Global digital workplaces need a language strategy

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Truly global digital workplaces span continents and countries. They encompass a workforce divided across many business divisions and roles.

As organisations are designing and delivering the latest generation of global intranets and digital workplaces, they’re running up against an age-old challenge: language.

While English is the default ‘working language’ of most global businesses, it’s easy to forget that the day-to-day interactions of staff in local business units may be very different. To ensure that the digital workplace is a complete success, there must be a language strategy.

Global #intranets and #DigitalWorkplaces need a language strategy
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Languages in the real world

In our work, we’ve helped a diverse range of organisations develop global digital workplace strategies and designs. The starting point is almost always a piece of global needs analysis, to map out the landscape and to build a concrete picture of needs, issues and opportunities. This research is typically conducted as a mix of in-person and remote research, over the period of a few weeks or months.

Two real-world examples are instructive:

CASE #1: A UN agency is developing a global digital workplace strategy, with a particular focus on knowledge management. While there are six official languages in the UN, the majority of work was conducted in English, no doubt influenced by the New York headquarters. The global intranet is in English, as are most of the collaboration spaces and local intranets.

As the agency is rather centralised and hierarchical, the dominance of English was treated largely a non-issue. Except that’s not what was found in the research. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, for example, the working language is French, and almost all local staff speak only French. That made it hard to use research results from the rest of the globe, and to share their own findings. Similarly, South America is dominated by Spanish, with many of the same challenges.

CASE #2: A large bank has pushed out into Asia, as far north as Taiwan, and East into the Pacific Islands. With an English-speaking headquarters, the intranet — and all internal communications — were only in English. Yet local acquisitions, such as a bank in Vietnam, only spoke local languages. In the absence of a corporate policy on languages, there was a significant communication divide.

Don’t take English for granted in a global #DigitalWorkplace: instead, have a language strategy
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Determine a language strategy

The answer to these real-world challenges is to create a language strategy, not just for the global intranet or digital workplace, but for the organisation as a whole.

While this is an issue bigger than the digital workplace, it can prove to be the ideal trigger to resolve broader business strategy questions.

Thankfully there is a practical process that can be followed to determine concrete answers:

  1. Conduct global research. As the examples above show, there is no replacement for boots-on-the-ground research to build a clear picture of needs and issues. Thankfully this doesn’t need to touch every local and business unit, with key language issues emerging relatively quickly. Information from HR may also supplement the research findings.
  2. Establish a language policy. Organisationally, all global organisations must have a policy that outlines both the ‘working languages’ as well as officially-recognised local languages. The research findings will be invaluable in guiding the creation or revision of this strategy. Bring to the table internal communications, HR and senior leaders, plus key operational areas.
  3. Apply the global/local framework. The digital workplace should have a clear global/local model that outlines what’s common across the organisation, and what’s specific to individual business areas or locations. Use this framework to inform how to address language needs.
  4. Create a language strategy for the digital workplace. With the foundation of a corporate language policy, and a clear global/local framework, it becomes possible to create a practical language strategy. This guides technology implementation, decision decisions and resource allocation.

While language considerations will continue to evolve over time, this approach should quickly put in place a framework of decisions that allows the digital workplace to proceed with confidence.

Use a clear global/local framework to guide language decisions in a global #DigitalWorkplace
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 English, Spanish or French. Screenshot courtesy of Goldcorp.

Here it’s possible to filter collaboration spaces according their language: English, Spanish or French. Screenshot courtesy of Goldcorp.

A good language strategy should simplify challenges

The mark of a good strategy is its ability to clearly guide decisions, and to ensure limited resources are allocated efficiently. When it comes to languages in global organisations, the global/local model will greatly help in this regard.

For example: the decision may be to translate global news into all official languages, with translations funded centrally. Local business areas can then choose to translate other news items as they see fit (at their own cost). Similarly global HR policies are translated centrally, but local operational manuals are left in the local language.

In most cases, the overall principle is to translate global information, but to leave local information to be created and consumed in local languages.

Above all, don’t miss this unique opportunity to trigger business discussions at the highest level of the organisation, to better place the business as a whole to thrive in a complex, global world.


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