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The Clout of a Common Language

on . TPL_WARP_PUBLISH . Posted in Blog.

What’s in a language? Apparently a lot if you are intending to be a truly global company.

Imagine you are a Japanese employee of a large, international Japanese company, working in Japan. One morning your CEO announces that in order to be globally successful, the new corporate language, as of tomorrow, is English – and English only.  

Imagine coming into work the next day to find all the elevator directories in English, the cafeteria menu in English – everything English. All communications (meetings, casual conversations, emails, trainings, presentations, and so on) were to be conducted entirely in English.  

This mandate by Hiroshi Mikitani, CEO of the high-tech giant Rakuten, in March of 2010, fundamentally changed the company, and perhaps the ground rules for global companies, forever.

This was a shock to the system to be sure.  But with the goal of all employees scoring at least 650 out of 990 points on the TOEIC (Test of English for International Communication) in just over five years, Rakuten has exceeded the goal, going from having only one in ten Japanese employees functional in English to having an average score of over 800!

Mikutani called it Englishnization – for “one language, one team.” His philosophy is that this frees the company to hire the best and the brightest from all over the world rather than from a small Japanese pool (81% of engineers in Tokyo come from outside Japan) and that the enterprise also greatly benefits from the diverse ideas this pool provides. Indeed, it has become not just a forward-thinking company, but an agile, versatile, outward-looking entity. Any employee can call anyone anywhere and know that they will communicate in a common language which speeds up all international communications and activities.

Why English when it does not have the largest (or even second largest) population of native speakers? Because with 1.5 billion learners it is, by far, the most commonly studied foreign language in the world.

But this is NOT the most interesting part of the story. Tsedal Neeley, an associate professor at Harvard Business School and author of The Language of Global Success, gives us an in-depth look at what Englishnization has meant for Rakuten.  From her 650 employee interviews, 3,000 employee surveys, and research of more than 20,000 pages of Rakuten corporate data, she has discovered that the employees are united not only by a common language, but as a consequence of this, they are united by a common experience: as being “expats,” either linguistic or cultural.

She describes the three groups this way:

•    Linguistic expats: Japanese who have to give up their native language in the workplace
•    Cultural expats: native English speakers who now have a new, transparent, foreign corporate culture
•    Linguistic-cultural expats: those who are neither native English speakers nor from the company’s home culture (Japan)

And who had the easiest time of it? The linguistic-cultural expats, who were ready to adapt.

And the toughest time? The cultural expats who struggle with the company’s corporate values now that, without the language barrier, they are more easily communicated.

Neely shows how future success will be based on having a common language, a global outlook, and a desire to collaborate across linguistic and cultural borders. After all, future success will most certainly be based on a knowledge economy.

“Englishnization is critical—not important, but critical. Japanese global companies are all product-driven like Toyota, Panasonic, and Sony, but the industry is changing: you cannot just export the hardware and make money anymore. You need to develop a global organization or your company will be dead in 10 years.” - Hiroshi Mikitani, CEO of high-tech giant Rakuten.


Friends at Toyota, Panasonic and Sony: What do you say?


Diana K. Rowland



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