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One key positive of social media and social networking is that it encourages communication — whether seeking positive interactions with current or future customers or helping employees to work collaboratively in different departments or even different business units. But particularly among international organizations, there is one key drawback: language.
MIT Sloan Management Review‘s 2014 social business report identified an interesting paradox: While respondents from multinational companies indicated that social media often enabled their organizations to work more effectively across global boundaries, they indicated that it also introduced new problems. As it became easier to communicate with people using social media, the obstacles imposed by differing languages became more pronounced.
Dealing with a global customer base
This problem is perhaps most acute in customer-facing social media initiatives. The Dutch airline KLM, which has been at the forefront of putting social media to use for customer service communication, noted that it was a challenge for most companies to have a social media team staffed with people fluent in enough languages to successfully deal with their diverse global customer base. Yet for these types of initiatives to be successful, there is little a company can do but meet the customer in their own tongue. Translation tools may aid in the response, but they’re still imperfect solutions, particularly in the unique context of social media communication: 140-character Twitter exchanges are sometimes difficult to translate, even for fluent speakers.
One solution: in companies with a global customer base, make sure that your externally facing social media team is fluent in a wide variety of languages — and don’t insist they all be situated in the same geographic location. It may be easier to coordinate a team — particularly one that should be social media savvy — across global boundaries rather than to find all the necessary skills in a central location.
Internal initiatives are not immune
Even internally, companies struggle with the language barrier — a problem that’s especially acute in large, multinational organizations. The authors of a recent Harvard Business Review article noted that neglecting the language issue in the human resource management policy of global organizations could be a dangerous pitfall, as it could cause problems of understanding, miscommunication and friction within the global workforce of the organization. Social media only exacerbates this problem because it highlights these tensions on a daily basis. In effect, the absence of a language strategy can form a severe barrier toward reaping the advantages expected from employee social networking in an organization with multiple languages used in the day-to-day activities of its workforce.
At first blush, the answer appears easy: choose a single, official language that becomes the de facto language for the social media platform. This was the strategy employed by the chemical company BASF. They intentionally launched their internal social media platform in North America, rather than their native Germany, so that the platform would be seeded with content in English — a decision based on the fact that worldwide, there are more than 4 times as many English speakers as there are persons fluent in German. BASF feared that if they started the initiative at the German headquarters, German would become the dominant language and thereby exclude many non-German speakers in the company.
The drawbacks to this single-language approach are obvious: despite it being much more widely spoken, it’s clearly a mistake to assume that all employees are fluent in English. Another, more subtle problem is that even if employees are reasonably fluent in English, they may be less comfortable communicating in it than in their native language.
In our own research into internal social media initiatives at a large, multinational company, we witnessed these difficulties firsthand. Even though there was a single “official” language for the platform, it remained a significant barrier that created misunderstandings and discouraged employees from using the tool. One respondent indicated that using the internal social media platform became too time-consuming because he had to translate all of the activity into a language he was more comfortable with before using it or responding. The easiest solution for those forced by a social media platform to communicate in an unfamiliar language is simply not to use the platform at all — which is the choice numerous employees are making in corporate subsidiaries when their native language differs from the language used by company headquarters.
Adopting a dual-language strategy
There are benefits to allowing employees to stay within their social media comfort zones when the goal is improved internal communication — for one thing, it can jumpstart powerful unintentional collaborations. Thus, we believe that a dual-language strategy might be most effective for these types of internal efforts using social media in large multinational companies. This two-language strategy — one language used for official interactions and other language(s) used for extra-professional ones or for local projects — can combine the benefits of free-flowing ideas and the intimacy generated by employees interacting with colleagues in their primary language.
The company likely needs to decide on a single language for “official” interactions on the internal social media platforms, such as workgroups or project reports. This common language allows official information to flow more readily across the platform to where it can be needed and used.
At the same time, however, it may also be effective to allow native-language communications in extra-professional groups or projects targeting the local market. Extra-professional groups are often dedicated to hobbies or shared interests, which are often valuable gateways to get people using the platform for interacting. People first use the platform for the “fun” groups, but it makes them more likely then to stay for the official uses. These groups also enable important cross-boundary connections that would not happen otherwise. People with whom one shares shared personal interest may be very different than those in one’s workgroup or division. The personal connections forged in the extra-professional groups can be converted to generate boundary spanning for business purposes when needed.
It also may be permissible for exclusively local projects to be conducted in the local language under certain conditions. By keeping local projects in the official company language, the work of the local team may become searchable and accessible by employees in other regions who may benefit from it but otherwise would be unaware of its existence. On the other hand, keeping projects in local languages may allow work teams to collaborate more effectively with local partners. If the team is working closely with local partners or customers, it may be unreasonable to expect them to adapt to the official language of the global organizations or too difficult to expect employees to be translating workgroup activity continually for the benefit of the partners.
This decision is a delicate one that should be made on a case-by-case basis — and it largely depends on with whom one wants the project team to collaborate better.