It is not unusual for an organisation in tune with local needs to redesign products or packaging to accommodate specific product use. In this way, understanding the local language opens up a space for improved collaboration and through this, product innovation to meet specific local needs.

Leading the way through Universalisation

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One organisation that knows this all too well is L’Oreal. The global beauty giant with a presence in 150 countries and earnings topping 27 billion Euros, is a trailblazer when it comes to pioneering language learning as a strategic skill among its people.

L’Oreal has remained at the forefront of the global FMCG sector for decades because it has continually focused on understanding the distinct needs of its customers. Multilingualism within the organisation has been integral to this strategy – a key that has unlocked a world of innovation based on diversification.

These concepts fall into a unique strategy that L’Oreal has developed called Universalisation. At its heart, Universalisation is globalisation that captures, understands and respects differences. Differences in desires, needs and traditions that are ultimately addressed through formulations, packaging and brand ambassadors that are adapted to reflect consumers’ diverse aspirations. This is the consumer touchpoint – the external effect of prioritising language and cultural differences.

Internally, this emphasis is evident in the company’s inherent focus on learning and development, where it has set itself a target of ensuring that 100% of employees benefit from at least one training session annually by 2020. The company is on track to achieve this, with a current training penetration rate of 88%.

Its online training portal is integral to this ambition. Available in 27 languages, it had more than 54 100 frequent users last year, with employees following 750 000 modules, equivalent to 185 000 hours of online training. This constant learning goes right to the centre of L’Oreal’s objective of building a truly global, well-rounded workforce.

Immersive language experiences

Language is a key proponent of this learning, so it is not surprising that the company invests heavily in empowering its staff to become fluent in the languages necessary to conduct business across its global network. To this end L’Oreal signs up employees for in-depth language immersion programmes that produce exceptional results.

Perhaps surprisingly, this is not always conducted at high-performance centres in Paris, but at an unassuming school in the heart of Pau, a charming French city set between the Atlantic Ocean and the snowy peaks of the Pyrenees. Here, under the expert tutelage of Anne-Caroline Jeanvoine and Karin Duhamel at Dynamo Formation International, relocating executives deep-dive into two- to four-week long tailored language courses that develop relevant linguistic skills. They also live with host families to enable them to intensively practice their French and quickly get to grips with the nuances of the language, as well as the culture in which they are immersed.

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This is critical,” says Duhamel, “because relocating expatriates need to feel supported from day one. Discovering a new country, a new language, a new job, new colleagues and new cultures are all very challenging. Progressively building this discovery, step by step, over a few weeks is much easier and more pleasant for the employee, as they are fully focused on the task at hand. This reduces feelings of isolation, which can have a negative impact on executives’ confidence, as well as feelings of professional frustration from not being able to use one’s professional skills to the fullest

Jeanvoine adds that the initial months after arriving in a new country are essential to ensure a successful integration, which ultimately allows relocating personnel to obtain ‘professional autonomy’ as soon as possible.

It is not enough to just get by, and be able to speak a language socially. For working professionals, they need to be able to conduct business in this new language. That includes compiling presentations, holding their own in meetings, and addressing colleagues in group settings. For this, a certain degree of proficiency is needed that can only be obtained through rigorous language learning methods” Jeanvoine notes.

This intensive approach has seen Dynamo garner a reputation for being a leading language school for global executives. It counts the likes of L’Oréal, Moët Hennessy and Société Générale among its blue chip clients.

Jean-Claude Le Grand, Executive Vice-President for Human Relations at L’Oréal, says as its preferred language partner in France, Dynamo is assisting the company in creating a more fluent workforce.

When employees move to our headquarters, they are expected to speak French. We could just send them to learn the language, but there is so much more to French than just the words. Dynamo employees nurture something special within people. Their way of teaching allows staff to learn the language in a dynamic way that is not boring or perceived as a burden, but rather as an opportunity. Also, being in Pau is something of an adventure. It is in the middle of nowhere, which sends a message about diversity and geography and the breadth of the world we live in. It opens eyes and broadens horizons” Le Grand explains, adding this reflects the company’s Universalisation strategy.

A critical element for L’Oréal is the immersive side of Dynamo’s training, which effectively plunges employees into the French culture. It brings to life all that makes the culture, the people and their traditions so distinctive in a way that could never translate through static language learning.

More than just a fashion faux pas

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It seems obvious that language and cultural fluency should form an important part of business strategies, but all too often organisations rely on their own, sometimes ill-informed, perception of a local culture to dictate its approach.

Not every idea conceived in English translates correctly into local languages. Subtle nuances that are missed can be perceived as being insensitive, offensive and even racist.

Dolce & Gabbana’s failed online ad campaign late last year promoting an upcoming show in China was a case in point. The adverts featured an Asian model in a glamorous Dolce & Gabbana dress attempting to eat Italian food with chopsticks, called ‘small stick-like things’ in the voiceover. The campaign was met with instant public backlash, and branded insulting to Chinese women, culturally offensive and racist.

Online retailers and high-end department stores pulled Dolce & Gabbana products from their Chinese websites and stores, influential industry titles refused to feature advertising from the iconic fashion brand, and Chinese consumers in other countries demanded refunds for their Dolce & Gabbana products. The global fallout was significant and immediate.

This is unintelligible for a company that has 58 stores in China. However, it is not the first time a global brand has bungled either a new market entry, new product launch or new initiative of some kind in a foreign market.

In fact, over the past decade, a multitude of big retail brands, from Target to Tesco, as well as digital disruptors like Amazon, eBay and Uber have failed in emerging territories, most often because of their inability to understand the local market.

A sound investment

If culture disconnects can derail growth strategies so easily, why aren’t more multinationals giving them the attention they so clearly deserve?

The primary reason is that language learning can be expensive, however the cost of not learning is always far superior to the initial investment.

Courses should be carefully tailored for optimal value for money. Intensive language and cultural immersions, for example, are more cost-effective, and more successful, than weekly classes over a one- or two-year period. Moreover, companies often receive public subsidies to train their employees and can benefit from tax incentives for offering language classes.

Far too many organisations view language learning as too-great an expense. However, given its efficacy in building robust organisations, positive bottom lines and global competitiveness, it is actually one of the most profitable investments a company can make.

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